Everyone who calls themselves a cook should know their herbs and know how to use them in the kitchen.
As Italians we are born with an innate gift for cooking and an expert nose, so we are very good at recognising smells and fragrances, especially when it comes to our food.
Did you know that most of the kitchen herbs have actually real medicinal powers and are good for our health on so many levels?
Italy has a huge variety of natural herbs growing wildly all over the country, some species are concentrated in some areas more than others depending on the climate, but overall the most used herbs in the Italian cooking tradition are: basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary.
Known since ancient times, these plants were used by Greek and Romans, Egyptians and other cultures as remedies against illnesses, as cosmetic and beauty resources, or as fragrance for the body and the house.
Basil has strong painkilling properties, is antimicrobial antioxidant antiseptic and is known to relieve anxiety. Use it as relief for headaches breathing basil-infused steam or add epsom salts and dried basil leaves to your bath to relax and destress, it will also keep your skin glowing and free of acne
In the kitchen… us Italians would be lost without it! We use it on everything! Take a generous bunch of leaves and put it in the blender with garlic, parmesan and olive oil, and you’ll have pesto in just a matter of seconds! Throw in a few roasted pine nuts for extra flavour.
(we’ve talked about basil in our “ingredient of the month” blog post. Have a look here for more ideas on how to use it!)
The Romans used its scent to purify rooms, and as body scent in the form of essential oil. Drinking an infusion of thyme leaves can help lung congestions and to relieve a sore throat or stomach pains. It’s great for your hair too, especially for scalp conditions like dandruff. Like basil it is full of antioxidants and therefore great for the health of your skin. You can use to keep insects away from your home and your clothes!
Thyme gives it best in the kitchen when in the oven. The heat enhances its essential oils and adds flavour to all your roasts, especially chicken! Sprinkle it on chicken thighs, garlic flakes and a drizzle of olive oil to finish and let it roast!
Oregano, other than being a beautiful little plant, used to be considered a symbol of joy and happiness back in ancient times, and used as poison antidote and to treat infections. Today its use in alternative medicine remains pretty much the same, for its high anti-inflammatory properties and to strengthen the immune system. Again a plant that you’ll want to have in your garden!
Simple things are often the most delicious ones, like focaccia, a huge classic. It’s a flat, soft and pizza-like bread, that is delicious warm from the oven and with a bit of rock salt and oregano to top it off. Perfect to share with family and friends for a big sharing meal.
The Greeks and the Romans used rosemary wreaths around their heads for two reasons: because they believed it had the power to enhance memory and energy and during weddings, both bride and groom would wear a little rosemary crown to seal the memory of the sacred vows to each other. If you want to increase your memory then, definitely plant some rosemary in your herb garden and dispose of it when needed!
Italians simply love to season roasties with it! Just add a few sprigs of fresh rosemary, olive oil, garlic, rock salt & black pepper to your preferred potatoes…. and roast! Then …. simply enjoy!
** Bonus “herb” **
Did you know you could eat the green stems and flowers of the garlic plant?
Similarly to spring onions or chives, these sprouts are mild and sweet in flavour with a distinctive garlicky flavour. So, don’t throw away your garlic cloves if they sprout. Plant them, grow them and eat the greens!
Try them in a frittata! In a pan, put olive oil, garlic sprouts and mushrooms, let them cook until they start getting brown, then mix in the eggs, sprinkle with salt and pepper and top with parmesan. It’s delicious!