5 Uncommon Culinary Herbs

Add interest to your diet and favorite dishes with these five herbs that are oft-neglected in the kitchen.

borage

Traditionally used in herbal medicine, borage's blue flowers can be used to garnish salads or flavor vinegars.

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Sure, most of us are familiar with bright basil pesto and the flavor of sage in our Thanksgiving stuffing, but hundreds of other herbs can lend distinctive flavors and health benefits to our meals. Considering the breadth of herbs in this world, it seems fair to say that most of us don’t make the best use of their amazing culinary possibilities. Most herbs are relatively easy to grow. It may be that you have some of these in your garden but don’t use them in the kitchen as often as you could, and others might be new to you. What follows are some of my favorite garden herbs and the tasty ways I like to make use of them in my kitchen.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Old herbals refer to calendula as marigold, a name now more often used for the New World ornamental from Mexico. But the two should not be confused, as the Mexican flower is bitter and has none of the culinary benefits of calendula. In botanical medicine, both calendula flowers and leaves were used. Vinegar, flavored with the flowers in the same proportion used for the borage vinegar mentioned above, was thought to be an excellent remedy for fevers when daubed on the wrists and temples. The flower petals were scattered on soups and sauces to help prevent illness.

The Pennsylvania Dutch call calendula ringelros, or “wreath rose,” because the flowers were made into garlands to ornament graves—a custom transferred to marigolds for Day of the Dead festivities in Mexico. The idea behind this practice was that the calendula was thought to stop contagion and wandering spirits.

Today calendula flowers, with their slightly musky, honeylike taste, can be used to flavor broths and sauces: Add about 2 cups of flowers to every quart of liquid. In colonial America, calendula sauce was the standard gravy for mutton before it was eventually replaced in the Victorian era with mint. The flavor of the flowers is concentrated in the center, so it is important when cooking with calendulas to use the whole flower head. Varieties developed for taste are far more delicious than the frilly hybrids developed for their looks. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds offers the variety ‘Resina’, specially developed for enhanced flavor and medicinal value. Lemon greatly enhances calendula’s flavor; when made into a preserve, whole calendula flowers are mashed and cooked with lemon syrup. Whole flowers also make excellent fritters: Dip in batter and fry. Their flavor is also enhanced when cooked with corn, especially sweet corn, so for an interesting change of pace, add a cup of chopped flowers to your next batch of cornbread.

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage was traditionally employed in botanical medicine because of its ability to encourage a glad disposition. Perhaps it was the delicate blue flowers, which smell and taste surprisingly like cucumbers, that caught the fancy of old-time physicians. Those pretty borage flowers (blue, white or variegated varieties) can be used to garnish salads. The young leaves are also tasty in salads. You can even add leaves to stir-fries and soups, in which they work as a thickener similar to okra.

Another way to use borage is to flavor vinegar with the flowers. Fill a sterilized wine bottle one-third full with freshly picked borage flowers and top it off with about 2-1⁄2 cups of white wine vinegar. Cork and place in a cool, dark closet for about one month, then strain out the flowers. Use the flavored vinegar for salads or flavoring soups. The cucumbery taste also goes well with cabbage dishes. To make a cordial, adapt the vinegar recipe above, using brandy instead of vinegar, and sweeten with honey. Historically, the cordial was considered even better for inducing cheerfulness when calendula flowers were included in the infusion.

Caraway (Carum carvi)

Ripe caraway seeds are fairly common as a component in rye bread, but you might not know that they got there because of their historically medical purpose as an aid in digesting dense breads. Caraway is great in other breads, as well. Try adding as much as 3 tablespoons of ground caraway seeds per loaf of bread.

Hardly anyone thinks to use caraway greens, yet these robustly flavored ugly ducklings are prime for a new culinary release. Caraway greens are dense and mosslike in the garden, and overwinter beautifully (the plant is biennial). They can be used in soups and salads where a bold, earthy flavor is called for. Chopped like fennel, the greens can be scattered over grilled fish, especially oily ones such as mackerel and shad.

My favorite use of caraway is to take the flowers and tiny green seed heads and infuse them into vinegar (same proportion as for borage, at left). After a month, strain out the flowers and seeds, and use the vinegar in salad dressings.

Likewise, the flowers can be used just like dill in pickles. For an unusual touch when making homemade sauerkraut, layer the flowers between your cabbage leaves in this proportion: To every 2-1⁄2 pounds of shredded cabbage, add a 1⁄2 pound of shredded celeriac (celery root), 1⁄4 pound of caraway flowers and 1-1⁄2 tablespoons of pickling salt.

Roman Nettle (Urtica pilulifera)

The dark horse in this discussion of overlooked herbs is nettle—a true health food no matter how you prepare it. It’s high in vitamins A, C and K, and thus excellent for stoking the immune system. It’s also about 35 percent protein, which is higher than soybeans and pork. Taken as an herbal tea, especially in the spring when it yields a black-green brew, you probably can’t find a better way to replace iron or to enhance prostate health. So finding interesting ways to prepare nettle should be high on the list for anyone who wants to bring more culinary herbs into their diet.

Roman nettle has a spinachlike flavor. Despite its terrific health benefits, it’s difficult to sell fresh nettle in produce markets because of the stinging leaves. (The sting disappears completely when the plants are dried or cooked.) This makes it well worth your while to have a patch of nettle growing somewhere along the margin of your garden.

A friend of mine has been experimenting with Roman nettle for years and has discovered that the dried, powdered greens are excellent mixed with flours for bread, pasta and baked goods. For example, about 1⁄3 cup of powdered leaves added to pancake batter will make the most delightful-tasting and vividly green crepes you will ever have occasion to sample.

The cooked greens can be served like any leafy vegetable, but Roman nettle is unique among nettles in that its seedpods resemble green berries. About the size of garden peas, these pods can be harvested before the seeds form. Add them to stir-fries, blanch them for salads, or mix them with rice or pasta. The seedpods may also be cooked as a vegetable side dish. Not one to be outdone in the creativity department, my experimenting friend has also come up with a nettle sorbet that makes an intriguing and refreshing addition to dinner. Roman nettle freezes well for later use.

Shiso (Perilla frutescens)

Like Roman nettle, shiso is underutilized in American cooking. In its native Asia, it is a vital component of many iconic dishes. For example, green shiso is normally paired with Japanese sashimi thanks to the herb’s antimicrobial characteristics. (In the U.S., we are often served a green plastic leaf instead.) In Chinese medicine, shiso teas are considered great remedies for the common cold. Despite these health benefits, and the fact that shiso is easy to cultivate and even naturalized in some parts of the country, we still don’t find shiso in most supermarkets.

Though not popular, shiso has been grown stateside since the 1850s when the red variety (aka in Japanese) was introduced as a Victorian garden ornamental. All three shisos—green, red and Korean—deserve wider acceptance, especially because each has its own distinctive flavor and uses. They also self-seed so you can enjoy them for years with little maintenance.

I have all three shisos in my garden. Green shiso has a flavor between apples and mint. The red is more subtle, with a hint of plums or beef, hence its moniker “beefsteak plant.” Both sorts can be added to fermenting sauerkraut for an interesting Asian take on this tradi-tional preparation. I also use them to flavor vinegars or add them to pickles. For example, I add 30 green shiso leaves to each 2-quart jar of mixed-vegetable pickles. Red shiso will tint pickles pink (the reason some pickled ginger is pink), so if you are putting up white vegetables such as radishes or turnips, you can heighten their visual interest by adding red shiso leaves.