You don’t need to limit certain herbs to certain dishes. Instead, we suggest that you get familiar with different herbs, their tastes, their effects on certain dishes, the way they react in sauces, and then you won’t have to limit yourself to rosemary with fish, or sage with game, or bay leaves with red meat. Tuscans make all kinds of dishes with all kinds of herbs. Our favorite common herbs are sage, basil, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, and bay leaves. Among the less common ones are fresh mint leaves, nepitella, catmint (catnip). We don’t follow any rules when using herbs; just the knowledge gained through trial and error, experimenting with how different tastes work together.
To become familiar with all the herbs, especially the ones mentioned, get to know them, experiment with them, and don’t be afraid to use them in different dishes. There are so many ways of changing the taste of different kinds of dishes, whether appetizers, pasta sauces, main courses, or even slices of bread. Nothing here is standardized; it’s a total improvisation based on an acquired knowledge of how these ingredients taste separately and an imagining of how they will taste together. Knowing the herbs, having this deep knowledge, allows you to generate so many varieties of dishes with just a few ingredients.
A few notes about our favorite herbs:
Basil goes well with just about everything, whether you use it fresh and raw or cooked in a sauce. It is not pungent tasting, although it is aromatic. Always use fresh basil.
Bay leaves are extremely fragrant and have a sour bite that goes well with the sweet taste of kidneys, sweetbreads, and livers.
Mint is delicious added to salads, sauces, and game, but always add it at the end of the cooking process. Only use it fresh.
This herb grows wild at high altitudes. It was known for its medicinal properties, but now it’s used mostly in the kitchen. It is excellent with potatoes, rice, tomatoes, and roasts.
Among the aromatic herbs used in Tuscany, rosemary is one of the most well known, most used, and many people think the best tasting. Sprigs of rosemary are often used as a basting brush. Dip a full branch in olive oil and brush it on whatever you’re grilling.
Sage is excellent with roasted meat, but also good with stew, game, and even fish. Always use it fresh–and add it at the end of the cooking process.
This herb makes a good addition to sauces. Add it at the end of the cooking process, or you’ll lose the aroma. Always use it fresh.