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James Beard's Six Essential Herbs

Elena North-Kelly

January 24, 2017

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In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from the pleasures of oxtails to a lesson in chicken anatomy to his six essential herbs, which we share with you today—along with his timeless recipe for chicken with tarragon.

Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

James Beard's Six Essential Herbs

If I had to pick six herbs I couldn’t cook without, I’d settle for basil, bay leaf, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme. Parsley too, of course, but that is so universal it goes without saying.

Basil
Basil is grown so readily in most parts of the country that, come spring, anyone with a patch of garden or a sunny windowsill should invest in a couple of plants. The matchless flavor of fresh basil is a natural ally of tomatoes and the prime ingredient in the Italian pesto, a dark green paste made from basil leaves pounded with garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and cheese that is spooned on pasta and rice and into soups. Pesto freezes well, so you can keep it year-round. Fresh or dried, basil is exceedingly good with veal and many fish dishes.

Bay Leaves
Bay leaves have a delicate pungency that enhances all kinds of cooking. They are appropriate as a flavoring for a custard or arrowroot pudding as for a stew or sauce. The French pop a couple of bay leaves on top of a pâté while it is baking (if you try this, cover them with foil to keep them flat). In Italy, crumbled bay leaves are fried in olive oil with chopped onion, garlic, celery leaves, and tomato to make a soffrino, a seasoning for sauces, soups, and stews.

Rosemary
Rosemary, asserted the great writer-cook Marcel Boulestin, is not for remembrance—it’s for cooking veal. Lamb and beef as well. Put two or three sprigs of rosemary on a just-cooked steak, pour on a little warm brandy. Ignite, and let burn out to give a terrific flavor to the meat. The French custom of dipping a rosemary sprig in oil and brushing a steak, chop, or fish with it during the broiling is a very subtle flavoring trick, indeed. Always pulverize rosemary’s needlelike leaves in a mortar before adding them to a sauce or stew.

Savory
Savory, or sarriette as known in France, where it grows wild in the hills of Provence, is little known and little used in this country. The French often roll goat’s milk cheeses in its tiny, spiky dried leaves. Savory is an excellent herb for lamb, pungent enough to take the place of both salt and pepper if need be, which anyone on a salt-free diet might bear in mind.

Thyme
Thyme is an herb without which no self-respecting cook can exist. It goes in ragoûts, sauces, and stocks. There are several varieties of thyme, of which the most familiar is the tiny-leaved French thyme. The lemon thyme is very pleasant, too. An unusual and effective way to use thyme is to blend it with four ounces of cream cheese, a couple of tablespoons of heavy cream, a touch of minced garlic, and a soupçon of salt. Use about a teaspoon of the fresh leaves, half the amount of the dried. Chill and serve as a snack or a non-sweet dessert.

Tarragon
And then there’s tarragon, a most exceptional and helpful herb. The unique flavor of its pointed leaves belongs with fish, is an absolute must for béarnaise sauce, gives vinegar a glorious taste, and is the best friend a chicken ever had.

One of the greatest—and simplest—chicken dishes I know is Poulet Sauté a l’Estragon. The whole process takes less than 30 minutes, and you should have a dish you could serve with confidence to the most critical group of food buffs. 

Some final advice: dried herbs cannot be used for ever and ever. They don’t last that long. Keep them in a dark place, tightly sealed in glass jars, tins, or polyethylene bags, and smell them now and then to see if they are holding their strength. If not, throw them out and get some more. There’s no economy in cooking with a spent herb.

Get the recipe for James Beard's Chicken with Tarragon.