A handful of fresh herbs enhances green leafy salads - experiment with the vast range of tastes.
Add 'hard' herbs such as bay, rosemary or thyme at the beginning of cooking and 'soft' herbs such as chives, parsley and coriander, at the end of cooking.
The plants featured in this section are those that are commercially available for culinary purposes.
The leaves of ornamental angelica pachycarp make a wonderful garnish as the shiny dark leaves keep fresh for some time. The stems are crystallised for garnish on cakes and desserts. Another type of angelica, angelica archangelica, is the culinary and medicinal plant; the root is used for medicinal purposes. It has matt green leaves that wilt quickly.
Available November-April, with limited supplies for the rest of the year.
Many varieties of basil, with differing leaves and intensity of flavour, are available. These include sweet basil, the most commonly found; dark opal, a dark purple leafed basil; lettuce leaf basil, which has very large green leaves; and fino verde, which is green with very small leaves. Basil has a sweet, strong spicy flavour and can be added to salads and savoury dishes. It goes particularly well with tomatoes and is the key ingredient of pesto. Basil is best used either raw or added at the end of cooking. It has many medicinal uses and is also known to deter flies.
Basil - Thai
Thai basil is a type of sweet basil native to Southeast Asia that has been cultivated to provide distinctive traits. Its flavour is more stable under high or extended cooking temperatures than that of sweet basil. Thai basil grows to 45 cm in height, has small, purple-flushed, lance-like leaves with a sweet licorice scent and purple stems, with a mauve (pink-purple) flower.
Available all year.
Bay leaves are used to flavour stocks, braises, stews, marinades, and soups. Regarded as a hard herb for cooking, bay leaves are generally added at the beginning of cooking and removed before eating. Fresh leaves have lots more flavour than dried ones. Bay is the basis of a many French dishes; bouquet garni has many variations but a bay leaf is essential.
Borage tastes refreshing and cooling with a slightly bitter, cucumber flavour. The light purple flowers are usually used and look great as a garnish on salads or desserts. They can be set in ice cubes or crystallised. The leaves are not really palatable as they are ‘hairy’ or slightly ‘prickly’. If used for their taste, select the small young leaves. They can be used raw in salads or lightly cooked with other green vegetables.
Chervil is a mild herb similar to parsley, however, the flavour is more subtle and can be easily lost during cooking. It is best to add a generous quantity of chopped leaves just before serving. It can be added to salads, or sprinkled over lightly-cooked vegetables, egg dishes, meats, poultry and fish and soups.
Available all year; most plentiful September-May.
Chives are a member of the onion family and have a mild onion flavour. They are a versatile herb with many uses – garnishes, salads, vegetable and egg dishes, or with fish, chicken and mild flavoured meats. Chives should be added to a dish just before serving because heat can destroy the flavour.
Garlic chives are also available. The leaves of garlic chives are flat, not hollow and circular as in standard chives, and they have the distinctive taste of garlic.
Available all year.
The petals of calendulas can be plucked and added to salads for a colourful salad. They are mainly used for decoration as there is little flavour.
Coriander (also known as cilantro)
Available all year.
Fresh coriander has a distinctive, strong aromatic and spicy flavour. Coriander leaves, stems, roots and seeds are used. The seeds may be used whole or ground and are a main ingredient of curry powder. Fresh coriander leaves are often added to chutneys, salads, stir fries, curries and sauces. Coriander leaves are used in Chinese, Thai and Indian cuisine.
The petals of cornflowers can be plucked and added to salads for a colourful salad. Blue cornflowers are more likely to be found though pink and white cornflowers are also edible.
Available all year.
The intense colouring of the leaves make curly kale a stunning garnish. This is especially true in winter when other garnishes may be difficult to obtain. Some varieties of green kale are also known as collards or winter greens. These can be cooked as a side vegetable in a similar manner to other cabbage types. Remove thick stalks before cooking.
Dill leaves and seeds have a mild aniseed flavour that is similar though slightly sweeter and more aromatic than fennel. Serve small quantities of freshly chopped dill in fish dishes and pickles, with steamed vegetables, salads, soups, egg dishes and sauces. If fresh dill is not available, use fennel as a substitute.
Available: Roots; April-May, Leaves; October-May.
Horseradish is a hot tasting root that is peeled and grated. Small amounts of grated horseradish may be added to salads or steamed vegetables as a flavouring. It can also be mixed with lemon juice, vinegar and/or cream, or sour cream to make horseradish cream or sauce – an accompaniment to beef, smoked fish and egg dishes. Horseradish loses much of its piquancy when added to hot dishes. Add young leaves to salads and sandwiches.
Lemon balm leaves give a delicate lemon sweet flavour to vegetable and fruit salads, punches, soups, sauces and stuffing. It can be used in place of grated lemon rind.
A common ingredient in South East Asian cookery, both the root end and the long lemon-flavoured leaves are used. The base should be peeled and chopped finely before use and can be frozen. Use when an aromatic lemony flavour is required e.g. in fish, chicken, rice and vegetable dishes. Add some leaves to the water when cooking rice, or wrap around a whole fish before cooking.
Limited availability November-April.
Lovage leaves have a slightly yeasty flavour and can be added to salads, braises, stews, soups and sauces. Young lovage leaves and stalks can be chopped, simmered or sautéed and used as a vegetable by themselves, or used like celery.
Marigold flowers, very similar to calendula, make an attractive edible garnish for many dishes. They can also be added sparingly to salads. The petals can be used in place of saffron and will give colour in many dishes, especially rice and egg dishes.
Available all year.
Mint, one of the most popular herbs in New Zealand, is used for flavouring salads, dressings, sauces and soups. Finely chopped mint can be sprinkled over salads and lightly-cooked spring vegetables. Whole leaves are an attractive garnish in desserts, chilled water, fruit juice or punch. A sprig of mint can be added to the cooking water for new potatoes and peas. There are many varieties of mint, including apple mint, pineapple mint, peppermint, and spearmint. Apple mint is available and has soft textured leaves that are slightly rounded and variegated with cream.
Vietnamese mint (Vietnamese coriander)
This has pointed leaves that are darker than standard mint. They are sometimes lightly variegated with a dull dark red. Vietnamese mint has a strong flavour and is often used in Asian cooking.
The young leaves have a refreshing peppery taste similar to watercress. Both leaves and flowers can be eaten in salads. Pickled nasturtium seeds can be used as a substitute for capers. Nasturtium flowers are delicate and damage very easily.
Use chopped oregano in omelettes, stuffing, pizzas, salad dressings, mayonnaise, pasta, sausage and rice dishes. It can be used in vegetable dishes, particularly tomatoes, eggplant, courgettes and potatoes or to flavour vinegar. There are many varieties that have been developed and in New Zealand the names oregano, marjoram or sweet marjoram are used interchangeably; although they are different varieties they are very similar. Oregano is more widely available.
Available all year.
Parsley is probably the most commonly used herb in New Zealand. It is extremely versatile and can be used with a wide range of foods including salads, vegetables, soups, braises, stews, dressings, meat and fish dishes. If adding parsley to a cooked dish, it is better to add it at the end of cooking because flavour is lost with prolonged heating.
Italian parsley has a similar taste to standard parsley, however, the leaves are flat, not curly, and they look a little like coriander leaves.
Available all year.
Hearts ease pansy is an attractive edible flower that can be used for garnish.
Available all year .
Rosemary is a strong-flavoured herb that is generally used in small amounts with lamb, mutton and beef, and is often in stuffing and marinades. Roast vegetables such as kumara, parsnip, garlic, onion or potatoes with olive oil and fresh rosemary leaves. Add rosemary at the beginning of cooking so the full aromatic flavour can permeate the food. Whole leaves and the attractive light purple flowers are often used as a garnish. Rosemary sprigs can be used to flavour oil and vinegar and twigs can be used as a skewer for fresh vegetables such as cherry tomatoes and chunks of cucumber. Rosemary is classed as a hard herb.
Sage is a strong-flavoured herb that is generally used in small quantities. It is a versatile herb used in a range of dishes including meats, stuffing, onions, soups, sauces, dressings, pates, quiches, pulses, cheese dishes, breads, braises and stews. There are several varieties of sage and some do not have the green leaves of standard sage. Pineapple sage is available commercially and is generally sweeter and more mellow. Try threading whole leaves onto skewers with cubes of meat and vegetables.
Salad burnet has a very delicate and pleasant flavour. It is sometimes described as tasting like cucumber with a slight almond taste. It should always be used raw as it tastes bitter when cooked. Discard the stems and only use the very young leaves in salads or as a garnish.
Available October-April .
There are two types of savory, and both are available commercially in limited quantities. Both taste similar to thyme but are hotter and have a peppery taste. Both types of savory can be used raw or cooked whenever a warm-hot flavour is wanted. Summer savory has a more delicate flavour than winter savory. Both can be added to stuffing, sausages, cheese dishes, steamed vegetables and salads.
Seldom available commercially.
Sorrel has a sharp taste and gives soups, sauces, omelettes and salads a tangy and refreshing flavour. Sorrel is used with spinach and silverbeet dishes and can replace spinach in a recipe. It has an attractive leaf that looks like young spinach and it is a good addition to a green mixed leaf salad.
French tarragon is the most commonly found variety. Raw or cooked tarragon is used in vegetable dishes, especially vegetables with a delicate flavour. It is used with chicken, fish, mild meat and egg dishes, in salads, sauces, dressings and to flavour vinegar. Tarragon is a key ingredient of béarnaise sauce.
There are many varieties of thyme and each has a slightly different flavour. Lemon and standard thyme are available commercially and are used raw or cooked. Thyme can be added to soups, braises, stews, stuffing, chicken, meat, steamed vegetables, salads and dressings, or sprinkled on breads and pizzas. Fresh thyme sprigs steeped in vinegar or oil give flavour to marinades and dressings. Lemon thyme has a more subtle flavour. Pizza thyme leaves are used on pizzas.
Lemon verbena is available commercially and can be used raw to give a subtle lemon flavour to salads, chilled water or other drinks. Verbena flowers can be used as a garnish and are available in white and a range of pinks/reds.
Wasabi (Japanese horseradish)
Wasabi stems are used to make the green pungent paste that is served with dishes like sushi and sashimi (raw fish). It is usually served with soy sauce and is considered essential in Japanese cuisine. The finely chopped leaves and stem are also used in Japanese preserves. The taste of wasabi is similar to normal horseradish. Wasabi is grown in fresh water streams and has heart-shaped leaves measuring 3-4 cm across when mature.
What to look for
Choose clean, crisp leaves or flowers.
Fresh herbs are available all year although supply is limited in winter months. See individual listings for a more precise guide. Hydroponic growing has extended the season ensuring a more reliable supply.
Refrigerate in their original packaging or plastic bags in the crisper. Make sure leaves are not squashed. Alternatively, if the herbs still have their roots attached, place the roots in a jar of water and leave in a cool place, but do not refrigerate.
How to prepare
Remove any coarse or wilted leaves. Soaking the leaves in warm water for 3-4 minutes followed by refrigeration for 15-20 minutes can refresh the leaves.
Fresh herbs contain beta-carotene, vitamin C and some minerals such as iron, calcium and zinc. An example is parsley, which is rich in nutrients such as vitamin A (from selected carotenoids) and C, potassium, folate, iron and calcium. Herbs have been shown to contain high levels of phytonutrients including carotenoids and phenolic compounds. Seasoning meals/dishes with a generous amount of herbs to enhance flavour and increase the consumption of healthy foods is a useful way to promote health and reduce reliance on salt.
Herbs are highly perishable, so buy small quantities regularly and maintain good stock rotation principles. Use refrigerated shelving for display. Customers may not know how to use some of the fresh herbs or edible flowers so use the QR code on labels.
Store at 2-7°C. Below this temperature some herbs, such as basil and mint, will have tissue damage and turn black. Herbs are highly perishable and wilt quickly at room temperature so store herbs under the condenser fans in the chiller as this will be the warmest place. Fresh herbs are ethylene sensitive and should be kept separate from ethylene producing vegetables.
Purchase fresh herbs with the New Zealand GAP logo.