Incorporating fresh herbs into dishes has long been a vital component. What’s Sunday Sauce without basil, or a mojito without mint? Most restaurant folks wouldn’t want to know. But for those looking to push boundaries, less familiar herbs that excite and entice now trend with diners more than ever.
For Mister Mao chef Sophina Uong, fresh herbs regularly keep her New Orleans diners on their toes. “We often use herbs to cool or refresh the palate between savory and fiery bites,” she explains. Her Vietnamese salad, served from a roving cart, features rau rum and sawtooth. Indian curry leaves fold into oils for major flavoring power. “Our guests appreciate our varied cooking styles and are excited by what is new for them to try,” she says.
At Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn, executive pastry chef Caroline Schiff gets particularly excited by herbs that bring everything up a notch. “Thyme is lovely, but lemon thyme is even more fun,” she explains. “Anise hyssop is just bonkers – the leaves are naturally sweet and taste like Good & Plenty.” Many of her dishes feature one seasonal ingredient and an unexpected corresponding flavor or texture, folded into a somewhat traditional pastry format. “I want diners to think they know what they’re getting. But then, at first bite, to blow their minds just a little bit,” she says. “That’s what great desserts should do.”
For New York mixologist Daniel Bedoya, unexpected herbs help him blend creativity and authenticity in every cocktail. “Using new ingredients not only sharpens you as an artist, but also brings that X factor guests are looking for,” he says. Bedoya uses natural sweeteners like honey and palm sugar to gently enhance the inherent sweetness of featured spirits. Adding fresh vegetables and herbs then deepens flavor and aroma, while also contributing immune-boosting health benefits. Unexpected herbs like tarragon and mint dipped in edible gold bring on intrigue. “New Yorkers love to be in-the-know of new trends,” he says. “If they walk out of your bar having learned something new or wanting to experiment with an ingredient, they’ll come back for more.”
Not sure where to start? These six next-generation herbs guarantee such taste bud explosions.
Recipes from this article:
This one is a bit of an enigma. A hybrid of water mint, spearmint and orange mint, some think the chocolaty aroma is a hoax coaxed out of our natural association of mint and chocolate. “I, however, am a true believer,” says Schiff. “Sniff it side by side with conventional mint. I promise, it’ll blow your mind.” She particularly loves to make Chocolate Mint Ice Cream during the holidays where, infused into dairy, it produces an almost indiscernible pale green hue. “You’re completely blindsided when at first bite there’s a whiff of dark chocolate,” she says. “It’s like a natural thin mint.”
Uong utilizes its underlying citrusy notes in both sweet hot chocolate and savory eggplant purées. Try it in lemonade, stuffed in the glass of a mint julep or infused into sugar for use as cocktail rimmer, too. Infuse into sugar and use in brownies or chocolate cake for even more intrigue.
The long and feathery leaves of this bright and bushy plant are ready for action mid-spring. “It makes the best simple syrup for lemonade, sweet tea, meringue and margaritas,” notes Uong of its zingy, citrusy bang. Schiff adds that infused simple syrup is a must for marinating stone fruits and reviving berries. Try it in a refreshing winter granita, too. “It’s so crazy lemony. It really knocks my socks off,” she says.
“ I WANT DINERS TO THINK THEY KNOW WHAT THEY’RE GETTING. BUT THEN, AT FIRST BITE, TO BLOW THEIR MINDS JUST A LITTLE BIT.”—Caroline Schiff, executive pastry chef at Gage & Tollner
This perennial is best known as adding color to flower beds, but it’s the leaves that make it intriguing. Scented geranium, which includes apple, orange, strawberry, rose and peppermint, perfume foods with their namesake scent. Lindsey Shere, the founding pastry chef at Chez Panisse, was known for lining the loaf pan with rose geranium leaves to scent the batter for pound cakes. Any type of geranium leaves can be steeped in simple syrup or rubbed into sugar to release the oils.