Cooking with herbs is like frosting a cake -- it makes the dish complete. Fresh or dried herbs enhance the foods we eat and by adding their special touch and can change an ordinary meal into an extraordinary meal.
Every herb has its own distinctive taste and level of sweetness or spice that lends itself to specific uses. The only way you are going to know if you like a particular herb or know how and when to use it, is to become familiar with the taste and flavor it exudes (go ahead, actually taste it).
My favorite herbs for everyday cooking are basil and oregano for Italian dishes, cilantro for Latin/Mexican cooking and parsley in combination with the others or alone as a garnish. A note about cilantro -- it has a very different taste, start with a little and work your way up, you could ruin a dish by adding too much.
My special-occasion herbs are fresh rosemary for encrusted lamb, thyme to flavor split pea soup, sage mixed into cornbread dressing or pork sausage and dill paired with salmon or cucumbers.
To guarantee the best flavor, purchase or pick herbs close to the time you plan to use them. Substitute fresh herbs for dry herbs in a recipe by using 1 tablespoon fresh in place of 1 teaspoon dried. When a recipe calls for a “sprig,” use about a four-inch piece of stem with the leaves still attached, unless it specifies a length. A small bunch of herbs is equal to a small handful of sprigs, a little less than one inch in diameter, three to four inches long and about one-half ounce by weight. A large bunch would be equal to a medium size handful of sprigs, about one and one-half inches in diameter and one ounce by weight.
Add dry herbs, which are more potent than fresh, to dishes at the beginning of the cooking process and add fresh herbs, which are more delicate, toward the end of the cooking time. Less cooking preserves the fresh herb flavor. When cutting back on salt, fat and sugar in foods, use the extra flavor of herbs instead.
Herbs can be stored in the refrigerator for about a week. For longer storage, trim the stem ends at a diagonal then place the herb ends in a jar with water in the bottom. The exception is fresh basil, which will turn black in the refrigerator, so store it the same way but at room temperature. Herbs will also keep a couple days in your refrigerator crisper drawer by placing the herb inside an open plastic bag (which allows for air circulation).
Drying is the easiest way to preserve herbs. I tie bunches of like herbs together with string close to the end of the stems and hang them upside down in an out-of-the-way, well-ventilated area. I pierce air holes in a plastic bag and tie it over each bunch, making sure the herbs aren’t crowded inside the bag. The purpose of the plastic bag is to keep dust off the leaves and catch any leaves that fall off while the herbs are drying. If a leaf crumbles when rubbed between two fingers, the herbs are dry and the leaves are ready to pull off the stems. The herbs will retain more flavor if you store the leaves whole and crush them when you are ready to use. Discard any dried herbs that show any sign of mold.
Store herbs in an airtight container in a cool, dry place away from sunlight or heat. Over time, herbs loose their flavor and color and should be used within a year. You can tell if a dried herb is still good by rubbing a small amount between your fingers and smelling. If the herb still gives off a strong scent, it is good. A weak or faint smell means it’s probably time to replace it.
Fresh herbs can be frozen. Start by chopping clean herbs, place them in ice cube trays and then fill them with water. When needed, remove herb ice cubes and drop into hot cooking liquid. You can also wrap bunches of fresh herbs in foil or plastic wrap and freeze them for several weeks; however, frozen herbs will discolor.
When using dried herbs, release the flavor quicker by crushing them in the palm of your hand or between your fingers, and then add them to your dish.
The following are some herb pairings that may be helpful.
Basil is almost married to tomatoes. It also combines well with cheese, poultry, eggs, salads, fish and all types of vegetables.
Coriander/cilantro/Chinese parsley is the same plant with a number of aliases. The leaves are sold as cilantro or as Chinese parsley; the seeds are sold as the spice coriander. People seem to either love or hate this very pungent herb. Those who dislike it find it soapy; others find it tastes somewhat like anise. Cilantro is very popular in Mexican (especially good in salsa or guacamole) and Thai cuisines. It is also good with chicken, fish and root vegetables. Try combining ground coriander with pork and lentils or other dried beans or add to any dish that uses ginger.
Dill leaves are used as an herb; the seeds as a spice. The seeds are usually paired with cucumbers to make dill pickles and the leaves are most commonly used with salmon or other fish. It goes well with cream-based products (mix it in sour cream to serve on your next potato).
Oregano and marjoram are almost the same herb; oregano is wild marjoram. They are interchangeable, although some chefs believe that marjoram is like oregano with a bit of basil taste. This herb is classically used in tomatoes and pizza, but is also good with fish, potatoes and summer squash.
Parsley comes in two forms -- Italian parsley (flat leaf) and curly. This herb is used both as a garnish and as a main ingredient. Flat leaf parsley has a stronger flavor and holds up to longer cooking. Either type is a nice addition to chicken, eggs, fish, pasta, potatoes, rice and vegetables. Parsley is also said to be a natural breath freshener.
Rosemary is used with lamb, pork and beef. Try it also with mushrooms, potatoes, salmon and beans. Rosemary is one herb that dries well.
Sage is used especially with pork and other meats or in stuffing. Try it with tomatoes, grilled poultry and grilled tuna or another oily fish. The leaves are especially good for decoration and can be fried. Like rosemary, sage dries well.
Thyme is essential in French cooking and is a member of a “bouquet garni” (a little bundle of herbs and spices tied together with twine or wrapped in cheese cloth) that flavors stocks and soups. Thyme is used with all kinds of meats, Mediterranean foods and is wonderful with figs and goat cheese. It is a hardy perennial and, like sage and rosemary dries well.
There are no hard and fast rules when cooking with fresh herbs. Start sparingly until you become familiar with the taste. Remember, herbs should be used to enhance the flavor of foods not dominate them. Experiment and have fun!
Diann Greene is an independent correspondent and Southern food writer.
FRESH BASIL PESTO
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pine nuts
4 medium garlic cloves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Salt and black pepper to taste
Combine the basil and nuts in a food processor. Pulse a few times. Add the garlic, pulse a few more times. With the food processor running, slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream. Stop to scrap down the sides. Add the grated cheese, salt and pepper and pulse again until blended.
Serve with pasta or on toasted baguette slices.
TOMATO TART WITH THREE CHEESES
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
3/4 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup shredded provolone cheese
1/4 cup minced fresh basil
4 plum tomatoes, thinly sliced (slice tomatoes vertically rather than horizontally)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Additional minced fresh basil
Unfold pastry sheet on a lightly floured surface.
Roll into a 12-inch square; transfer to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Prick with a fork.
Combine the mozzarella, provolone and basil; sprinkle over the pastry to within 1 inch of edges.
Arrange the tomato slices over the cheese. Season with salt and pepper; sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until pastry is golden brown.
Remove tart from baking sheet to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with additional basil.
Cut into slices. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes 4 servings.
-- Taste of Home
ROASTED POTATOES WITH FRESH HERBS
5 large garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
3 pounds large fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
Coarse kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Chopped fresh Italian parsley (for garnish)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using a garlic press, squeeze garlic into large bowl. Whisk in oil and herbs. Add potatoes; toss to coat.
Spread potatoes in single layer on large rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle generously with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast until tender and brown, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour 15 minutes.
Place potatoes in bowl; top with parsley.
-- Bon Appetit
JAN’S ROASTED CHICKEN
1 (3-4 lb.) whole chicken
3 tablespoon olive oil, divided
3 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon coarsely ground pepper
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 lemon, quartered
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rub chicken and cavities with 2 tablespoons olive oil, garlic cloves, salt and pepper. Tuck wings under; tie legs together with string, if desired.
Pour remaining 1 tablespoon oil into a large cast-iron skillet; place chicken, breast side up, in skillet.
Place 1 rosemary sprig and 2 lemon quarters into neck cavity repeat in lower cavity. Place remaining rosemary sprig underneath skin.
Bake at 450 degrees for 30 minutes; reduce heat to 350 degrees, and bake 1 hour.
Makes 4 servings.
-- Southern Living, 1001 Ways to Cook Southern, recipe shared by Jan Karon.