Fresh herbs add zing, texture and bright appeal to that simplest of summer meals: the sandwich. On hot, busy days it’s a blessing to know I can create a sensational meal with a minimum of fuss just by stepping outside the kitchen door to pick my favorite herbs. I blend them into spreads and fillings, and use them as edible garnishes.
The basis of this bounty is the bread. I use thinly sliced whole-wheat or rye bread, thick-crusted Italian bread or homemade pita bread. Fast and easy to make (about 2 hours), the homemade pita will impress the socks off everyone. For a fancy luncheon, trim the crust from regular and whole-wheat bread and cut the sandwiches into squares or triangles.
I use dairy-based spreads, not only because we have a Jersey cow on hand, but because herbs blend well with cottage cheese, cream cheese, yogurt and yogurt cheese (yogurt drained for several hours through doubled cheesecloth). With homemade herb-based mayonnaise on hand during the summer months, I have everything I need to mix and match these ingredients, depending on the fillings and herbs I use. You can make delicious spreads in a few minutes using one of the following methods. Thin cream cheese or yogurt cheese with yogurt for the desired consistency; add yogurt to mayonnaise for the desired taste; or add cottage cheese to either of these.
Mince herbs fine to blend into spreads. Cut them up in small pieces or leave them in small sprigs to add to sandwiches. For garnishes, leave the herbs just as you pick them, in their whole-leaf or flower splendor.
Basils (Ocimum spp.). Two leaves of lettuce-leaf basil are broad enough to more than cover a slice of bread. The flavor is mild, but you still know it’s basil. The spicy, small-leaved bush basils and purple basils go well with egg salad. ‘Sweet Genovese’, a moderately large-leaf type, is all-purpose. Try it with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and onions on a mayonnaise-yogurt spread. The ruffled green and purple basils are gorgeous as edible garnishes.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum). When in season, use leaves and flowers lavishly. Chop the leaves into small pieces, break apart the flower heads, then work a small handful of combined leaves and florets (their flavor is mild) into cream cheese. This is a great spread for rye or whole-wheat bread.
Dill (Anethum graveolens). Use fernleaf dill, the bush dwarf type with plentiful leaves all summer. Chop it up and add to any of the spreads or to tuna, salmon or chicken salad, or sprinkle dill over sliced cucumbers on whole-wheat bread with cream cheese or mayonnaise.
Marjoram and Greek oregano (Origanum majorana and Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum). Marjoram is sweeter and more all-purpose, so I usually choose it. Both are made for tomatoes and/or sliced cheese on crusty Italian bread spread with mayonnaise-yogurt. Simmer the leaves of either herb in olive oil to spread on the top crust of pita bread before baking. This way, the herbs get baked into the crust. You can do the same using store-bought pita bread.
Nasturtium flowers (Tropaeolum majus). Their flavor is warm and spicy like the scent. For open-faced sandwiches, use any spread you like, then gently press one or two perfect, open flowers onto it. Or tear apart the petals and mix them into egg salad. Use larger, perfect flowers with a bit of stem for an edible garnish; stuff them with a dab or two of any sandwich filling or spread you like.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum). Try ‘Bravour’ as it’s so green, curly and fresh-tasting. Chop it up into spread with dill; add to egg, tuna, salmon or chicken salads. It’s also beautiful as an edible garnish.
Rose petals (Rosa spp.). What do roses taste like? Just like roses smell — wonderful! And their texture is smooth and silky. The best ones to use are dark pink and heavily scented, such as the rugosas. You can use the petals from the pretty single-petaled wild roses that bloom along backcountry roads. If you have the patience, trim off the white part at their base (I don’t). Layer them on whole-wheat bread spread with cream cheese, then sprinkle petals with a little cinnamon and sugar.
Salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor). Chop it up into a spread with dill and parsley. All-purpose with a mild cucumber flavor, the herb goes well with any meat, fish, egg or vegetable-based sandwich filling.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). The savory, wild Mediterranean flavor of thyme is wonderfully balanced by yogurt cheese, a bland spread with a tangy hint. Work sprigs of minced thyme into the cheese and use as a spread on any bread, topped with thinly sliced Bermuda onions and Roma tomatoes (a firm type for eating fresh). Add 11/2 teaspoons of minced thyme to homemade mayonnaise for cold, sliced chicken sandwiches.
Gently simmer a handful of fresh chopped leaves of marjoram or Greek oregano in about 6 tablespoons of olive oil for 5 minutes. Do not strain out the leaves. Brush the mixture on pita bread before baking. If you have a plentiful supply of leaves, increase the recipe, strain out the leaves, refrigerate and use to flavor your favorite pasta.
Jo Ann Gardner is an avid gardener, cook and frequent contributor to The Herb Companion. She and her husband Jigs recently co-authored Gardens of Use and Delight (Fulcrum, 2002), and she is currently working on a book about silver plants.