A dish that specifies fresh herbs, needs fresh herbs. Dried substitutes, most of the time, just won’t cut it. When I first moved back to Manila in 1995, the variety of fresh herbs was dismal. But things have really improved in the past few years; recently, I have had very good luck finding superb fresh dill, rosemary, basil, oregano, parsely, mint, cilantro or coriander, tarragon, etc. Near the organic section at Rustan’s Rockwell there are (deliveries 2x a week, I think) great herbs conveniently packaged in clear waterproof cello bags– stock up if you get there soon after a delivery. These herbs are raised by a small farm in Tagaytay and they were first sold through the Bonifacio weekend market months before the Market!Market! mall opened. They still sell at Market!Market! on Friday and Saturday but they take up just half a stall so it can be difficult to find them. These more western herbs join more Asian herbs such as lemongrass, pandan, kaffir lime, garlic chives, chinese celery, thai basil, etc. to provide a much broader selection than was available just a few years ago.
Fresh herbs raised by other farms or consolidators are also making their way into groceries, markets and food stores around the city. Supply is still somewhat erratic but getting better. I strongly suggest that you encourage the growers by buying one or two packages of herbs a week and as the volume grows, consistency or availablity should improve. Recent finds in fits and starts include fresh thyme, sage, chives, fennel, borage(!), etc. Antonio’s in Tagaytay often sells herbs to Santis, Gourmet Farms also stocks a nice selection and the larger groceries are making more of an effort to stock fresh herbs.
Last weekend I was amazed to find a huge selection of live herbs at the entrance to the FTI weekend market at Taguig. The vendor had hundreds of black plastic bags with young herbs and these were the seven that I picked up (actually bought six and he threw in the seventh for free). So let me write a few words on each starting from the top to bottom photo and identifying herbs from left to right. The top photo has the following three herbs:
Tarragon – There are two types but this is French tarragon, perhaps best known as an essential ingredient in a bearnaise sauce. It can have a sweet tinge to its flavor that goes well with egg and cheese based dishes, white sauces with poultry and pork. Some people take fresh tarragon sprigs and throw it into a cup of hot water for a tarragon infusion. I am not big on infusions. Also good as a vinegar flavoring.
Opal Basil – A member of the Basil family, this variety has purple or reddish leaves that have a medium intensity basil flavor. Attractive in salads it looks great against white mozzarella, yellow peppers, etc. A nice alternative to the more common “sweet” green basil.
Basil – the more common green basil is now grown in abundance and is almost always available. Unfortunately, I believe basil grown in the tropics can take on a rather grassy flavor if it is allowed to grow too old or big. Pesto made with basil here sometimes tasty like freshly hewn lawn grass…well, maybe I exaggerate a bit. Nevertheless, I am very happy this herb is readily available as it is indispensible to my spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil, my tomato salads, etc.
The second photo includes:
Lemon Balm – A fragrant herb that has leaves very similar to mint. It is useful in fruit salads, added to mayonnaise and other white sauces for fish and blended in vinegars. I was just happy to find something unusual…
Mint – This is just one of over 600 varieties of mint. It is excellent as a garnish for fruit salad, included in vietnamese spring rolls or pho, with sauces for lamb, etc. Also an excellent garnish for desserts and drinks. Freeze it in individual ice cubes and put in ice tea in case you have nothing else to do.
Oregano/Marjoram – Lots of varieties in this familybut overall oregano has a distinctive flavor that is often tasted in Italian cuisine such as pasta sauces, marinades, in breads, etc. You can also apparently use it to infuse aroma into your bath (yuck, if you ask me) or as a hair conditioning agent. Experiment.
Chives – The third photo is a pot of chives which is a member of the onion family and imparts a slight oniony flavor to dishes. I find it difficult to get chives on a predictable basis so I just bought a pack of seeds yesterday to try and grow my own. Will let you know if they thrive.
The herbs from FTI were a bargain at 3 for P100. They are as fresh as you can get and if you have a green thumb will thrive in your kitchen garden.
This is just Part I of my entries on herbs. Look for a Part II soon.