Seasoned salt. Mrs. So-and-So's Tasty Herbs. Chef Hoo-d'Haw's Louisiana Blend. Generic Italian seasoning. You probably have a ton of these mixed herbs sitting somewhere in your kitchen, getting more desiccated every year. They're handy, but they're not cheap, and sometimes, there's stuff in there we don't want to put in our bodies. And that goes against the gardener's creed: Know (and Grow) Thine Fodder.
Or something like that.
The chefs who lend their names (even the fictional ones) to the labels wouldn't be caught dead using these outdated dried herbs, so why should you? Grow your own herb garden to have access to fresh herbs in season and just enough home-dried seasonings to make it through the winter. The most popular herbs happen to be standards for Italian cooking, so that's where we'll start.
Italian cuisine: The ultimate cultural mashup
Here in the United States, we associate "traditional American food" with ketchup, corn dogs, hamburgers, and enriched white bread. That's a pretty shallow assessment when we've long been known as a "cultural melting pot." In reality, cultural and historical influences dictate our country's regional cooking traditions. Southern, "soul food" (and yes, there's a difference between the two), Southwestern, New England, Tex-Mex, fusion, Midwestern, Creole.
Before the arrival of Europeans on North American soil just a few hundred years ago, indigenous cultures swapped recipes using native herbs, proteins, and vegetables, and these continue to influence much of our diet today. Those corn dogs? Maize. Anything with tomatoes in it? Straight-up Aztec and Incan. Which brings us right back to...
Eat local, Italian style
Italy's long history of cultural upheaval and trade brought international flavors and cooking styles to its culinary zeitgeist. Italians have artfully integrated into their cooking traditions, regional herbs, and exotic flavors introduced through the centuries, and even within Italy, cultural and historical influences affect the province-specific culinary character. Just ask any passionate chef from each of the country's 20 regions, and they'll tell you there is no such thing as Italian food. There's Piedmontese. Tuscan. Calabrian. Sicilian, with its notably Arabian influences, and so on. And the food from any individual's hometown is, naturalmente, the best of all.
Hungry for more knowledge?
Okay, Seed Needs friends and foodies, time to pour yourself a nice glass of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Keep the bottle close because you'll be sipping for a long, lovely time as you deep-dive into Francesca Bezzone's "The History of Italian Cuisine." Once you finish the four-part series, you'll scramble to order Italian herb seeds for your own kitchen garden and go on a tasting tour in your own kitchen with "Italian food: 1 great dish from each of Italy's 20 regions" by Donald Strachan.
Flavor profiles for Italian herbs
If you've been reading the plant spotlights on our gardening blog, you'll have noticed that most of our featured herbs are native to the climate-diverse Mediterranean region. That's a pretty big chunk of geography, and some of the core herbs we identify with old-school Italian cooking originate far from southern Europe's great big boot. Others have grown in the Italian sunshine since they traded their gills for roots and their fins for foliage.
Basil's described as having sweet, peppery, licorice tones, with several varieties expressing each quality in its own way. Basil complements the tomato's acidic flavor in pasta sauces, and it's delicately delicious when served fresh with tomato, mozzarella, and olive oil in Insalata Caprese. Basil is so prevalent in Italian cooking that you might be surprised to learn it's native to India.
Originally cultivated in Greece and often called Italian or "true" oregano, O. vulgare has a woodsy, mulchy, grassy flavor with a touch of citrus. It's a staple in tomato sauces, olive oil marinades, and vinegar-based dressings. Oregano is a favorite complement to red meats with strong or gamey flavor, including lamb, beef, boar, and goat.
Dried oregano packs a bigger punch than fresh, so be sure to adjust accordingly if your favorite Italian recipe calls for one or the other.
Some thyme variants (English and French thyme) are so similar in flavor to oregano that one can substitute for the other. Thyme's leaves are smaller and tougher, and its stems woodier than oregano, making the latter the better choice for more delicately-textured dishes. Those with delicate palettes will notice a stronger mint flavor in thyme than in oregano. When used together, thyme and oregano round each other out for a more robust overall flavor.
You know you're going to grow too much summer squash again this year. Half the fun of gardening is doorbell-ditching your neighbors and leaving bags of produce on their steps. Be less passive-aggressive about sharing this summer and invite them over for The Mediterranean Dish's Easy Baked Zucchini with Thyme and Parmesan instead, but make them bring the Pinot Grigio.
This herb steps in when its "sister herb" oregano might overpower delicate ingredients. It's considered milder and sweeter than oregano but shares most of its same flavor notes, overlapping with basil and thyme. Try this delicious chicken with lemon marjoram sauce recipe as the perfect example of this herb's delicate touch with dairy and poultry.
Sweet marjoram and (plain old) marjoram are the same plant. Pot marjoram (Origanum onites), on the other hand, is considered too bitter for culinary use. To confuse things further, oregano, with its very similar botanical name, is sometimes referred to as wild marjoram. In some countries, the words for marjoram and oregano are interchangeable.
Sage hails from hot southerly Meditteranean climates, including North Africa, but it's used throughout Italy. Northern provinces traditionally favor cooking with butter over olive oil, and there, sage is often sauteed for simple sauces or dribbled over chicken and game meat. Butter brings out and sweetens up sage's smokey, piney, somewhat bitter flavor.
Compare fresh leaves to fried with this salvia fritta recipe to get a sense of how cooking mellows its flavor. Or just skip right ahead to lobster ravioli with butter sage sauce. Make a double batch. We don't expect there to be any leftovers, but if there are, send them our way.
If you only had one Italian herb to add to roasted meats and potatoes or dishes with longer cooking times, rosemary's your best choice. Fresh rosemary and thyme leaves share a similar texture, but rosemary holds its flavor longer while thyme is a milder option for poultry, fish, and sautees. A rosemary sprig or two in a bottle of extra virgin olive oil served up with a loaf of olive bread tide you over until your rosemary and garlic roast beef is ready to serve.
Flat-leaf parsley is more flavorful than curly parsley, with a finer texture and sweeter taste. Both are attractive, palate-cleansing garnishes that enhance the flavors of its fellow ingredients. Flat-leaf parsley is a popular seasoning for soups and a filler for pesto recipes. And it's the star of gremolata, a traditional Italian herbal condiment made from Italian parsley, garlic, and lemon zest, often with anchovy paste and a dash of olive oil. Gremolata goes with everything from braised meats to seafood, and a fresh batch will last for several days in the fridge.
Flat-leaf parsley looks a lot like cilantro, so don't pick the wrong herb from your garden or grocery store!
Make your own Italian seasoning blend from home-grown herbs
Remember when we said store-bought herb blends are convenient to have on hand? That's still true! Most of these are among the easiest herbs to grow from seed, and you can dry them at home to get you through until the next crop.
The core ingredients for Italian seasoning blends usually include one part each basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and marjoram. Start with these and experiment with sage, dried parsley, and other complementary seasonings according to your personal taste. There's no reason you can't label different blends "Italian seasoning + red peppers," for example, or come up with something cute like "Smoky Italian seasoning with extra sage."
We recommend grinding herbs individually with a coffee grinder, mortar, and pestle, or small food processor until you get the texture you like before combining them with others. If you save herbs in bulk, don't grind them until you're ready to create a blend or use them individually as breaking them down shortens their effective life. Store your herbs in airtight containers in a cool, dry place and, as with other perishables, write the date and name on each container.
Grow fresh Italian herbs from seed
What grows well in Italy generally grows easily here in North America. Choose individual herb varieties or our Italian culinary herb collection to grow your own seasonings at home. The more tender herbs thrive as container plants indoors or out if given plenty of light; sage and rosemary do best outside between zones 5 and 8.
What's your favorite Italian herb? Can you trace a family recipe back to its geographical roots? Share your traditions with us, and let us know how we can help you grow a successful, flavorful garden this year!
(Just don't tell your grandmother we drink our wine out of a box).