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A Verbal Herbal

Ann Summers · October 13, 2009 · Published in the Fall 2009 - #7 issue
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Whether you pronounce “herbs” with a silent H like normal people or make a point of pronouncing it like Martha Stewart, herbs are one of the good things cooks everywhere agree are indispensable. In a way, they are the ultimate local food because you can grow basil in just about any sunny spot, indoors or out. And if you spill flat leaf parsley seeds on just about anything except bare tile, they will come up whether you like it or not. Anyone with a border or window box can jam a mint or marjoram plant into it and expect results.

Possibly people don’t grow or buy fresh herbs because of that one recipe they tried which demanded “fresh and no substitutes,” and they bought one of those awful 3-by-2 inch packets of wilted thyme priced at a shameless $7.50, and what they didn’t use quickly turned black. Well weep no more, and wonder not, for as John Donne said, “here in this world are produced to us all herbs and fruits, all that is necessary for the soul to feed upon.” And there is nothing so good for the soul as waking up your palate with some fresh greenery that makes everything taste better. Get thee hence to the farmer’s market or your local co-op where there are fresh herbs aplenty.

But hold on! Herbs can be overpowering. Indeed, the ‘80s saw such over-herbed horrors as: too many roulades (meat stuffed with herbs and things); poor roasted chickens beset with enough herbage to choke a horse; herb “confit” (which is not, properly speaking, a confit); and purées of every sort to overload and offend the senses. You must know what your herbs are all about, and for that you need an herb chart. Here is a copy of an old one I bought years ago, and it kills me because nobody even makes cream soup anymore, but you should get the general idea. There are further guidelines you can go by:

Any herb out there goes with roasted meat, most herbs go with fish, and after that, it gets trickier. But it’s not too tricky, because you just need to taste them before you use them, then smell them, and understand how they will cook down.

Rosemary is probably one of the best loved yet most reviled herbs because it has been both overused and underappreciated. Its flavor is deep, strong and pine-like, and it is the very best buddy of roast chicken, beef and pork. It can hold up under high heat and match the strong flavors of the grill or oven-browning, but it can also totally overpower what you are serving, so gently with the rosemary.

Sage falls into the same meaty category, and is so stunning with pork that you will wonder why pigs are not born with it under their skins. Nothing is nicer to a bit of lean pork than some white wine, shallots and mushrooms with sage, although nicer grassfed primo pork might not need as much herbal flair.

Sage also goes well with pasta. Northern Italians eat their fresh pasta with nothing other than butter and sage. Personally, butter and sage aren’t enough for me, so I add a little garlic, cream and cognac, and then I call it good. Also, sage’s strong flavors play well with beef, and it has an odd affinity for turkey, game or chicken based bread stuffing and cornbread dressing. And no self-respecting southerner would think to make dressing without rubbed sage. Finally, mind the thick woody bits and save them for the compost heap, and remember that those fuzzy little leaves pack one heck of an impact.

Thyme is another meat helper, but unlike rosemary and sage, it is lovely in delicate sauces and superb with fish. Almost every soup stock known to man contains a sprig of thyme, and its teeny mouse ear leaves have plenty of flavor. Thyme is also a shrub and its branches can get woody, so strip the leaves off before chopping. As an alternative, you can cook with the whole sprig and fish out the woody stem from your soup or sauce before serving. If you are desperate to impress people, you can use the stems as smoking wood on your grill, or even do something unusual like soak them in water and pierce kabobs with them. You’ll need a lot of thyme plant for that, though, and an excess of personality as well. I would rather mix the thyme into my marinade than go all “Three Musketeers” on my scallops.

Let’s move on to the less woody, juicier herbs with higher water content in their leaves and much milder and less restrictive flavor. For the most part, these are members of the mint family, which have a square stem in their less developed and greener parts. Mint family herbs are roughly analogous to mint, but we in the Western Hemisphere are not accustomed to spearmint and peppermint being used in anything other than sweets.

Mints have great depth and versatility, but they come with the same warning as other herbs: don’t overdo! Nothing is sadder than a chicken breast loaded with gobs of soggy basil cooked to the point of bitter lime rind destruction. These minty herbs deserve to be held out until the end of cooking for better flavor unless you are mincing them into a marinade for a fast poach, brown or grill. Fresh basil is the only thing for fresh summer salads of mozzarella and tomato, and I love it with veggie salsa, cold bean salads and on rustic homemade pizza. Basil is also good with fish, especially fish whole roasted on the grill.

Marjoram and its close cousin oregano are delightful with chicken, venison and bison. Where you want a wallop, use oregano (common in pizza or spicy meat sauces), and where you want a light whack, use marjoram. Mints will grow anywhere, and overgrow anywhere, too. While basil will confine itself to its planted bed, it can reseed wildly. All the others spread by their roots and with enough light and space will take over your entire yard, so pot them to be safe. Marjoram and oregano are similar in that they will turn bitter and brown if overcooked. My favorite thing for marjoram is lemon biscotti, and oregano is super in cheese breads.

Mint is a well-known lamb enhancer in the middle east, and there is almost nothing nicer than a leg of lamb roasted or grilled with a chopped fresh mint, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil marinade. Please, please save that hideous green jelly for making green peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and keep it away from the lamb. Use your mint and stew meat cuts of lamb for a Moroccan tagine (braise) that you will love enough to make again and again.

Parsley is good in nearly anything. It adds a fresh green flavor to any soup, but it goes very well with root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, parsnips or beets, as well as squashes such as zucchinis, yellow crooknecks, patty pans and eggplants. Dill is also a slightly underappreciated herb that can flavor more than pickles. Like parsley, dill is easy to grow and both are nice in the garden since they attract black swallowtail butterflies. Don’t squish the caterpillars, though, and plant just enough for you and them.

Dill and its close relative fennel are nice with any fish, particularly salmon, and dill is great in a wrap with diced cooked potato, cucumber, sour cream and caviar. Even kids love that wrap. Dill is also used in veal and lamb meatballs and is ubiquitous in yogurt sauces. Nothing says summers like a cold dill yogurt sauce over some grilled veggies and fish. And don’t forget to garnish your Vichyssoise with dill!

Cilantro and tarragon are two special herbs that take some care. Of course, rules are made to be broken, and if it tastes good to you, go for it. Tarragon is famous in French egg and butter sauces with fresh veggies and chicken. While I despise tarragon, I love cilantro, which many people I know can’t stand. I once saw a chef stuff a whole beef tenderloin with cilantro and garlic and grill the thing, and it opened my eyes to the beef-cilantro combo.

Your fresh, out-of-the-garden pico de gallo (unlike salsa which is cooked) cannot do diddly squat without fresh cilantro. It won’t keep in the fridge for much over a few days, even if you cut it like fresh flowers and stick it in a plastic cup of water. However, cilantro will go gangbusters in the garden all summer if you keep seeding it.

Chives are the “Allium” (onion genus) relatives that are near to my heart because they are the only sure thing that can winter over in Nebraska without coddling. Everything else besides the marjoram is a 50-50 shot, but you can count on your chives coming up every spring, thumbing their noses at winter, giving you great additions to potato dishes, cold fish, eggs and just about anything else.

Because fresh herbs signal the end of winter is probably why I love them so much, and why at the end of every summer I whip them up in the food processor with olive oil and freeze them in separate freezer bags, with the paste squashed flat enough so I can snap off a corner of green goodness in the middle of the most miserable winter. That fresh, fruity or evergreen aroma that rises up from a steaming pot can cure the blues, awaken your senses and enhance the flavor of your food.

About the Author

Anns_web_thumb Ann Summers is a writer, amateur naturalist, mother, and cook. She is the author of two children... More About Ann Summers >

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The live mold that makes bleu cheese blue is brevibacterium livens, the same bacteria that makes your feet stink, which should come as no surprise.”

Michael Campbell “The Dumpster:

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