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The Cool Cousins of the Herbs You Think You Know

The Cool Cousins of the Herbs You Think You Know
Source: Wikimedia Commons via Google Images

As hints of spring start to appear, those of us who love to garden and have been planning what we’ll be planting are ready to act. If you’re a culinary gardener, it’s second nature to consider which herbs will populate spaces, whether in the ground or in pots. And it’s probably also second nature to turn to the familiar types of herbs we’ve grown for years, such as basil, thyme, oregano, tarragon, sage, and mint. And, among them, the same, dependable varieties.

But it’s time to get a little adventurous and mix it up. No doubt as you’ve been gazing at seed packets or seedlings you’ve seen not just English or French thyme, but also citrus-scented thymes. Tarragon isn’t just the delicate French variety, but also hardier Mexican. Common or garden sage is a perfectly lovely plant to grow, but it comes in more than just a green leaf variety. You could also add in golden, purple, or tricolor sage. And mints! Sure, go with spearmint or peppermint. But there are dozens of other options that you could just as easily fall in love with and widen your dishes' flavor profiles. They aren’t substitutes for tradition, but additions give you more options. These are some that I’ve fallen for hard.

Mexican Tarragon

The Cool Cousins of the Herbs You Think You Know
Source: Caron Golden

I had been growing French tarragon for years, enjoying its anise flavor with snapper and poached salmon. But several years ago, while visiting Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico, I spent time in their organic garden. The gardener gave several of us a taste of Mexican tarragon and I never looked back, immediately planting it in my little garden. Mexican tarragon is a tougher version of tarragon. Instead of long delicate leaves on a svelte stem, Mexican tarragon is hardier, taller, and more potent. It also produces the most beautiful yellow flowers on its tall stems come autumn. I harvest the herb for chicken salad, braised or roasted winter squash, or add it at the end of sauteing green beans. It also works well with the same dishes you’d make with French tarragon—just add less.

Lemon Thyme

The Cool Cousins of the Herbs You Think You Know
Source: Flickr via Google Images

Thyme is a pretty plant with its tiny green leaves on skinny stems that flow about like someone having an amusingly bad hair day—but in a charming way. It has a distinctively earthy yet minty aroma that’s bigger than you’d think such petite leaves could produce. Then there is lemon thyme. Lemon thyme is everything that common thyme is, but its lemony flavor makes it less astringent than its cousin.

I add it to my standard vinaigrette, which is not just a marvel for salads, but also to marinate chicken for roasting or grilling, or tossing into steamed vegetables with butter. Planning on making au gratin with zucchini? Lemon thyme is a perfect, light addition. I’ve added it to savory shortbreads and scones. I also include it in a summer herb rub with basil, sage, and oregano. I remove the leaves from the stems and mince them with garlic and sea salt. Then I spread them out on a sheet pan and let the mixture dry for about three days until all the moisture is gone. The rub goes into jars and is perfect on vegetables, chicken, or pork for roasting or grilling—or adding to a vinaigrette or a robust olive oil for dipping crusty bread.

Tricolor Sage

The Cool Cousins of the Herbs You Think You Know
Source: Wikimedia Commons via Google Images

There’s always sage growing in my garden. There’s just something so SoCal about it. It’s the scent I’ve long felt surrounded by while hiking local trails. We’re used to common or garden sage, with its long narrow fuzzy greenish silver leaves. But, how about adding tricolor sage to your garden to create more visual interest—not just to your garden but also to any dishes you would use common sage. Tricolor sage mixes that gray-green leaf color with white and pink. It has the same intensely piney flavor held by common sage. It’s really the color that distinguishes it. I use it sparingly with strongly flavored ingredients that can hold their own, such as pork, lamb, winter squashes, stuffings, and stews. I love making a hearty clay pot Red Kuri squash, adding diced onion, garlic, dried fruit, sliced pork sausage, white wine, olive oil, brown sugar, salt, pepper, and minced sage leaves. I put the mixture in a stoneware pot with a cover and cook it at 375 degrees for about an hour and a half.

Mojito Mint and Chocolate Mint

The Cool Cousins of the Herbs You Think You Know
Source: Caron Golden

I admit, mint hasn’t always been a go-to herb for me. But I was conditioned to just peppermint and spearmint. They’re fine but not my thing. And then at a gardening class I was introduced to two mints that turned me around: mojito mint and chocolate mint. If you’re fond of mojito cocktails, you’ll be a sucker for this herb since it’s the mint used in Cuba to make the drink. A very pretty plant with thick oval green leaves that are heavily textured, I think I’m drawn to it because it’s so much milder than spearmint. That mildness gives me the freedom to include it in fruit salads or green salads. I add it to tea and lemonade, but a favorite dessert it plays a part in is my French Sorrel and Mint Granita.

Chocolate mint is equally seductive and grows alongside my mojito mint. Its leaves are more oval and thinner than mojito mint, and produces a subtle chocolate aroma. I add it to my granita, but also to flavor whipped cream, sugar, chocolate icing, or chocolate mousse.

The Cool Cousins of the Herbs You Think You Know
Source: Caron Golden

French Sorrel and Mint Granita

Makes 1 quart

2 cups cold water
1 cup granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
2 sprigs or more of fresh mint
2 cups fresh French sorrel leaves

Combine the water, sugar, and half the lemon juice in a non-reactive saucepan. Bring to the boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and transfer to a glass container. Add the mint and let the syrup cool.

Wash the sorrel leaves, remove the tough spine, and coarsely chop the leaves. You'll want two well-packed cups.

When the sugar syrup has cooled, remove the mint and discard. Add the syrup, the rest of the lemon juice, and the sorrel leaves to the bowl of a blender. Puree until smooth.

Pour the mixture into a large shallow pan or casserole dish. Freeze until icy—about 3 hours. Then using a fork, scrape through the mixture to break it up. Refreeze another 2 hours and repeat. Do this once more and it should be ready to serve. You can store it in a container for up to a month.

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By: Caron Golden