Home Cooking > Savory Flavors

Come spring when the last patch of tired snow slowly makes its exit, I head for the herb garden, conveniently located just outside my kitchen door.

Like everyone else weary of winter’s malaise, I am anxious for green, anything green, and the garden does not disappoint, rewarding me with the sight of bright green baby chives! It has taken years and lots of tending to get the garden looking lush and healthy, and spring is the big pay-off when herbs are at their best. Next to the chives, the thyme is creeping back along the stem, and the sorrel is so well established that I cannot wait to pick the lemony leaves for my first taste of spring salad.

The sage made it through the winter, too—although it has a little wind damage, but nothing a good pruning can’t fix. The tarragon looks a bit iffy, and I think if I coax it along—scratching the soil to aerate it and add a little fertilizer—it will recover. Mint seems to have nine lives, and mine is as vigorous as ever, taking over the garden. (It’s best pot-bound.)

Speaking of pots, last fall I dug up the rosemary and brought it in for winter tending; I knew it would not survive biting cold temperatures. Putting it near a heat source in the house was only asking for trouble. To avoid powdery mildew on its leaves, I kept the rosemary in a cool spot near a sunny window in the garage and misted it every few days or so. That seemed to do the trick. Now as spring days get warmer, I can return the herb to its home in the garden where it will have room to grow and thrive.

I’ll add other tender herbs to the patch, too, like basil and parsley. Several types of oregano are in my garden, and ironically, that is the only herb I like better dried than fresh. Drying the leaves seems to intensify the flavor, and oregano is the herb used most frequently by Italian cooks to flavor everything from meats to sauces to stews, but with a light touch.

In ancient times, herbs were thought to have magical and healing properties; that belief still holds true today. In fact, many traditional herbs have undergone scientific testing as to their curative powers, which is one reason why there is such a worldwide interest in them.

Rosemary was said to be good for your memory; lavender was made into soap and perfumed many a Roman bath; mint was the original toothpaste for the Romans, who chewed it to cleanse their palate, and they were also one of the first to concoct mint sauce for game and fish.

Garlic, one of the earliest cultivated herbs, was primarily used for medicinal and magical purposes. Medieval and Renaissance physicians took to wearing garlic on their person to avoid getting the plague when treating patients, and today we see a renaissance of interest in garlic in medical journals that claim it can lower blood pressure and control cholesterol. The jury is still out on those claims.

One thing is for certain: cooking with herbs is a good thing, a natural way to avoid too much salt in your diet while developing more flavor in the foods you eat. So do yourself a favor and take time to get to know herbs.

Mary Ann Esposito’s Recipe with fresh herbs

Fusilli with Herb Sauce and Feta Cheese (Serves 4)

This quick herb sauce teamed with Sardinian feta cheese can be made several days ahead and is perfect on short cuts of pasta like fusilli. Do not substitute dried herbs for fresh as their oils have dissipated through the drying process, and this would be the sauce’s ruination. The flavor of this sauce is developed by the slow cooking of the herbs for just 1 minute so their delicate oils will not be destroyed.

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
6 scallions, white part only, cut into thin rounds
½ cup minced arugula leaves
½ cup minced fresh basil leaves
½ cup minced fresh Italian parsley leaves, without stems
1 teaspoon fi ne sea salt
½ pound fusilli (twist pasta)
½ pound feta cheese, crumbled

1. heat the olive oil in a medium-size sauté pan over medium heat, add the garlic halves and cook slowly, pressing on the cloves with a wooden spoon to flavor the oil. When the edges of the cloves begin to turn golden brown, remove and discard them.

2. Cook the scallions in the olive oil, stirring, until they soften. Stir in the arugula, basil and parsley, and cook over low heat for 1 minute. Stir in the salt. Keep the sauce over low heat while the fusilli are cooking.

3. Cook the fusilli in 4-6 quarts of rapidly boiling salted water. When al dente, drain the fusilli, reserving 2 tablespoons of the cooking water.

4. return the fusilli to the cooking pot, along with the reserved cooking water, add the sauce and mix to evenly coat the fusilli. transfer to a serving bowl or platter, sprinkle the feta cheese over the top and serve.

Tip: Spray a chef’s knife with vegetable or olive oil spray before mincing the herbs to prevent them from sticking to the knife blade.

Note: the sauce will keep covered at room temperature for 3 days or may be refrigerated for longer storage. the sauce is also a great marinade for fi sh or chicken.

Recipe from Ciao Italia: bringing Italy home by Mary Ann Esposito, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2001.