Skip to main content

Go for green

Long-anticipated first signs of spring, herbs add zing to your dishes

By |

Photo: James Ingram

Recipes Featured In This Article

Tarragon Lobster Salad

Lobster salad is ubiquitous, but fresh tarragon brings this version to life. You can also...

Parsley Sauce

Parsley is more than a garnish. Try it with pork or beef....

Tarragon Scallops

Tarragon and parsley work well together in this easy and delicious scallop recipe. Pea sh...

The sprouts may be tiny, but herbs peeking out of the ground, or from pots on your windowsill, can cause a lot of excitement. Spring is here: it’s time to get cooking with fresh herbs.

“Herbs are beautiful and earthy, and flavours just pop out,” says Gisele Landry, co-owner of Bistro le Chat Bleu in Baie Verte, New Brunswick. “It’s fun to play with them and experiment. If you present a dish with a sprig of fresh herbs, you know you are getting something nice.”

Landry and her husband, Bill Ogilvie, cook with a variety of herbs that they grow in a kitchen garden outside the back door of their small restaurant. They also purchase herbs from Les Jardins Stellaria, a local organic grower. Le Chat Bleu’s garden includes oregano, parsley, thyme, dill, and mint that Landry and Ogilvie use in their Mediterranean-inspired recipes.

Other favourites include rosemary for roasted potatoes, basil for a tomato salad, and marjoram for Moroccan cuisine. Thyme finds its way into their French Onion Soup and Beef Caponata. “There’s a beautiful earthiness to thyme,” says Landry. “It’s a pungent herb that people will often ask about.”

She describes mint as “beautiful,” not only for mint tea, lamb and a classic tabouli salad, but also in a Moroccan Lentil Salad. “It would be nice for people to use mint more in the forefront.” Tarragon is also her goto, especially in her Tarragon Lobster Salad.

Jim Bruce is also a tarragon fan. The owner of River View Herbs in Maitland, Nova Scotia, creates a favourite tarragon dish with fresh scallops and parsley (see recipe below). “Tarragon and parsley complement each other really well. And there’s something wonderful about lemon and parsley.”

His company grows over 150 herb varieties, providing fresh herbs to restaurants and farmers’ markets. They produce commonly used herbs such as parsley, mint, and oregano, to less popular ones such as lemon balm, chervil, and sorrel.

But one herb reigns supreme. “Basil is the king,” says Bruce. “People say they don’t like marjoram or cilantro, but I’ve never heard anyone say they don’t like basil.” Bruschetta and pesto are traditional uses that make the ubiquitous herb so popular. Although mainly considered an Italian herb, it’s also important in Asian cooking, such as Thai. (For those who grow their own, Bruce advises planting as late as mid-June, as summer heat is vital.)

Bruce thinks some herbs just don’t receive the respect they deserve. Chives, he says, are tremendously underrated. “Chives is a wonderful perennial plant. [The] flowers are edible, up first in spring and pretty, but people see them as dowdy cousins.” He advises cooks to take a second look at lemon balm, which he recommends for stuffing whole salmon.

He also laments that sorrel, in his view “a terrific salad green,” is better known in Europe than here. The target market for herbs has changed since River View started in 1988. Bruce notices more knowledeable young people buying herbs for particular recipes. “There was a time that only a handful of chefs knew how to use the stuff,” he adds. “There aren’t too many restaurants today that don’t buy fresh herbs.”

Luis Clavel, chef at Shuck Seafood + Raw Bar in Halifax, agrees. He so appreciates the importance of herbs in his cooking that he keeps a threetier tray of live herbs in his restaurant during the warm seasons to provide ready access.

Photo: James Ingram

“I like to use what makes sense for the dish,” says Clavel. “One that we love is coriander.” He also appreciates rosemary and thyme for garnishes: “They all have different characteristics. You use herbs for accents, rather than have them take over.”

Clavel grows 15 different types at home that he cuts and brings in to the restaurant. He admits cilantro is a favourite because of his Hispanic background and he’s particularly fond of chervil and pineapple mint.

Finding parsley underutilized, he creates a bold green sauce to accompany pork and meat. “It’s a phenomenal sauce,” he says. He also enthuses about a Four-Herb Chimichurri Sauce, great with steak, which showcases herbs at their best. His recipe for Kale, Roasted Peanut, and Rosemary Pesto is a creative use for rosemary and ever-trendy kale. “I like to experience ingredients in different forms so we can select the ones that make more sense when you put them together,” says Clavel. “It’s really fun.”