Narrowing any list of herbs down to five is next to impossible for a plant lover, but these five: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and cilantro, should cover your basic culinary needs and then some. They can be grown in containers close to your kitchen window or placed strategically throughout your yard. I add at least one of these to most meals, year round. These tasty allies are not only flavor agents, but also important nutritional sources.
Parsley is native to the Mediterranean and enjoys the California climate. It’s a slow germinator so I buy a start in the spring. It can be a biannual, growing back the second year, but won’t grow back once it’s gone to seed. It likes rich, well-drained soil and about 6 hours of sun per day. It’s rich in vitamins K, C, A, folate and iron. I add parsley to soups, salads, garlic mashed-potatoes and use as a garnish. A favorite summer salad is equal parts parsley, shredded carrot and thinly sliced apple, with sea salt, lemon and olive oil. I prefer the flat-leaf varietals.
Sage is one of my favorites. There are over 100 salvia species, and an ornamental sage garden is well loved by bees and hummingbirds. For culinary purposes, use Salvia officinalis, or garden sage. A hearty perennial, it’s easy to grow and useful most of the year. I cut it back in winter to encourage new growth. It likes full sun and doesn’t require much water. It’s a staple in stuffing and I often tuck a few leaves under the skin of a chicken breast before it’s seared and baked. Fried sage leaves are popular in the South and go great with sliced, baked sweet potatoes.
Rosemary is a hearty, woody evergreen that also attracts beneficial insects year-round with its delicate purple-blue flowers. Buy a start and plant in well-sunned, well-drained soil, as it won’t tolerate waterlogging. It will grow happily for years if left alone. I stuff my chicken with rosemary and add it to potato dishes. Its flowers are sweet and subtle and make a wonderful addition to a garden salad. It’s also highly regarded for its anti-inflammatory and memory-enhancing properties.
Thyme is a perennial that also enjoys full sun and sell-drained soil. Like rosemary and sage, it has a rich medicinal history due to its strong antimicrobial properties. I add it to soups and sauces year round, especially if someone in the family has a cough or cold. Its tantalizing citrus varietals are also among my favorites. Lemon thyme goes well in homemade vinaigrettes. It dries well and is nice to have on hand in the kitchen in winter.
Cilantro has a short growing season and bolts easily. To maximize growing time, sow seeds close together in a large container with fast-draining soil and thin to 3-4 inches apart when they reach 2 inches tall. Place the container to receive only morning or late afternoon sun. Harvest fresh leaves regularly. When the plants do bolt, let them go to seed as the coriander can be harvested and dried. Cilantro is high in antioxidants and also provokes excretion of heavy metals built up in the system. This makes it an excellent companion for fish with high mercury content. I especially enjoy fresh sea bass baked in a tinfoil packet with cilantro-papaya salsa.