When it comes to seasoning your recipes with herbs and spices, we recommend you keep it fresh. Using fresh instead of dried herbs and spices during the cooking process is going to go a long way in your recipes.
Herbs and spices are at the heart of cuisine in Italy. Whether we’re talking about the sweet green basil topping your favorite pizza recipe or pleasantly pungent garlic that gives your tomato sauce its signature kick, herbs and spices are a hallmark of best-loved Italian dishes.
Most well-known aromatic herbs grow naturally throughout the Italian countryside, but home cooks don’t have to visit Italy (or even the grocery store) to gather culinary herbs for their kitchen endeavors. Many of your favorite herbs will grow right there in pots on your windowsill all year long.
Before we get into specific plants, you might be wondering what the difference is between herbs and spices. Briefly, herbs are from the green leaves of a plant. Spices are from different parts of a plant, such as the seeds, berries, bark, root, fruit and flowers.
Some like it hot and those folks tend to enjoy the chili pepper. The plant belongs to the Capsicum genus, which is part of the same family as tomatoes. Typically, countries with hotter climates tend to develop spicier cuisines as a natural means of cooling down the body through sweat. Chili peppers were grown as a food crop as early as 4000 BC in Central America. The Spanish introduced it to the world in the mid-16th century. Very quickly, trade routes began carrying chili peppers to Europe, Africa, India, the Middle East and Asia.
The chili pepper is grown in Southern Italy, where it is a popular ingredient among its bold and spicy cuisine. Here, salumi and cheeses often are made with ground chili pepper. Hot peppers are also preserved in olive oil.
Parsley, or prezzemolo in Italian cuisine, is by far the most popular and commonly used herb. Its mildly bitter flavor is used to brighten and balance savory dishes, and so it is a great complement to more robust and spicy flavors. Parsley can be used to season a vast variety of dishes—most notably seafood recipes, tomato sauces and vegetable sauces.
Parsley is native to southern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean region. The flat-leaf variety (P. neapolitanum), is referred to as “Italian parsley,” as it is the only variety used in Italy and most Mediterranean countries.
Fresh parsley is preferred, though this herb preserves well when chopped and frozen. To use it fresh, first trim the leaves, then wash and chop them. Add parsley to the pot just before the end of cooktime or sprinkle it on the final dish. Don’t overcook.
Across different civilizations, the leaves of the laurel tree—known as bay leaves—are more than an ingredient, but symbolic. To some, these leaves are symbols of glory and achievement. Bay leaves are one of the most popular spices throughout the world and in Italy, laurel trees grow wild almost everywhere!
Many use bay leaves in vats of pickled vegetables, as well as in fish and meat marinades. The leaves’ spicy taste blends beautifully in vegetable, fish and meat sauces for pasta dishes. Always remember to remove bay leaves from food preparations before serving.
Basil is undoubtedly one of the most popular herbs, but where does basil come from? How can you use fresh basil in your recipes? Basil is a quintessential Italian herb that has become popular in modern times. While there many varieties exist, Genovese basil—also known as “sweet basil”—is the most common used in Mediterranean cuisine. Unlike the bold, minty and often pungent types found in Asian cuisine, Italian basil is sweet and pleasantly peppery.
Like many fresh herbs, basil is best enjoyed raw. Pesto is a famous Italian oil-based basil sauce. Pesto is tossed with hot cooked pasta just before serving for a green and herbaceous pasta sauce. Just a bit goes a long way.
Fresh basil leaves can brighten many recipes. When adding the fresh herb to cooked recipes, basil should be introduced near the end of cook time. Two minutes gives the herb time to release its sweet fragrance without overcooking it.
Indeed, basil isn’t the only pesto game in town, but it is classic. This beloved green sauce originated in Liguria, Italy, but has been celebrated all around the world.
If you’re looking for basil pesto uses in the kitchen, there are so many great pesto recipes. It’s flavorful, versatile, and just a spoonful can upgrade so many of your favorite everyday recipes.
The sweet, pleasantly peppery flavor of fresh basil is the perfect complement to several flavors. Basil and tomato are just one of the many herb pairs that we love. An incredible way to enjoy it is in Insalata Caprese.
The Italian word for sage, salvia, derives from the Latin Salus, which means “health,” “safety” or “well-being.” In ancient times and during the Roman Empire, sage was known as a miracle herb.
The varieties of sage used as a spice originated in Asia Minor and quickly spread all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Today, there are at least 500 varieties all over the world.
A member of the mint family, culinary sage, is highly aromatic and is best used fresh. The leaves have a lemony, slightly bitter fragrance, reminiscent of rosemary.
Sage is excellent with pasta, risotto, bean soups, breads and aromatic oils. Sage blends well with mild cheeses. Try adding sage to a grilled cheese sandwich made with smoked mozzarella or fontina. For a pleasant aroma to grilled foods, try using the woody stems or leaves on the hot charcoals.
In ancient mythology, the nine muses and Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, are often depicted holding rosemary. In addition to this legacy, rosemary has been an essential ingredient of Mediterranean cuisine for centuries.
Fresh rosemary has a particularly potent fragrance and flavor. It is preferred to the dried spice when possible. This herb is common in Italian cooking, especially in vegetable preparations. Italians can’t cook roasted potatoes, mushrooms or cannellini beans without it. Unlike some herbs, rosemary doesn’t lose flavor by prolonged cooking.
Use rosemary as a seasoning for grilled and roasted meats, fish and especially poultry. The pleasant aroma of the heated herb will permeate whatever you are grilling.
Greeks and Romans added this herb directly to their baths and the oil extracts from the plant to their massage oils. In Italian cooking, thyme, or timo, is an excellent herb to use fresh. Its flavor isn’t super aromatic, but mild and earthy with a hint of mintiness to it. Be sure to add it early in the cooking process. This enables the oil and allows time for the flavor to be released.
Thyme is a common herb of Southern Italy pasta sauces, which often feature peppers and eggplant. It’s a beautiful complement to many fresh vegetables and tomatoes, but also grilled and oven-roasted fish recipes lie sea bass (spigola). For roasted and grilled meats, thyme marries well with sage and rosemary.
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