- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

I’m as likely as anyone to whine about the quality and range of ingredients in supermarkets. However, one look at the produce counter and I realize how dramatically food supplies have improved.

Fresh herbs, which used to be as scarce as robins in January, are now readily available. Adding fresh basil, dill or thyme to a winter dish gives it a livelier taste. Fresh herbs add more color and texture than you get from their dried counterparts.

Although it’s more expensive to buy fresh herbs in the winter than to grow them in the summer, the splurge is worth it. To get your money’s worth, be careful how you select, store and use fresh herbs. Most herbs are packaged, so you’ll have to take a good look through the wrapper to see what you’re getting.

The herbs should be intensely colored but not too dark. A dark green color suggests the herb will soon spoil. Faded colors also indicate old herbs. If you don’t intend to use the herbs within a day or two or you have leftovers, store them carefully. Wrap the stems in a damp paper towel, or stand the herbs upright in a glass of water in the refrigerator. Change the towel or water daily. Remember that fresh herbs are very perishable and should be consumed within a week.

When you cook, there’s no need for long simmering. It takes only minutes for fresh herbs to release their subtle fragrances and flavors. Overcooking them dulls their color and taste.

Thanks to the abundance of fresh herbs, pesto, one of my favorite summer recipes, is available to me now. However, I do change the type of dish I combine with pesto. My summer choice might be a cold pasta salad. For this time of the year, I prefer a hot pasta dish dressed with the gutsy basil-and-garlic sauce.

In the following recipe, roasted brussels sprouts, onion and bell peppers are tossed with penne, pesto and cherry tomatoes. It’s a delicious dish without seasonal boundaries.

Roasted vegetable and herb pesto pasta

12 brussels sprouts

1 small onion or large shallot, peeled and quartered

1 yellow or orange bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into bite-size pieces

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and pepper

4 ounces penne pasta

Herb pesto (recipe follows)

1 cup halved cherry tomatoes

Cut brussels sprouts lengthwise in half. Place in small roasting pan. Add onion and bell pepper pieces. Sprinkle with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast in 400-degree oven for 30 minutes or until tender and golden brown.

Meanwhile, cook penne in a large pot of salted boiling water until tender.

Drain, but reserve about 3 tablespoons cooking liquid for making the herb pesto.

Prepare pesto.

Place roasted vegetables and any remaining oil in a large bowl. Add penne, tomatoes and pesto, and toss to coat. Serve immediately. Makes 2 servings.

HERB PESTO:

cup packed fresh basil or combination of fresh basil, oregano and thyme

2 tablespoons olive oil

cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1 to 3 tablespoons pasta cooking liquid

In a blender or food processor, combine basil or other fresh herbs, oil, cheese and 1 tablespoon pasta cooking liquid. Puree.

If mixture is dry, spoon in additional cooking liquid for a creamy consistency.

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