Fragrant fresh herbs are at their peak in the summer months. With such abundance at farmers’ markets and in home kitchen gardens, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the bounty of green. Your first impulse might be to use one herb at a time to let it shine, as in a bright green batch of basil pesto. There’s nothing wrong with that—I love a simple pesto, too—but it’s a bit predictable.
After many years of tending a large kitchen garden, my solution to seasonal herb overload is to cook with multiple herbs in the same dish. There are three combinations that I’ve come to rely on the most for my summer cooking, and each one is a trio: basil+mint+cilantro, tarragon+parsley+chives, and rosemary+sage+thyme.
Not only does this combo approach help to use up the bounty, but it also lets me create entirely new flavors. If you were to blind-taste any of these trios, you’d sense a definite familiarity of flavor, but one you can’t quite put your finger on. Inspired by my first experience enjoying Vietnamese summer rolls, the trio of basil, mint, and cilantro creates a synergy of flavors that makes it easy to apply an Asian flair to any dish. Tarragon, parsley, and chives form a combination that appeals to my appreciation of French cuisine. And I particularly love the trio of rosemary, sage, and thyme, because the herbs are each so aromatic and intense. I think of this blend whenever I want a Mediterranean accent.
Below, I’ll show you how to take maximum advantage of these herb trios in six different recipes, plus lots of ideas for you to run with on your own. Read on to learn more.
Trio: Tarragon, Parsley & Chives
These herbs are common in many French dishes. In fact, this trio is only one herb away from the classic fines herbes, where chervil joins in to make a quartet used to season delicately flavored foods like potatoes, eggs, fish, and butter sauces. A bittersweet licorice flavor makes tarragon the dominant flavor in this trio. Parsley provides a soothing vegetal note, almost grassy and slightly astringent. The chives round out the collective effect with a mild onion flavor. Chives can be visually appealing and versatile (cut long or short). If you are able to get their pretty purple flowers, use them to garnish any dish that includes the herb.
- Combine with a little extra-virgin olive oil, lemon zest, and salt to garnish sautéed or grilled fish.
- Use in tartar sauce for fried seafood or for a crudité dip.
- Mix with a dollop of cream cheese and some diced tomatoes to fill an omelet.
- Use in place of plain tarragon in classic béarnaise sauce.
- Use in place of plain chives on a baked potato.
Trio: Rosemary, Sage & Thyme
These herbs are often considered autumn ingredients, but I like to cook with them when they’re in peak season. As for dominant flavor, it’s a toss-up here. Each herb has a bent toward piney, almost eucalyptus flavors with essential-oil compounds that are fat soluble. Therefore, I almost always heat them rather than using them fresh. When gently cooked in oil, the flavors are extracted, mellowed, and dispersed throughout the rest of the food in a more appealing way than if eaten raw.
- Gently fry in olive oil and butter before pouring over freshly popped popcorn.
- Mix with extra-virgin olive oil to brush on thickly sliced onions for grilling.
- Heat in butter for serving with steamed artichokes.
- Use herb sprigs to stuff a whole fish before grilling—especially a strong oily fish like bluefish or mackerel.
- Add to the cheese on a pizza.
- Gently fry in olive oil and butter with minced garlic to brush on grilled bread.
Trio: Basil, Mint & Cilantro
The herbs in this trio are commonly found in most Asian cuisines. Basil (I like the sweet Italian variety, but you can use Thai basil, too) is the dominant herb, with a strong fragrance and flavor reminiscent of licorice, anise, and clove and with a slightly peppery finish. Mint, preferably a variety of spearmint, adds a sweet menthol note, which is tempered by the distinctive but gentle citrusy flavor of cilantro. Together, raw or cooked, they hold up to strong seasonings like soy, ginger, and hot chiles.
- Combine with avocado or olive oil, minced fresh green chile, lemon zest, and salt to make a sauce for grilled lamb chops.
- Toss in a green salad with thinly sliced cucumbers, shredded carrots, and red cabbage, and dress lightly with fresh lime juice and olive oil.
- Use in place of plain basil in a tomato and fresh mozzarella salad.
- Use in place of plain mint to season buttered peas.
- Use in place of plain cilantro in your favorite salsa or guacamole.
- Use whole basil, mint, and cilantro leaves in shrimp or vegetable summer rolls with rice noodles.