Wednesday, March 21, 2007
A quick definition: an herb is the leafy part of the plant. The stems, roots, seeds, or bark would be defined as a spice.
Fortunately, there are now a minimum of fresh herbs available all year round and we are no longer restricted to commercially dried herbs. Yes, herbs tend to be sandy and will be in need of washing. However, it is important to dry them well before chopping. I place mine in a salad spinner as a quick drying technique. I prefer to chop my herbs roughly. I find that chopping herbs fine releases too much flavor onto the cutting board and into the kitchen leaving very little left for the dish – and I love experiencing the full explosion of fresh herbs in my mouth.
I’ve found very few herbs freeze well. Most of them blacken and brake down with the chill. There are however, herbs such as bay laurel, verbena, and kaffir lime leaves that do tend to survive freezing for they have usually thicker, tougher leaves. In freezing these herbs make sure they are completely dry and just simply place them in a zip-lock bag or plastic container. To capture the fragrance of other herbs I puree them with either canola almond oil to create a kind of pesto. The pastes will survive six months in the freezer and may need to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes or so in order be able to easily scoop the paste out. Always remember to label the jars as one green paste looks very much like another! I then use the various pastes in marinades, sautés, soups and rubs for roasts.
You can dry your own herbs simply by tying loosely bound bunches to a rafter in the attic. If you live in an apartment, like myself, you can tie bunches to a hanger and place them in a closet for a week. Any cool, dark place will do. After you dry the herbs, place them in a sealed opaque container. Then, ideally, store them in the freezer as light and warmth are the destroyers of a dried herb’s flavor. Most dried herbs have about a three to four month shelf life. A dried herb’s flavor is slightly strong due to the evaporation of the water content, so the essential that create fragrance become more pronounced.
Finally, if you get herbs that have flowered, feel free to eat them. Any plant that offers an edible leaf also gives you its bloom to enjoy. Though be aware that once an herb has started to flower the energy in the plant give toward seeds production and the flavor in the leaf starts to fade.
Basil - Probably the king of herbs for its versatility and universal appeal. Basil fades quickly once cut, so it’s important to use it as soon as possible. Store the basil cut stem in water, as you would fresh flowers, making sure no leaves are submerged in the water. You will get about a three day shelf life depending how fresh the basil was when it was purchased. This herbs fades fast with cooking so I always add toward the end of the cooking process. Basil is one of the friendliest of herbs and marries to most other herbs. Try the many different varieties on the market such as Thai, Cinnamon, Lemon, Fino (a personal favorite) or Opal.
Bay Laurel - Commonly referred to as the bay leaf that ubiquitous soup perfumer. The flavor difference between fresh and dried is unbelievable and once you’ve used fresh it will be difficult to go back to dried. Fortunately, the bay laurel is a leaf that freezers well. I take right from the freezer to the pot.
Borage - The leaves and flowers of this herb has culinary usages. The leaves are best used fresh tossed into salads and it has a wonderful cucumber-like taste. The light purple flowers are wonder in iced teas, and as garnishes for salad greens and pastries.
Chamomile - A bushy green leaf plant with multiple yellow and white flowers. Best used steeped as a tea either hot or iced. Alternatively, fill your bath tub and add these gentle redolent sprigs and take a wonderfully relaxing bath.
Chervil - One of the herbs of spring. It has a very faint anise fragrance that fades easily with delicate small fern-like leaves. It is one of the herbs that makes up fines herbs along with parsley, chive and tarragon. As a garnish leaf this is superior given is light, feathery look. It is one of two herbs that whose stem has culinary uses…cilantro being the other.
Chives - The most mild of the onion family this grass-like herb has great versatility and pairs with almost any other herb. Filled with some water store in a container, cut end down, in the refrigerator. Or, better yet, grow your own – it does quite well in a window box and flourishes all summer long. The purplish flowers are edible and are delicious in salads or as a flavoring agent for a vinegar. Chinese Chives have flattened blades and are a bit more pungent. They make a prefect substitution anytime you find them. Another popular variety is garlic chive.
Cilantro - Also known as coriander or Chinese parsley. This herb is inextricably associated with Mexican cooking but is actually native to southern Europe. It is a plant that allows 100% usage. The stems of this plant is not very fibrous and I use them right along with the leaves. The roots, once washed well, are also edible chopped into stews, soups and marinades. Placed in water, especially if the roots are attached, this herb with survive a week in the refrigerator. If you are one of the many who find this herb “soapy” try pairing it with some mint or basil to help balance its experience.
Dill - Used extensively throughout European cooking this feathery leaf herb is found all-year-around. It wilts quickly, so expect a 3 to 4 day shelf. Dried dill loses it flavor dramatically. It’s a natural with fish and chicken or snipped into a potato salad. Make a dill vinegar using 1 part white wine vinegar and 1/4 part lemon juice.
Hyssop - A member of the mint family with strongly scent leaves that are slightly bitter. It makes a lovely iced tea use also to fragrance poaching liquids for fish or toss torn leaves into a green salad.
Kaffir Lime - A tough aromatic leaf that originated in eastern India. The leaves are found fresh, dried and frozen. They have a pungent lemony aroma and are much used in Asian cuisine as the bay leaf is used in the west. Make a paste of lemon grass, chilies, shallot and garlic to use as a marinade or curry base.
Lavender - This beautiful, aromatic flower is used sparingly for its fragrance. Too much can overpower and give a “soapy” taste. Choose lavender with buds that have not quite opened as there flavor is best. A suspicion of lavender goes into the mixture Herbs de Provence. When making a ratatouille add a pinch of lavender into this Provençal classic.
Lemon Balm - A heart shaped leaf with a subtle lemon scent that works wonderfully in teas, with fish, or tossed in a vegetable or fruit salad. Store in the refrigerator for a few days wrapped in some paper towel to keep it dry.
Lemon Grass - These long stalks (approximately 12 to 14 inches) have gained fame through the popularity of Southeast Asian Cooking. They can be found all year around in most Asian markets as well as better green markets, but are best during the heat of the summer months. They can be frozen wrapped in plastic wrap and then aluminum foil for up to three months. They are not pleasant to eat due to their very fibrous nature, however, their aromatic offering is exquisite. Make a sun tea with sliced ginger root and lemon grass, or a paste with cilantro, mint, basil, green onion and chili to use in coconut stews or as a rub for meats and fish.
Loveage - An assertive celery flavored herb that shows up in the warming months of spring. Its hollow stem draws up water easily and placed in a container with some water in the refrigerator will give you about five days worth of green leaves. Its flavor holds up well in stew and soups, and marries well to the base aromatic collection of parsley, thyme, bay leaf and chives.
Marjoram -This herb can easily be replace with oregano though marjoram has a slightly less potent flavor. This herb when dried retain their flavor quite well and in Sicilian and Mexican dishes the dried variety preferred. Its potency comes through, so judicious additions is recommended. Classically, it’s paired with basil and parsley in tomato sauce or try it with rosemary, mint, garlic and lemon for a strong marinade for meats and chicken. Store in a container with water in the refrigerator for about a five day shelf life.
Mint - This cousin to basil represents a huge family of herbal possibilities: apple mint, black mint, Corsican mint, Chocolate mint, Peppermint, Spearmint…try them all. When you get to the market and are assailed with a slew of choices you must scratch and sniff each one for they each have a slightly different nose. Mint is recognized as the “dessert” herb but try and break it out of its box by pairing it with cilantro, basil or rosemary. In a container filled with some water the mint with last about a week under refrigeration.
Nasturtium - Known for its flower that garnishes plates and salads its young, tender leaves add a lovely peppery flavor to salads as well. Make a compound butter with the flowers for an elegant service – just soften unsalted butter, and mix in gingerly torn petals and then refrigerate.
Parsley - Flat leaf otherwise known as Italian, and the much maligned curly variety are the two players in this field. I will confess, a preference for the Italian variety as I find it more robust in flavor, and I like its texture better. However, they are interchangeable in any recipe. This is perhaps the most ubiquitous of herbs found in one of the two varieties throughout the country all year around. Stored in a jar filled with some water it will last a week in the refrigerator.
Rose - The image of beauty; the note from a lover but in the kitchen it has a sweet, floral note that use sparingly gives whimsy and elegance to many dishes. The if using fresh or dried make show the roses are organic and not prepared for decorative usage as it has been sparyed with chemicals that renders the flowers not suitable for the kitchen.
Rosemary - The friend of potatoes, chicken, and grilled meats this herb is readily found year-around though it dies back in the colder areas of the country. The long stems, if they are woody enough, act as a wonderful skewer for chicken, vegetable, or lamb kebobs. Strip away about two thirds of the needle shaped leaves before skewering. This is an herb that tends to want to overpower the other herbs it is paired with. Use with parsley, oregano, basil, thyme and chives but at a ratio that is about half of the other herbs in order to allow a more complex flavor to come through. Store in the refrigerator or dry.
Sage - One of the last herbs of the autumn. It has a strong aromatic, but marries well to a base of parsley, thyme and chives. It’s perfect for poultry, but try it torn into pasta with cherry tomatoes and olives oil. Store in the refrigerator wrapped in a paper towel for up to a week. For an incredible treat seek out Pineapple Sage that has a nose that is without compare. This sage makes a wonderful tea and is great with salmon, swordfish and chicken.
Savory - There are two varieties of this herb summer and winter. The winter variety is slightly less aromatic and has tougher leaves. It has a fragrance that seems like a combination of thyme, parsley and marjoram -- welcomes vegetables, meats and fish. It has needle-like leaves that that are attached to short stubby stems. This herb lasts a good week in the refrigerator kept in a container filled with some water or can be dried successfully. This is a “party herb” in so far as it pairs well with most other herbs. Try it with sage in your turkey stuffing.
Sorrel - Herb or green leaf vegetable? Well, it depends on how you are using it. It has a fantastic lemony taste with a slightly grassy quality that unfortunately fades quickly when cooked. The leaf looks like small smooth spinach leaf only a lighter shade of green. Use this puckering green leaf in salads, pestos and in salsas. It is found from spring through the autumn though as the season moves along the leaf become slightly tougher and if allowed to flower, loses some of it potency.
Tarragon - This is a licorice in the form of thin tapered green leaves –an essential of French flavor. This strong flavor when used in a smaller portion, marries well with other herbs such as Italian parsley, thyme, chives, chervil. It is one of the herbs in fines herbs along with parsley, chives and chervil. It naturally enhances fish, chicken and makes a tasty vinegar. Store in the refrigerator in a container filled with water for up to a week.
Texas Tarragon - also known as Mexican Mint which I just discovered on the east coast of few years back. It has a strong tarragon/mint flavor that should be used judiciously. It comes available in mid-summer and lasts through the waning season. Use it along with onion, garlic and thyme to and make green rice. Store in the refrigerator in a container of water for about five days.
Thyme - A cornerstone herb in the culinary pantry for this is one of the most versatile and friendly of herbs. It marries happily to other aromatics or shines through on its own. Store wrapped in paper towel in the refrigerator for a week, or longer. Look for other varieties such pepper thyme, lemon thyme and caraway thyme.
Verbena - This Mexican native sends me over the top. In cooler climates the plant gets about two feet high, but in the warmer areas it erupts in a bushy three foot high plant. Highly fragrant with one the best lemony scents in the herbal world it can be employed with fish, vegetables, chicken, desserts and teas. The leaves are tough but can be minced fine or pureed and then added to a dish. When used whole, they’re discarded, not unlike the bay leaf. This leaf freezes very well – leave on the stem and place it in a plastic bag for up to three months of heavenly enjoyment.