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Flavorful herbs help add spice to appetites
In the days when salt and pepper formed the core of the American spice rack, parsley probably was the most exotic fresh herb to be found at most grocers. Today, produce sections are flooded with fresh herbs, from now-ubiquitous offerings such as basil and oregano to more esoteric items, such as fresh turmeric root and edible flowers.
While the availability of these herbs marks a serious culinary leap forward for the nation’s palate, home cooks shouldn’t reflexively reach for fresh herbs just because they are available.
Whether to use fresh or dry depends on the type of herb and how you plan to use it. Many tender summer herbs, such as basil, chervil, chives, cilantro, lovage, parsley and tarragon, warrant “fresh only” status because they lose so much flavor once dried.
Heartier herbs with woody stems and strong aromatics, such as thyme, savory, sage, oregano and bay, retain their flavor once dried and do well in either form in cold-weather dishes, such as roast poultry and hearty vegetables. If fresh is available, go with that. Often, however, dried versions of these herbs are nearly as good.
Many spices, including turmeric, coriander seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel seeds, cumin and curry blends, also are well — and sometimes best — suited for use dry. Fresh versions of these also can be rare.
So here are a few basics on using and storing fresh and dry herbs:
• Dried herbs should be replaced every year, says Ellen Ecker Ogden, author of “From the Cook’s Garden.” She grinds up the remnants of old herbs with salt to create a multipurpose seasoning.
• Store dried herbs in sealed jars away from heat and direct light. Fresh herbs can be stored upright in a bit of water (trim the stems first) like flowers, or wrapped in a damp paper towel and placed inside a plastic bag.
• Fresh and dried herbs require slightly different cooking techniques and ratios. Use 2 to 3 times more fresh herbs than dried, which have more concentrated flavor than fresh.
• Fresh herbs are best added toward the end of cooking, or should be used to garnish. This prevents them from losing their flavor, explains Frank Terranova, a culinary instructor at Johnson & Wales University.
• Dry herbs should be cooked or simmered longer to release their flavor and rehydrate them.
Follow these rules to get the most out of herbs
Basil. Best fresh. “You taste fresh basil in your nose more than you do on your palate,” says Miss Ogden.” That’s why it’s best added at the end of a recipe, such as pasta sauce, or used as garnish.
Chopped fresh basil is excellent sprinkled on sandwiches, salad, pizza, eggs, steak or veal. Or mix it into softened butter for spreading on biscuits.
In a food processor, blend leftover fresh basil with olive oil until it forms a paste. Keep in the freezer for instant fresh basil flavor for finishing soups or rice dishes. Reserve dried basil for adding at the beginning of soup and stew recipes, and in tomato sauce.
Ginger. Usually best fresh. Fresh ginger has a sweeter, lemony flavor than dried versions, which can be hot and spicy. Whenever possible, opt for fresh grated ginger in stir fries, fish marinades and roasted vegetables. For baked goods, just about any form of ginger works — grated fresh, dried or candied.
Oregano. Best dry. Oregano’s flavor intensifies when it is dried. Simmer dried leaves (crush them between your fingers as you add them) in tomato-based sauce, or other Italian, Greek and Mexican dishes. Depending on variety, fresh oregano can range from pungent to mild.
Parsley. Best fresh. Use fresh parsley as you would basil. Add it to tuna, salads, tabbouleh, pesto, bruschetta, gravy, or use with meat or potatoes. “We make tiny parsley salads. You julienne them a little bit with olive oil and lemon juice and put a plop on top of a steak,” says Frank Terranova, a culinary instructor at Johnson & Wales University. Flat leaf parsley packs more flavor than curly varieties. Like basil, fresh parsley can be pureed and frozen for use later.
Rosemary. Fresh or dry. Dried rosemary can be hard and brittle, so use it only in recipes with plenty of liquid and long cooking times to give it ample opportunity to rehydrate. Otherwise, stick with fresh. Both forms of the herb can be used in roast chicken (tuck stems under the skin before baking) or other fowl, says Mr. Terranova. Fresh works well in gravy, potatoes, Greek cuisine including lamb, meat marinades and biscuits.
Sage. Fresh or dry. Sage has a pungent flavor best used sparingly with other herbs to add complex flavor. Fresh leaves will be slightly milder than dried. Sage blends particularly well in tomato-based dishes and sauces, as well as poultry, stuffing, gravy, veal, fish, winter squash, hearty soups and stews, biscuits and rolls. Milder varieties, such as pineapple sage, can be added to meat marinades or snipped into salad.
Tarragon. Best fresh. “The licorice flavor really works well with seafood,” says Mr. Terranova. Use fresh leaves as an accent for fish, poultry, ham glaze, snipped into salad or added to dressing. Large amounts can be overwhelming.
Thyme. Fresh or dry. Thyme provides an earthy grounding flavor to sweet vegetables such as bell peppers and squash, says Deborah Madison, author of the classic “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.” Also add to poultry, stuffing, gravy, pizza, eggs, ham glaze, lamb and veal. Experiment with different varieties, including lemon thyme.
Turmeric. Best dry. This bright yellow spice is what makes commercial mustard yellow, but most people know it best from Indian curries. Add it to soups for a mild curry flavor, or to rice as a stand-in for saffron. Release dried turmeric’s fragrance by sauteing it in a little oil first.
The fresh root — which looks like an yellow-orange version of ginger root — can be found in some gourmet and natural food stores.
Keep fresh turmeric refrigerated, then finely grate only the amount needed. Saute it in oil a bit before adding it to sauces and soups.
This recipe is adapted from Jane Thomson’s version in “The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking With Herbs” (Louisiana State University Press). From start to finish, it takes 24 hours (25 minutes active work).
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1½ teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 whole bay leaf
1½ teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
½ teaspoon salt
4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, rosemary and salt.
Place chicken breasts in a large zip-close plastic bag, then pour in the marinade. Seal and refrigerate for 24 hours, gently shaking the bag occasionally.
When ready to cook, preheat the broiler to high.
Remove the chicken breasts from the bag, reserving the marinade. Place the chicken on a broiler pan or a baking sheet lined with foil. Broil the chicken for 8 minutes. Flip the breasts, baste and grill for another 7 minutes.
Makes 4 servings.
This herbaceous dish can be adapted to whatever fresh green herbs you have handy.
Use it alone as a meal or omit the chicken and serve alongside poultry or fish.
Rice pilaf with herbs
This recipe is adapted from Margaret Ellmore’s version in “The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking With Herbs.” From start to finish, it takes 45 minutes.
1/4 pound butter
4 ounces uncooked angel hair pasta, broken into small pieces
26-ounce container vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup basmati rice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, sage, parsley or other savory herbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup shredded cooked chicken (optional)
In a large saute pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the pasta and saute until pasta just begins to brown.
Carefully stir in the vegetable or chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add the rice, herbs, salt and pepper. Cover and cook until the rice has absorbed the liquid, about 30 minutes.
If desired, stir in shredded cooked chicken, heat through and serve with a parsley garnish.
Makes 4 servings.
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