A Way With Herbs

June 12, 2020

Tuscan cooking, and Italian cooking in general, rely heavily on fresh herbs. You won’t find dried herbs in our spice racks; instead, we often pick them directly from a pot or the garden, following seasonal availability.

There are perennial herbs, such as rosemary and sage, that are a constant in many traditional dishes throughout the year, from roasted meat to baked fish. Other herbs appear in our cooking only during their peak season: think of summertime basil and wild fennel, which marry beautifully with other ingredients that share the same season, like ripe tomatoes and new potatoes.

I’ve always had plenty of fresh herbs at my disposal, both where I live now, on a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside, and where I grew up.

My grandma’s house was shaded by a bay tree. All throughout the year, sage bushes grew underneath the olive trees, and enormous rosemary plants along the fence. Wild fennel and calamint, a Mediterranean member of the mint family, would appear after the frost, welcoming the good season. And in the summer, my grandma grew basil and parsley in her vegetable garden.

This is why I use fresh herbs in almost every dish I cook—always paired with a healthy amount of extra virgin olive oil—following habits passed down from my family and Tuscan heritage.

Let’s have a look at the most common herbs found in Tuscan cuisine. If you introduce these fresh herbs into your recipes, you’ll instantly add some Italian flair to your food.

Sage (Salvia)

Sage, rosemary, and garlic are often considered the sacred triad of Tuscan seasoning. Finely minced and mixed with salt, they become a versatile and ubiquitous seasoning that can be used as a  rub for any meat, or even sprinkled over focaccia just before baking.

This flavor scheme appears in almost every Tuscan meat roast—pork, beef, turkey, chicken, rabbit, lamb, you name it. It works just as well with fish—think about a whole roasted sea bream or sea bass—or with a tray of vegetables, such as potatoes, pumpkin, or onions.

Sage becomes a protagonist, though, when you fry it. Crisp the leaves in butter to dress ravioli, or in olive oil to flavor boiled cannellini beans. Or, dip them in batter first, and deep-fry them until puffed and golden for an unforgettable appetizer.

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