Three of the Coolest Herbs You've Never Heard Of
With longer and warmer days, it’s inevitable for culinary gardeners to start planning not just for tomatoes, peppers, and summer squash, but also herbs. Sure, we’re going to plant basil, cilantro, and mints that are the perfect accent to warm weather meals, but there are a host of herbs you may have never heard of, let alone cooked with, that should be in your pots or beds as well.
Planting these herbs not only gives you more choices as you decide on dishes you’re going to make, but they add unique shapes, aromas, and textures to your garden. Here are three that have roots in regions across the globe, intriguing flavors, and are easy to care for.
Sounds kind of like cilantro, right? Actually, while culantro isn’t a coriander, like cilantro, it does have a very similar flavor and scent. You’d never guess by looking at it. Unlike the petite leaves of cilantro, culantro’s deep green leaves are long—about eight inches—and almost sword shaped with sawtooth edges that look like someone took pinking shears to them.
Culantro is native to Mexico, the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Southeast Asia. I’ve found that the flavor is much stronger than cilantro, so you should use less than what is called for if you’re substituting it for cilantro. Culantro also holds up better than cilantro when cooked, so that makes it a flavorful ingredient chopped and added to cooking beans or rice. If you enjoy making spicy Thai soups and curries, culantro makes for the perfect addition. Include it in marinades, along with soy sauce, lime juice, garlic, and sesame oil (puree the ingredients together) for chicken or shrimp. Make a pesto with it instead of basil or just sprinkle it into pasta dishes. And, yes, add it to salsas—whether it's pico de gallo, mango, or tomatillo salsa verde.
Cuban oregano hardly looks like it’s in the mint family. The leaves look nothing like the Mediterranean oreganos we’re used to. Instead, Cuban oregano leaves are thick and velvety with delicately serrated edges. They look like a succulent. And, in fact, that’s what Cuban oregano is—a succulent herb. But it does rhyme in flavor with other oregano varieties, only pungent.
Cuban oregano is not native to Cuba. Actually, it’s said it’s originally from Indonesia, before making its way to Africa, the West Indies, and Latin America. And, because the history of global trade sends plants to places far from their original home, Cuban oregano is now part of not just local cuisine in Cuba, but also India and the Philippines. It’s a popular ingredient in meat dishes. Add it to a marinade or stuff the leaves in pork. Try it in soups and stews or sauté leaves with vegetables. It can even neutralize the heat in hot peppers.
Need mushrooms, but don’t have any in the fridge? Then here’s a plant you should be growing. Rungia, also known commonly as a mushroom plant, is aptly named. Its leaves, especially when cooked, have a definite mushroom flavor. Like Cuban oregano, rungia’s origin lies halfway around the earth—specifically tropical Africa.
That umami taste makes it perfect as a substitute or addition to the fungi in everything from soups and stews to salads, pasta, omelets, and stir fries. If you’re interested in keeping the color of the leaves, add them toward the end of the cooking process.
I roughly chop the leaves and add them to leftover cooked rice or whole grains. They add an earthy flavor, especially to hearty grains like barley, bulgur, and wheat berries. Heat some oil or unsalted butter in a pan. Then, sauté diced onions or scallions and green garlic. Before they get brown add the rice or grains, stirring them all together. Once they’re close to ready, add chopped rungia leaves and lightly toasted pine nuts with sea salt and ground pepper to taste. Continue cooking until the rice and its components are fully heated and then serve.