There is nothing better than creating a culinary masterpiece with fresh ingredients from the garden. Nostalgia reigns when I think about visiting my aunts and uncles who immigrated from Sicily.
Most of my relatives moved to New Jersey after they reached American soil. They continued life as if they were still in the homeland. Of course, since the Northeast has winter, they had to rely on the spring, summer, and fall months to perfect their personal gardens.
They had everything, but mostly I remember the smell of the overabundant green.
Did you know that there were times in the early days of ancient Rome when food was prepared without additional flavors added? A very smart cook began using herbs and spices to intensify the flavors of the food. Once the flavors became popular, cooks all over Italy started to grow herbs and use them in meals.
The cuisine changed radically during the Roman Empire from simple to stronger flavors because the cooks were using herbs and spices. In the first cookbook written in the 1st century AD, recipes called for many herbs and spices.
Here are 5 herbs a Sicilian cook needs in the garden.
To me, nothing smells as fresh and aromatic as basil. It adds an anise flavor to the dish.
Basil actually came to Europe through the spice trade from India. Basil goes well with cheeses, tomatoes, garlic, and lemon.
The main ingredient in pesto is basil. If you love pesto sauce, you love basil. Pesto is simply freshly picked basil leaves mixed in with pine nuts, Romano cheese, olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper.
Basil also flavors up tomatoes as in this tomato basil salad.
Tomato Basil Salad
- 10 cherry tomatoes
- 8 Kalamata olives (pitted) whole or sliced
- 10 basil leaves whole
- ½ head Romaine lettuce washed, dried, and torn apart
- 1 cup thickly shredded mozzarella cheese or mozzarella balls
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
- real salt to taste (I do about 8 good shakes)
- freshly ground pepper to taste
- Set lettuce, tomatoes, and olives on a platter.
- Add mozzarella and basil on top.
- Mix olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper in a pyrex cup. Pour over salad evenly.
Italian Parsley (Flat leaf)
As an Italian cook, parsley is my most precious herb. I use it in everything. I use it specifically in my meatballs, meatloaf, soups, stews, and all my frittatas. Flat-leaf parsley has more flavor than the curly variety.
Vitamins A, B, C, iron, iodine, and magnesium are its health benefits. By the way, parsley is a great breath freshener.
Did you know that you can make pesto with parsley as well as basil?
- 2⅓ cups parsley
- ⅓ cup walnuts
- ⅓ cup fresh Romano cheese grated
- 2 cloves garlic
- ½ tsp sea salt
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ½ tsp freshly ground pepper
- Put parsley, walnuts, cheese, garlic, salt, and pepper in a food processor and combine for a few seconds.
- Scrape down the edges of the food processor. Drizzle olive oil while th machine is running for about 20 to 30 seconds.
- Refrigerate until ready to use. This will last several days.
Dot, my mom loved oregano. She put it on chicken, salads, fish, and many other foods. Italian oregano is milder than Greek oregano. If you like a stronger flavor, you would probably prefer the Greek variety.
Ironically, oregano is used mostly in Sicilian food. Use it in its dry form for more flavor.
This herb has a lot of Omega-3s, iron, manganese, and antioxidants. It is also used as an essential oil because of its antibacterial properties.
Here is a really easy recipe for chicken oregano.
- 6 chicken legs skinned
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 lemons juiced
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 1 ½ tbsp. dried oregano
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
- Combine olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, oregano, and garlic. Mix well.
- Place chicken in an ungreased 7x11 inch baking dish. Pour the mixture over the chicken.
- Bake for 30 minutes. Check chicken for redness to be sure it is completely cooked.
Savory is also a member of the mint family. The two varieties are:
- Summer savory, an annual
- Winter savory, a perennial
Mix many herbs together for this wonderful version of Italian seasoning.
- 1 tbsp. dried basil
- 1 tbsp. dried oregano
- 1 tbsp. dried rosemary
- 1 tbsp. dried marjoram
- 1 tbsp. dried thyme
- 1 tbsp. coriander
- 1 tbsp. summer savory
- Mix all of the herbs and store in an air-tight jar.
I was surprised at this. Rosemary is actually an Italian evergreen shrub used for culinary purposes. It is great for preparing roasted potatoes, mushrooms, and many more vegetables. The flowers on it are attractive to honey bees.
Rosemary has a long symbolic history. It was presented as a token of friendship and a way to chase away bad dreams. Its health properties include iron, calcium, dietary fiber, and antioxidants.
This recipe is inspired by Ina Garten and it is one of my favorites.
- 1 ½ lb. small red potatoes
- ⅛ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ¾ tsp. salt
- ½ tsp. freshly ground pepper
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 2 tbsp. minced fresh rosemary leaves
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- Cut the potatoes in half or quarters and place in a bowl with the olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic., and rosemary.
- Toss until the potatoes are well-coated.
- Spread the potatoes into 1 layer on a baking sheet.
- Roast in the oven for at least 1 hour, or until browned and crisp. Flip twice with a spatula during cooking to ensure even browning.
- Remove the potatoes from the oven; season to taste, and serve.
Half the fun of cooking is to experiment with different herbs and spices. To be honest, I was rather in a rut until I retired from corporate America. Now I have the time to cook and create new gourmet creations. The best part is that I get to share my masterpieces with you.