Italian cooking uses the freshest ingredients and would not be complete without the distinctive flavor of garlic and fresh herbs. When Gretchen and I took cooking classes in Florence, I remember being impressed with the way our chef instructor would rush out the back door of the kitchen and pick fresh herbs from pots in the back yard to use in the recipes he was preparing. Parsley, basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, and garlic, although not an herb, are essential to Italian cooking.
Garlic is a member of the onion family and is one of the most essential flavorings used in Italian cooking. Italians consumed 108 million pounds of garlic in 2006, a 4 percent increase over the previous year, according to Coldiretti, Italy’s leading farmers association. Garlic is a bulbous plant of the genus allium. It grows underground in large bulbs or “heads” with a papery skin. Inside each head are anywhere from 10 to 20 cloves. Garlic’s most well known medicinal property is that of an antibiotic, as the allicin in raw, crushed garlic has been shown to kill 23 types of bacteria. It has also historically been used for repelling mosquitos and scorpions, treating dog bites and to increase stamina. Vitamins A, B, and C, in garlic stimulate the body to fight carcinogens and get rid of toxins, and may even aid in preventing certain types of cancer, such as stomach cancer. Garlic’s sulfur compounds can regulate blood sugar metabolism, stimulate and detoxify the liver, and stimulate the blood circulation and the nervous system. Garlic is found in a variety of sausages and salamis and is used in recipes to flavor meats and sauces.
Flat-leaf Italian parsley is much more flavorful than the curly, decorative variety that we use most often in the U.S. Its medicinal properties include use as a breath freshener, digestive aid, and in tea to treat high blood pressure and rheumatism. Because it is high in vitamins A and C, it has also been used as a quinine substitute to treat malaria. Parsley is used in meat marinades, soup stock, vegetable dishes and as a colorful garnish. The Greek word for basil, basilikon, means “regal herb.”
Basil is prolific throughout the Mediterranean region but grows primarily in summer, although it can be cultivated during the other seasons in greenhouses. The most common variety of basil is Sweet Italian Large Leaf, although Genovese Basil is also used. One variety of basil, Ocimum gratissimum, is believed to have mosquito-repellent properties. Basil, combined with oil, garlic and pine nuts is the essential ingredient in fresh pesto sauce. Basil also complements tomato sauces and is essential in the classic Caprese salad – tomato, mozzarella di bufala and basil drizzled with olive oil.
The name “oregano” comes from the Greek words oros, for mountain, and ganos, for splendor. This aromatic herb is a perennial that grows wild in the mountains and flourishes in late summer, in warm, sunny fields. Its delicate flowers have a reddish-pink tint and thick, dark green, velvety leaves. Oregano has been used for various medicinal purposes throughout history. Its pure oil extract helps in the reduction of tooth pain and when poured directly into the tooth cavity, it acts as an analgesic. In cooking, oregano compliments tomatoes and olive oil, and is an essential seasoning for pizza. It is often sprinkled on bruschetta, and included in meat marinades.
Rosemary has a tea-like aroma and piney flavor. It is a spiky perennial bush common to the coastal regions of Italy and other Mediterranean countries, characterized by silvery green leaves similar to pine needles. It is a symbol or remembrance and friendship. Rosemary is used to relax muscles, calm nerves and as an antiseptic. It is a wonderful addition to potatoes and roasted meats like lamb, pork, chicken, and rabbit, and is added to foccacia bread.
“Sage” derives its name from the Latin salus, for health, and refers to the herb’s curative properties. An evergreen perennial, sage flowers in early to late summer and flourishes in sandy, dry soil. Sage’s medicinal properties include stopping the bleeding of wounds, calming asthma attacks, stimulating menstrual flow and decreasing milk flow in lactating women. In lotion form, it is useful for treating sores and other skin problems. Also, as a hair rinse, it removes dandruff and gives hair a softer and shinier texture. Sage is one of the most commonly used herbs in Italian cooking. It seasons poultry, veal, rabbit, fish and butter-based pasta sauces without overshadowing other flavors.