Three Herbs That Are Key To Making Great American Food

Beginning herb gardeners fantasize about Herbes de Provence and Italian cookery. After all, crushing a sprig of basil between your hands immediately transports you to a rustic Italian kitchen. But don't forget that herbs are an essential part of the American culinary canon, too-from a bowl of Texas chili to a New England clam bake, the tastes of American depend on an herbal foundation. These three herbs are key to making great American food.

1. Oregano: When pizza and "red sauce" Italian gained popularity during the 20th century, oregano became a staple in American spice cabinets. The dried stuff lacks pizzazz, so try growing your own. Native to the Mediterranean, oregano requires full sun-try the Greek variety, an especially spicy version.

2. Sage: A key ingredient in many Thanksgiving recipes, sage brings an elusive, woodsy flavor to poultry dishes. Spread on simple roast chicken with butter, sage transforms an ordinary weeknight dish into fine cookery. Another hardy herb, sage just asks for sunlight and the occasional drink during dry summer months.

3. Cilantro: Not usually thought of as an "American" herb per se, cilantro is a critical element in Latin American cooking. Chopped up on top of tacos with a squeeze of lime, cilantro has a distinctive vegetal flavor-you're either a cilantro lover or a cilantro hater. More challenging to grow than many herbs, cilantro fares poorly in hot temperatures. Keep it in the shade for the best results.

When planting your first herb garden, think outside the Mediterranean and plant for American dinners. Try this Little Italy-inspired pasta dish for an American spin on European cooking.

Photo: cookbookman17 on flickr