Herbs, a simple story

It appears we are to have an early spring, and with daylight savings already here, it seems spring is in the air, and summer is just around the corner.  So what is a person to do?  With my rose bushes already sprouting and my poppies in my front yard just about to show color, I think it is Mother Nature’s way of telling me it is time to plant the herb garden.  I personally plant all my herbs in pots, but with those lucky enough to have the time and space should plant a little garden of herbs.  I strongly recommend planting at least one of my three favorite scents: basil, cilantro and spearmint.  During the summer you can never have enough of these three.

If you don’t have the time or space to plant, we are lucky enough to have supermarkets and farmers markets that carry a wide variety of herbs.  Supermarkets package fresh herbs in various ways, loose in small plastic boxes, fastened in bunches or sometimes still growing in a pot.  If you buy your herbs, look for herbs with vibrant color and aroma, no limp, yellowing or black spots. You will find field-grown herbs more fragrant to those grown in a green house.   You can recognize field-grown herbs by their larger, hardier stalks and leaves.

Let’s face it though, herbs are fragile and need to be handled with TLC. Rosemary, marjoram and sage are hardy and will stay green and fragrant for a week or two, as long as you keep them dry and in the refrigerator.  The tender herbs, like basil, dill, cilantro, tarragon and chervil need special care so they will not blacken or freeze in the refrigerator.  You should remove any rubber bands or fasteners.  You should trim off the lower end of the stems to prevent the tops from wilting.  Loosely wrap the trimmed, but unwashed herbs in a damp paper towel.  Put them in a heavy duty Ziploc bag, leaving in a little air, which then acts like a pillow. The next trick is not to forget about them, since their life span is probably just a short week.  Unfortunately, freezing herbs will most likely turn them black, but if you surround them with fat they should be fine.  You can make them into a pesto and or a compound butter for those steaks you most likely will be grilling this spring.  Always remember to keep yours pestos green, be sure your food processor blade is sharp so it will not crush the herb.  Add the ingredients in the proper order: fat first, herbs last.  Start with the oil, and then add garlic and pine nuts, pureeing them completely.  Add the basil last, processing them for a short time so they maintain their color.  Pesto does not always need to made with basil (pesto is just an Italian word meaning paste).  You can make a southwest pesto with cilantro, pumpkin seeds, garlic and aged jack or asiago cheese and a little fresh green chili.

You may have guessed by now, but you only wash the herbs when you are ready to use them, or not at all depending if you bought them or picked them from your garden.  Make sure you wash the herbs in cool water and swish them to release the grit.  Spin them dry in a salad spinner or blot them dry by rolling them up in a dry towel.

A dull knife will bruise the herbs, which will cause them to blacken, so be sure your knife is sharp. Sometimes I simply just trim off the herb with a pair of scissors. It depends on both the herb and the effect you want.  If you’re looking for a blended flavor, add a sprig at the beginning of cooking.  Strong herbs like marjoram and thyme do best when they are allowed to mellow during the cooking process.

Cilantro, with its distinct aroma, will dissipate quickly so you need to add it directly after cooking so it will keep its bright, green color.  Which reminds me, when I was in culinary school, one of my chefs told me that another name for cilantro was coriander.  I have since found out that yes, they are the same, but coriander refers to the entire plant (which includes seeds, leaves, flowers, stems and roots)—all of which are edible.  The leaves and stems are what we know as cilantro, while the seeds sold whole and/or powdered are called coriander.

With basil, on the other hand, you can get away with adding during the cooking process and then doing a quick chiffonade at the end of the process.

I like to use Parsley to finish; it adds nice color and great flavor, not too overpowering to change the taste of your dish.  It makes the dish look very professional, presentation wise just by adding a little green.

Bay leaves: most cooks will tell you a Mediterranean bay leaf is a better choice than California bay, but whichever one you use just remember to always remove the leaf before you serve.  You can thread fresh bay leaves (soak them in cold water to soften) on beef or chicken brochettes before grilling.

Chopped dill is great for adding to your mayonnaise-based salads or cooked vegetables dressed in vinaigrette.

One little trick you can use with sage when cooking with it, right before you plate, you can do a quick fry in olive oil with the sage leaves, either bare or with simple flour and water batter, which is called a pastella. Serve it on top of your protein for a crunchy garnish.

I could go on, but I am going to end with a great herb-salad recipe.  It is one of my favorites because it is has a great flavor and it is easy.  It could be easily served as an entree.  All you need is:

Baby arugula (also known as rocket), this herb has a peppery taste so, like cilantro, either you like it or you don’t.

Mocetta Bresaola (beef salami).  You can find it in delis that carry numerous charcuterie meats.  You won’t need much, let’s say for 4 servings of a 1/4 of a pound, thinly sliced, cut into thin strips (julienne).

Lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil for the dressing is known as a temporary emulsion so you can whip it up as you need.

Toss with parmesan cheese and enjoy!

By Chef K. Marie Paulk