Tradition and Novelty combine with herbs
As straightforward and familiar as they are, fresh herbs are cherished for their pretty appearance, contrasting textures and exceptional flavors. A sprig of rosemary added to a marinade adds a subtle, woodsy aroma. The sprinkle of oregano tossed into pasta that immediately lifts the dish. The bountiful handful of cilantro leaves that launches Vietnamese pho into a whole new dimension of deliciousness.
Culinary herbs fall into two main categories: robust and tender. “We have to differentiate between fresh herbs added after a dish is cooked and the ones that are cooked with the dishes for a long time,” says city'super superlife culture club executive chef Charmaine Cheung.
Cheung says robust herbs are added before or during cooking, while tender herbs may be added only when the cooking is finished or nearly finished, otherwise they lose their flavor and become bitter. “Robust herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano, are herbs to be cooked with, to be braised with, to be roasted with, all for a long period of time, to get the flavor into the dish,” she says. “Tender herbs – such as chives, parsley and basil – turn a lackluster yellow-brown, and lose their freshness and flavor completely if you cook with them for too long, say, over five minutes.”
Pungent, piney rosemary, for instance, would never work in a salad. “If you throw rosemary into meat braised with red wine and carrots, the flavor will develop slowly and rub into the meat. If you throw it into a salad, it sucks and will kill the dish, but parsley, cilantro or chives in a salad? Delicious."
While tried-and-trusted herb combinations are found in all cuisines, there is no rulebook to using herbs, Cheung says. She encourages cooks to go beyond predictable and uninspired conventions. “Rosemary does not have to go with lamb and dill does not have to go with salmon,” she says. “Some people also like to use only one herb to be safe, which is very boring. Herbs can actually help enhance each other. Try everything. There are no rules.”
Cheung insists that cooks use fresh herbs, except when there is no other option or when baking bread. “Fresh herbs are better, except for emergencies, because the flavor is much more intense. It takes a while for the flavor to come out in dried herbs,” she says. “If you put them in bread dough, it gives moisture to the herbs and allows the flavor to be released slowly.”
Pick of the herbs garden
city'super superlife culture club executive chef Charmaine Cheung has eight favorite herbs.
“Why do we like Thai food? It’s because they use so much basil. It’s aromatic. Sometimes I replace spring onion with basil. Never chop it up – it turns black. Just use your fingers and rip.”
“With cilantro, I like it in soup and I like it in salads. Adding cilantro towards the end really gives it a good punch, especially with Vietnamese pho. You can smell and taste the pungent aromas.”
“Dill is friends with all seafood, especially scallops. Seafood is mild in flavor and needs a herb that is fragrant but not overpowering. It’s like perfume for seafood. Try a crudo with dill and scallop.”
Italian Parsley (right)
“Italian parsley is really for garnish. It doesn’t have a lot of flavor, so no one ever dislikes it. It’s pretty and useful for presentation, without adding too much flavor. It’s economical, too.”
Japanese Spring Onion (left)
“I love Japanese spring onion and prefer it when I’m not doing Chinese cooking because it’s much finer and not as spicy. Spring onion with burrata is the best comfort food.”
“Rosemary is perhaps the most popular herb and goes well with meat, especially red meat. Adding fresh rosemary gives a subtle back-of-the-palate aroma. You don’t taste it, but without it, something’s missing.”
“I like to coat sage in flour or potato starch and deep-fry it until it’s crispy, before sprinkling it like pepper over my dishes. Sage is naturally strong but when deep-fried becomes fragrant. Add a pinch of salt and sprinkle it on potato chips.”
“Thyme goes with meat, fish and chicken. Thyme sits between rosemary and basil. It can’t be used fresh like tender herbs, but cooks quickly. In 10 to 15 minutes it develops its own character.”
Source of Images: Taste of Life