Best Herbs for Soups and Stews
With the arrival of autumn, we start thinking about soups and stews.
It is with a sense of anticipation, not just because slowly simmered food is so delicious, but also becasue the act of cooking itself is so comforting. It’s a chance to chop, simmer and stir, to add a bit of this and a bit of that, perhaps a splash of wine, a squeeze of lemon, and let time work its magic. Let’s chat about the best herbs for soups and stews.
Vegetables – autumn carrots, leeks, onions and potatoes – form the base of most soups, hopefully picked from the garden. As winter progresses, the brassicas come to the party, with green or creamy soups based on cabbage, kale, broccoli or cauliflower. Stews, on the other hand, tend to be meaty, favouring lamb and beef cuts that need slow cooking, like chuck, shin and oxtail. All of these pair well with red wine, meaty stocks and robust herbs.
Herbs are the magic ingredient, giving comfort food its depth of flavour. There are two ways to use herbs for flavouring soup and stews: At the beginning: Add robust herbs like oregano, Italian parsley, bay leaf, rosemary, sage and thyme at the beginning of cooking so that their earthy, aromatic flavours become milder and infuse the dish. At the end: For a strong burst of flavour at the end of cooking, to round off a stew or soup, use herbs as a garnish, pesto, sauce or gremolata. Herbs like basil, dill, tarragon, lemon thyme, Italian parsley and coriander can add a bright, fresh tang.
Herb toppings for soups and stews
Gremolata is a zesty garnish or topping for beefy or tomato soup and other meaty dishes that would benefit from a hint of lemon. Classic gremolata consists of a cup of loosely packed parsley (finely chopped), a fresh clove of garlic (or garlic chives) and the zest from two lemons. First chop the parsley, then grate the garlic and lemon zest into the parsley. When that’s done, chop everything together – it can be a fine or a chunkier mix, depending on your taste. Let the flavours blend for an hour or two. Any excess can be stored in a sealed container in the fridge but should be used the following day.
Pistou is a sauce, very much like pesto, consisting of garlic, basil, Parmesan cheese and olive oil, that’s added as a dollop on to a rich, vegetable soup that includes potatoes, carrots, celery, baby marrows, greens beans, dried beans (like cannellini) and macaroni. Bay leaves and flat-leaf parsley are added during cooking. For the pistou sauce, chop and pound, or purée, 5 cloves of garlic with a generous handful of fresh basil leaves and sea salt. To the purée mixture, add 60g of Parmesan cheese and enough olive oil (about 3 tablespoons) to make a paste.
Herb and veggie pairings
There is a certain ‘sympatico’ between specific herbs and vegetables, as well as meat. Although taste preferences are subjective, here are some pairing suggestions.
- Broccoli and cauliflower: Parsley, chives, thyme
- Cabbage: Celery, chives, thyme, caraway seeds, fennel seeds
- Potato/carrot: Italian parsley, bay leaf, thyme
- Leeks: Coriander leaves, parsley, chervil, thyme, mint
- Kale: Parsley, oregano, thyme
- Chicken: Basil, parsley, tarragon
- Lamb: Parsley, oregano, rosemary Beef: Bay leaf, thyme, sage
Rosemary is a woody evergreen perennial that grows up to 2m tall in full sun and tolerates poor soil that drains well. It can be clipped as a hedge, shaped as a topiary or pruned into a standard. It grows well in large containers too. A good companion plant for most vegetables.
Cooking tip: Use sprigs of rosemary and remove at the end of cooking
Parsley is a frost-hardy biennial that is often grown as an annual. ‘Italian Giant’ flat-leaf parsley withstands frost and grows into a bigger plant (80cm tall). It has a better taste and withstands longer cooking. ‘Moss Curled’ is the traditional garden parsley (30 – 60cm high) that is added at the end of cooking. Parsley needs at least four hours sun a day, and deep, fertile soil that drains well. Fertilise monthly and water regularly. The soil should never dry out completely. Do not plant with mint.
Cooking tip: Parsley is part of the traditional bouquet garni (with thyme and bay) for flavouring slow-cooked meaty dishes.
Thyme is a small shrubby perennial that grows in full sun and all kinds of garden soil, as well as in pots and hanging baskets. It is drought and heat tolerant. Pick and trim regularly to prevent it from becoming woody.
Cooking tip: Lemon thyme is an aromatic flavouring for chicken soup and can be combined with parsley.
Thyme and oregano marinade
Herbs used in a marinade help to soften less expensive cuts of meat. Thyme and oregano are the herbs in this classic beef marinade, which can be stored in the fridge for up to five days. Whisk together ¼ cup red wine vinegar and 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce. Slowly drizzle in ¼ cup olive oil (or avocado oil) while whisking. Add 2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano, ½ teaspoon freshly chopped thyme, 1 or 2 cloves of minced garlic, and sea salt and pepper to taste. Let the mixture stand for about 10 minutes before using. Put the meat in a dish (not aluminium) and pour the marinade over the meat, and massage it into the meat. Cover and refrigerate for two hours or overnight. Turn the meat every now and then.
Sage is a compact perennial with aromatic grey-green leaves and spikes of white or blue flowers in spring. It grows up to 30cm. Plant in full sun and well-drained soil, and do not over water. Trim after flowering to keep its shape. It thrives on neglect.
Cooking tip: For a simple garnish that’s packed with flavour, fry sage leaves in a little butter and sprinkle the crisp leaves over the soup.
Sweet bay can be grown as a clipped evergreen shrub or allowed to reach its mature height as a 20m-tall tree. It likes a well-drained yet moist soil and grows in sun to semi-shade. It grows well in containers, and these should be moved into an area that is protected from frost in winter. Plants affected by frost will sprout new growth in spring.
Cooking tip: Sweet bay is an excellent flavouring for a meaty soup. Use the leaves dried or fresh, although drying reduces the bitterness, which is why bay leaves are traditionally used dry.
Oregano is a compact, bushy perennial that reaches 60cm, with dark green oval leaves and small pink flowers. It grows well in a pot. Plant in full sun, in well-drained soil. Water once a week. In cooler, wetter areas the flavour is milder. A spicier variation is oregano ‘Hot and Spicy’, which is a frost-hardy groundcover herb suitable for containers.
Cooking tip: Oregano adds zest to a tomato soup or where tomato is used as one of the main ingredients along with other vegetables, such as in Minestrone or Italian vegetable soup