It is obviously spring on our small terrace, which is almost becoming as big as a garden. We planted even more herbs than last year and I think we now have them all.
Just name one and we have it: from bay laurel, sage, rosemary, parsley, LOTS of mint, to thyme and basil. At our parents’ garden we have plants of: capers, chilly peppers, oregano, wild fennel and rucola (wild arugola).
People think that Italian cuisine is about garlic: instead it is so much more about mint, parsley, basil and rosemary. Almost all herbs we use grow wild in our countryside or buy the sea. But we also cultivate them in little pots so we can use them every day in our food.
We also dry them for when they are out of season. If you also try to dry them, remember to dry them with the stem otherwise they lose all flavors. We always pick them with the stem and hang them on our walls (in the winter). We never separate from the stem and put the leaves in a jar like what you find in a supermarket as those leaves will have very little aroma.
Our guests who attend our Mediterranean diet’s cooking classes in Puglia (Southern Italy) always learn that one of the reasons why our Mediterranean diet is so healthy is because we cook with very little salt and use many different herbs instead.
Using herbs in our food is something that we learned from our Nonna (Grandmother), who used to plant so many herbs and knew all the health benefits of each single herb: from treating a flu or a cold, to liver or stomach problems.
Cooking with herbs belongs to the culinary tradition of all Mediterranean regions in Southern Italy. Whereas it’s not the same in Northern Italy (where the Mediterranean diet is not followed). Once I cooked for my friends in Milan and they were really impressed with all the spices and herbs I used: not just onion, celery and parsley; but also lots of oregano, sage, rosemary and wild fennel.
Cooking with herbs is a very healthy way of cooking and eating. First of all, by using herbs and spices you add lots of flavors to your dishes, which allows you to reduce the amount of salt. This is something that my sister Marika, as a Cardiologist, loves telling to our cooking students: adding herbs (and cutting salt!) helps lowering blood pressure and heart diseases. In the Mediterranean areas we always use Iodized sea salt both for cooking and on the table.
Moreover, many herbs have lots of antioxidants, which are very good for our health but also allow our food to be better preserved. That’s why in the Mediterranean countries we use herbs also when we make canned/pickled eggplants or artichokes or bell peppers. We always preserve them with garlic and mint or also with cloves.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you should NOT buy these herbs mixed with salt or you’ll end up using lots of salt. Also you should try to plant and dry them yourself, keeping the stem. The herbs you buy in a jar in a store do not have the stem and have lost all the flavors.
And you, what herbs do you cook with? which herb is your favorite?