Sunday Dinner

Use Herbs with Abandon (with a Little Help from Tom's 5 Herb Tips)

June  5, 2013

Sunday Dinners comes to us from our own chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld, featuring his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.

Today: There's no reason not to grow your own herbs and use them generously (with help from Tom's 5 Herb Tips).

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If I didn't already have a list of reasons I need lots of herbs in my life, Italian Salsa Verde (green sauce) alone would be enough to convince me. It's delicious on almost anything. Take my dinner tonight: salsa verde is outstanding on steak and takes long-cooked kale up a notch. And when I got a little on my baked potato with sour cream, it was no longer a plain old baked potato. It was sublime.

More: Don't just eat your herbs, drink them too. Use home-grown herbs to make a refreshing herbal iced tea.

But salsa verde is just one use for the many herbs out there. In my garden alone I have tarragon, marjoram, chives, thyme, lovage, sage, oregano, and savory at my fingertips. The basil, dill, rosemary, and lemongrass aren’t far behind.

The herb garden is booming. I am reckless with how much I cut and I use the minced leaves with abandon in my cooking. It’s like it rains cilantro or parsley onto each and every plate. Call me a romantic, but I can’t imagine not having these aromatics just outside my kitchen door or at least at my side. Growing and using fresh herbs makes me feel like I am more than a good cook. It is extremely satisfying in a self-reliant way.

Besides, I can’t tell you how many times I have kicked myself for buying herbs in the plastic clamshell. I've been gardening for some 15 years, so I buy them rarely -- generally only in the deep dark depths of winter when their bright sunshiny taste is most tempting. But it really irks me when I do.

This year I managed to keep control of myself. I avoided paying too much or feeling remorseful during the walk of shame to the register. Am I the only one who feels a sense of guilt for buying these? In addition to the high price, I also feel guilty because of the clamshell packaging. I feel the same way about salad greens packaged in this same manner. I know for certain that I don’t feel this way when I buy a small bouquet of herbs or a head of lettuce. Am I right in feeling that herbs and vegetables in clamshells seem unnatural?

Imagine that part of your prep is grabbing a pair of scissors and heading to the back door. A small basket in one hand, bees buzzing around the herbs that have blossomed, you run your hand through the lavender, bring your hand to your nose, and inhale the deep aroma. Any tensions or stress you might have drift away with the gentle breeze.

One of the best things about herbs, besides being edible, is that anyone, no matter their locale, can grow them. Even the most adamant of city dwellers can have a pot or two on the window making their apartment smell wonderful. Those who live in suburban subdivisions with manicured lawns and association rules can sneak a few into the landscape since many herbs make great ground cover and have beautiful flowers. If all else fails, there is always an herb guy at the greenmarket peddling little bundles of herbs, the good stuff tied with twine or rubber bands that emits an aroma that gets all Pavlov on you.

In other words I can’t think of a single reason not to use fresh herbs, in everything and with abandon. As if I needed further convincing, Italian salsa verde remedies any doubts I might have.

More: How to start your own herb garden in beds or pots.

Tom's Herb Tips

1. Explore the world of herbs. Diversify and try. Tear off a leaf and taste. If you don't like the flavor, move on.

2. Fresh herbs are generally best when added toward the end of cooking. They freshen up all the other flavors.

3. Not all herbs are universally loved. Lots of people don't like cilantro because it tastes like soap to them. Fresh sage also takes on a soapy flavor if it is left too long in raw, moist foods like hamburgers or sausages.

4. Some people find it easier to use scissors, rather than a knife, to snip and mince their herbs.

5. Some herbs, like basil, turn black at the edges when you cut them with a knife. Many people tear the herbs or use scissors to prevent this rotten spinach look, though there is no harm in the edges turning back.

Italian Salsa Verde

Yields 1/2 cup plus 

2 teaspoons marjoram, minced
3 tablespoons Italian flat leaf parsley, minced
1 teaspoon garlic smear
1 tablespoon Fresno pepper, minced or other hot pepper
1 tablespoon capers, minced
1 1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Tom Hirschfeld. 

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Oui, Chef
    Oui, Chef
  • amysarah
  • fiveandspice
  • Kitchen Butterfly
    Kitchen Butterfly
  • Trena Heinrich
    Trena Heinrich
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Oui, C. June 10, 2013
Great photos Tom...I can smell that salsa verde from here.
amysarah June 5, 2013
There's almost always a bowl of salsa verde in the fridge in the summer. The perfect foil for anything with a fatty-ness - grilled/roast lamb, salmon, pork. Also drizzled over fresh mozzarella w/tomato.
Author Comment
thirschfeld June 6, 2013
I think I like it better on day 2.
fiveandspice June 5, 2013
Salsa verde is probably my very favorite condiment. I use it to excess through the summer, and love every moment of it. Great tips!
Kitchen B. June 5, 2013
I had recently tasted a superb lemongrass creme brulee at my sister's makes my pot of lemongrass so much more to lay my hands on a blow torch that I can take on an airplane or get to Nigeria somehow!
Kitchen B. June 5, 2013
After living with the wonder that having an herb garden is - basil (three ways), savoury (thyme's cousin), cilantro and life has been transformed. Herbs are such great tastemakers and you do them great justice here.

Hurray for herbs!!!
Trena H. June 5, 2013
I really enjoyed reading this article Tom...nice job! I'm glad you pointed out how easy it is to grow herbs, they actually prefer "lean" or poor soils. I enjoy giving friends herbs as gifts. One of my favorite ways to propagate woody herbs like rosemary, thyme, and oregano is by a technique called layering. Simply take a stem from the plant, nick an inch of the stem with a sharp knife, and bury this section in about 1/2" of soil. In about a month this section will grow roots. At this point you may cut the stem from the larger plant and repot for friends and neighbors.
Author Comment
thirschfeld June 5, 2013
I did that with my sage this year! It is a great way to propagate your herb garden.
Kitchen B. June 5, 2013
Thanks for the tip Trena!!!!
hardlikearmour June 5, 2013
Gorgeous photos as usual! I really love the tarragon with the leaf hopper.
Author Comment
thirschfeld June 5, 2013
Thanks so much! I am looking forward to trying your green harissa