When I think of herbs for Christmas, I always think of the Simon and Garfunkel Scarborough Fair song: “Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.” Sure there other herbs and plenty of spices but these herbs seem to be the most popular during the holidays. I think it is because these plants are still green in the garden. In my zone 7 Virginia garden, I can still harvest in December to use in the kitchen. I also use mint for the holidays which overwinter well in containers.
The trick to using these herbs for the holidays is to think of the plant itself, the structure, size, weight and texture of the branches and leaves. Don’t limit yourself to the flavor. Imagine how the stem or leaf can be used to decorate the dish and your table.
Parsley is a biennial plant, hardy to zone 4. It grows to about a foot tall the first year and then flowers and sets seed the second year. There is the curly type and the flat leaf type. For flavor, use the flat leaf type. The curly type is great for garnishing. In my garden, I sow seed every year to have fresh parsley. We have mild winters so the plant remains evergreen all winter long. Parsley is best used fresh. It has a very delicate leaf structure and stem that will wilt easily. Compared with these other herbs, parsley has a relatively benign fragrance. This makes it an ideal garnish; however, it wilts too fast to use as a holiday decoration. But picture the color of green parsley in a red cranberry dish or the pretty scalloped leaves – or tightly curled leaves — in a bowl of mashed potatoes for interest.
Parsley mixes well with garlic and butter, either melted butter or a parsley/butter mix for the table. To make parsley butter, simply add a few tablespoons of chopped, fresh leaves to a stick of butter that has softened. Mix and put in the fridge to harden again or put in molds. Parsley with garlic can be added to stuffing or a breadcrumb topping for a casserole dish. Parsley and other herbs can be added to roasted vegetables, including roasted potatoes. Melted parsley butter is great with seafood, especially lobsters and shrimp.
Sage is a perennial plant that becomes a small woody shrub. It is hardy to zone 4 and remains evergreen during the winter months. Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) has green leaves but there are many other types of sages with variegated leaves, blue-green leaves, or even broader leaves. All sages are edible. Edible in this case means it won’t harm you. However, they may not be as tasty as Salvia officinalis. Use the culinary sage for cooking but if you have other sages, look at their leaves for decorative uses. The leaves are thick and large enough they can be used for decoration if cut a few days in advance. For example, tie a sprig of sage and rosemary with red ribbon and put on the place settings. Add variegated sage to floral arrangements. Use varieties with large leaves such as Bergarrten to serve as a garnish for vegetable dishes, pumpkin pie, or sweet potato pie. With the large textured leaves, make butter pats and place on baked potatoes (pipe soft butter on sage leaf and place on tray and then place in fridge to harden).
Traditionally, sage is used in stuffing or dressing and as a poultry rub. Sage works well with cooked corn, cornbread, and corn chowder. Sage can be added to cheese spreads, potatoes, roasted vegetables, squash, sweet potato, and Brussel sprouts. Sage pairs well with citrus fruits.
Rosemary is a perennial that grows to be a large woody shrub, several feet tall. It is marginally hardy in the DC metro area so it is best to pick a cultivar that is known for being hardy such as ‘Arp’, ‘Hill Hardy’, ‘Nancy Howard’, ‘Dutch Mill’, and ‘Salem’. Rosemary is a great plant to have in the garden — it has many uses. Because the long stems are flexible and the leaves do not dry out quickly, you can use rosemary for decorating as well as cooking. Cut a 6 to 8-inch branch, roll in a circle, and tie with florist wire. Attach decorations and color with a hot glue gun such as small cones, plaid bows, and red berries to making a small wreath. Or don’t add anything and use to wrap around candles and napkins. Rosemary stems can be inserted in glass vases with red and white candy canes, added to any floral arrangement, or placed on a platter, under a turkey or ham.
In the kitchen, rosemary is great on roasted vegetables, biscuits, pork, as a poultry rub, or with butter. It does well with yeast breads, rolls, and biscuits, and stuffing or dressing. It also pairs well with apple and pear desserts. If you are making a mulled wine or mulled apple cider, considering adding a sprig of rosemary as a stirrer.
Rosemary may be blooming by Christmas and the flowers are edible so consider garnishing your vegetables with the delicate lavender blossoms. The small rosemary plants that are for sale during the holidays can serve as table-top Christmas trees by adding mini-lights, balls, and bows.
Thyme is a perennial groundcover that is hardy to zone 5. Thyme has thin, wiry stems and small leaves. Because the leaves are small and lightweight, they are ideal for “confetti” on small appetizers or on a thick chowder. The stems themselves are too brittle to use for decoration but if you have an indoor floral or green arrangement, you can insert a chunk of your thyme (pulled from your plant in the garden) to spill over the edges of the container as a “spiller.”
Thyme is great in yeast rolls and biscuits; cooked vegetable such as carrots, squash, and mushrooms; cheese spreads; potato; pork; seafood; stuffing; and dressing. Thyme pairs well with butter and garlic. As with sage, there are many types of thyme that are all edible, but the flavor may vary. There are plants with silver leaves, plants with gold edged leaves, and plants with gold leaves. These can be used as decoration. Then there are “flavored” thymes such as orange, lemon, or coconut which work well in baked goods. Consider lemon thyme pound cake or orange thyme cookies.
Mint is an herbaceous perennial hardy to zone 5. If you are growing mint, grow only in a container. Fortunately, mint is so hardy that it will survive winters in containers. Mint roots very easily. If you are going to use a lot of mint in your holiday baking, you can take cuttings in the fall to increase your plants. You can even take cuttings so you can give mint plants as gifts, tied with a red bow and a recipe card.
There are many types of mint but during the holidays, spearmint and peppermint are the most popular. These leaves do not wilt quickly; they are firm with texture. This makes them ideal for garnishing and decorating baked goods. Place mint leaves on cupcakes, cakes, fruit salads, and use as a garnish for drinks.
Chopped fresh peppermint leaves can be added to chocolate chip cookie dough or a brownie mix. A sprig of peppermint can be added to hot cocoa, like a stirrer. A decorative glasses can be filled with peppermint sprigs and peppermint candy canes. Add crushed spearmint leaves to whipped cream and add to fresh fruit. Use spearmint to make a jelly for pork or lamb or add to cooked carrots or peas.
Make a simple syrup with mint and pour over fruit salad, add to a drink, or use when baking. Make a syrup by boiling one cup water with one cup sugar in a small saucepan. Add one cup of fresh herbs and smash the leaves up against the pot with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 15 minutes, cool and strain and pour the syrup in glass jar. Keep in the fridge for a few weeks.
These are just ideas to get you started. You will find that once you start working with the herb, seeing the leaves and smelling the aroma, you will get inspired to use these herbs in many ways. If you think of more decorating tips or recipes, please let me know or add them to the Facebook group called Culinary Herbs and Spices.