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5 Uncommon Culinary Herbs

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

| March/April 2015

  • Traditionally used in herbal medicine, borage's blue flowers can be used to garnish salads or flavor vinegars.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Try adding ground caraway seeds to a variety of homemade breads.
    Photo by iStock
  • Stock these uncommon culinary herbs in your kitchen to add interest to any dish.
    Photo by iStock
  • Use gloves when harvesting stinging nettle (its sting goes away when cooked or dried).
    Photo by Veer
  • Despite its unpopularity, shiso has been grown in the states since the 1850s.
    Photo by iStock

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.

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