Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme
By Dennis Linden
Long before this well-known quartet of herbs found fame grouped in the catchy refrain of a medieval English ballad, revived in 1966 by Simon & Garfunkel, all four had enjoyed top billing in Mediterranean cuisine for centuries. The lyrics of that ancient song refer to a seasonal fair in the small town of Scarborough on the coast of England in the 1600s. However, the actual herbs named in the lyrics were the influence of those conquering Romans, as in Empire, who had occupied the region for some five-hundred years (100 BC to 400 AD-ish) over a thousand years before there was a Scarborough.
One would think that 500 years would be plenty of time for the Roman style of cooking with fresh herbs to seep into the English diet, obviously not. Instead, herbs in Britain were used for their much touted medicinal, mythical and spiritual attributes, while pretty much ignoring their culinary potential. I found reams of scholarly papers on the Internet analyzing the meaning of the herbs mentioned in that 1966 hit song. Most all explain them as symbols of the virtues that were important to a man trying to attain his true love as the lyrics portray. In those times parsley was a symbol of comfort, sage was strength, rosemary was love and thyme stood for courage. No one seemed to notice how much these essential herbs might flavor a cooking pot. Those silly, deep-fried, English sure missed out on a culinary opportunity, choosing to order meat pies and fish ’n chips instead!
While the fresh herbs in a recipe usually appear at the end of most ingredient lists, it has nothing to do with their importance to the formula – just try cooking without them! That’s not the bottom of the ingredient list; it’s the foundation. I am not sure about all those scholarly theories on what these four herbs meant in jolly ol’ England. I do know that each has a wholly unique flavor that can affect the taste of various food groups and dishes very differently. Knowing those differences and how to use them in balance with the other componets in a recipe is what separates the cook from the chef.
Most retail produce departments carry two varieties of this most common of all herbs: curly-leaf parsley and the more strongly flavored Italian or flat-leaf parsley. Both have a slightly peppery taste, with the Italian parsley having the more pronounced flavor of the two. For culinary purposes Italian parsley is much preferred.
Whenever garlic is used, parsley is a must pairing. Because of the high chlorophyll content, parsley can act as a great breath freshener. Related to this characteristic, use parsley to counter-balance and round out powerful flavors, making it an ideal complement for spicy dishes and salsas.
Parsley enhances and defines the taste and texture of just about all seafood preparations. It is also frequently mixed into vegetable side dishes, especially complementing potatoes, zucchini and fresh peppers. In Middle Eastern cuisine, parsley is the one of the main ingredients in tabbouleh, a salad using bulgur. It is also the herb of choice when stuffing for grape leaves.
Italian parsley is a wonderful complement to pasta sauces - especially seafood and vegetable sauces. However, it's best to add parsley to a sauce after the pot has been removed from the flame or as the final touch to the serving dish.
A member of the mint family, the medicinal history of sage does come to play in its use in the kitchen. Meaning, sage has always been considered a great aid to digestion; so it makes sense that, as a flavoring, the herb is an excellent complement to fatty meats such as pork, sausage, goose, and lamb. Sage also pairs well with a mild cheese, like a smoked mozzarella or Fontina, just a sprinkle on top!
To add a wonderful smoky aroma to your favorite grilled dishes, try tossing the stems or leaves of fresh sage on the hot embers during the cooking process. For a slow, aromatic steaming soak the leaves in water first. Slow cooking tends to mellow out sage; for fullest flavor in soups and stews, add after the pot has been taken off flame, then let sit covered for a few moments before serving, When roasting chicken, tuck whole sprigs of sage under the skin so the herb’s subtle flavor get absorbed into the meat as it cooks.
Rosemary is very hardy in appearance, somewhat resembling the pine needles of a fir tree. This toughness carries through as a culinary ingredient -- rosemary does not lose its flavor by long cooking. Rosemary is one of the most aromatic and pungent of all the herbs. The needle-like leaves have a pronounced lemon-pine flavor that is very strong, use a light hand.
Rosemary and lamb dishes of any kind seem to go together, like peas with carrots. Try a one-hour marinade in rosemary, fresh garlic and lemon juice for those chops before grilling – delicious! Actually the same marinade could be used on chicken or pork.
I prefer to use whole sprigs to flavor soups or sauces. However, the needle-like leaves have an unpleasant texture and pungency that will skew the intended flavor of a dish. It is best to extract Rosemary’s powerful flavor by steeping it for a time, then remove the sprigs before serving.
Unlike rosemary, which tends to dominate a dish, thyme shares the spotlight with other spices evenly. When cooking with thyme be sure to add it early in the process so the oils and flavor have time to be released. The tiny leaves are easily removed from the stems by pulling the stems through the fingers from top to bottom, against the direction of the leaves. Six average sprigs will yield about a tablespoon of leaves. Lightly crush the leaves before adding them, which will releases the herb’s flavorful oils.
There are two types that are mainly used in cooking: common thyme and lemon thyme. Both have a sweet, mildly pungent flavor. Lemon Thyme, as its name infers, does have a citrus aftertaste and lemony aroma. Lemon thyme is especially suited for fish and poultry dishes.
Common Thyme is an extremely versatile flavoring. The herb is a key supporting ingredient in Southern Italian cuisine because it works so well with the other two traditional pasta sauce components of the region, namely fresh peppers and eggplant. Whole sprigs of fresh thyme are also a great addition to the winter roasting pan, whether it be a red meat, poultry or even just root vegetables. Like rosemary, the tough woody stems necessitate that sprigs be removed before serving. While thyme simmers well, it can also be added to a dish just before serving as the herb seems to help bring the other flavors in any dish into sharper focus.
As for combining these four popular herbs into song lyrics that became both a platinum hit and a movie soundtrack (The Graduate, 1968), there was some controversy over giving due credit for this “recipe” of words. It seems that the lyrics of “Scarborough Fair” resembled [word-for-word] a folk ballad published in London in 1889 and recorded by several others, the earliest being in 1955. However, Simon & Garfunkel were credited as the sole “authors” of the song on their 1966 album entitled Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. This apparently riled some of the duo’s folk music friends who knew the true pedigree of the song and the situation caused a riff in friendships that lasted decades. This detail of authorship was finally acknowledged by the duet at a London concert in 2000. Just a little value-added musical history to enhance your knowledge of these four very essential herbs!