A Guide to Italian Herb Seasonings

Expand your Italian cooking horizons by growing your own herbs, and finding new uses for parsley, basil, marjoram, and other herbal seasonings.

| March/April 2016

  • Garlic flavors many Italian dishes, from marinated olives to pasta sauces to toasty bruschetta.
    Photo by iStock
  • To experience the rich spectrum of tastes in Italian cooking, grow your own culinary herbs.
    Photo by iStock
  • Fresh rosemary has a mellow, resinous flavor, and can be harvested any time, indoors or out.
    Photo by iStock
  • Sage is a pungent culinary herb used in Italian dishes like the Tuscan dish fagioli al fiasco.
    Photo by iStock
  • Versatile French thyme is the most commonly used form of culinary thyme in the Italian kitchen.
    Photo by iStock

Prior to my first trip to Italy in the 1980s, Italian vegetables had meant mostly zucchini and tomatoes to me. The herbs were garlic and basil, and Italian cuisine was primarily pizza and spaghetti. Now I know that, while these items are Italian, they make up only a small part of the cuisine—and are mostly from southern Italy. I learned about marinated vegetables—bright red peppers and sweet onions with fennel, all bathed in olive oil and herbs. I came to love deep-fried cardoons and to savor bagna cauda, a vast range of raw vegetables dipped in cream and olive oil flavored with anchovies and garlic. I consumed loads of pesto and memorable salads made with endive, tangy arugula and radicchio.

I returned from Italy filled with enthusiasm and, already missing the food, determined to track down the vegetables and herbs I had seen and learn how to grow and cook them. A love of gardening is part of the Italian heritage. When I wrote my book, The Edible Italian Garden, if you wanted to experience the rich spectrum of tastes of true Italian cooking, you needed to plant a garden. Today, you can find many Italian specialties at farmers markets and well-stocked grocery stores. For all those that you can’t find, my book will teach you how to grow all the Italian plants you desire.

Recipes from The Edible Italian Garden:

Grilled Radicchio and Zucchini Recipe
Nepitella Butter Recipe
Classic Minestrone Soup and Rosemary Pesto Recipe

Fundamental Italian Herbs: The Usual Suspects

Basil: Sweet and spicy basil is used in such great quantities that it’s almost considered a vegetable in Italy. The aromatic leaves are used fresh in bruschetta, pesto, soups, sauces and salads. It is sometimes tucked in sandwiches instead of lettuce. To many it is the only accompaniment for fresh, ripe tomatoes. Basil is best used fresh or preserved in oil.

Parsley: There are two major types of parsley—the curly one (mainly used as a garnish) and the tall, flat-leafed type, rightly called “Italian” parsley, which is the preferred culinary parsley in Italy because of its deep flavor and sweetness. Parsley’s refreshing, peppery flavor is compatible with most herbs. Soffritto is a common Italian combination of onions, celery, carrots and parsley that is sautéed with a little olive oil to become the base for numerous soups, sauces and meat dishes (similar to French mirepoix). Parsley is best used fresh, though it retains flavor when blended with olive oil or water and frozen.

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