Fresh herbs top seasonal affair
August 3, 2006
This spring I was dining at a Central Asian restaurant in Queens, NY. The menu items, like the stops along the Silk Road, had Russian, East Asian, South Asian and Middle Eastern influences. Despite the range of culinary inspirations, I noticed a common element: Nearly all the dishes were served with a generous garnish of fresh herbs.The soup was garnished with chopped parsley, the carrot salad had a healthy sprinkling of dill and the French fries, well, they came smothered with chopped garlic. Im not sure that garlic qualifies as an herb, but work with me here. The whole experience made me reminisce about my international and ethnic restaurant eating experiences. In Egypt, many of the dishes I ate in restaurants and from street vendors were topped with fresh cilantro. At my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, fresh mint leaves are one of the ingredients stuffed into the wonderful lettuce wraps.I got to thinking, maybe Americans have herb deficit disorder (HDD). Sure, many of us have spice racks bulging with jars sometimes alphabetized of dried herbs. But how many people still have kitchen gardens filled with culinary herbs? Are we too over-scheduled as a society to pluck some fresh basil from the shrub outside and tear it up over our pasta dinner?When I go out to eat at a fancy restaurant, they make a point of sprinkling finely chopped herbs on my food and all over the rim of the plate. (Or at least they did in the 1990s.) What is that? I think the message theyre trying to send is that they are bold users of chic herbs, but what I interpret is that theyre slobs.Slobs or not, the fancy schmancy restaurants arent just using herbs for decorative purposes, although they look great all chopped up on the rim of my oversized plate. They know that fresh herbs add texture and complement and enrich taste. Herbs liven up dishes by contributing fresh, unique flavors. They may be used alone or in combination. The French have developed different techniques for using herbs. When preparing a cooked dish such as a casserole or soup stock, a bouquet garni, or bundle of fresh herbs generally consisting of parsley, bay leaf and thyme is used. Preparations of minced herbs like chervil, parsley, chives and tarragon, called fines herbes, are added to dishes right at the end of the cooking process or as a garnish. Fines herbes are generally added to salads, scrambled eggs and dishes containing poultry and fish. The Italians with their basil, marjoram, oregano, rosemary and thyme are no slouches either. Oregano can punch up a tomato or pizza sauce. Genovese basil, in particular, is popular in pesto and with fresh tomatoes, tomato sauces and fresh salads.Mexican-style salsas would be incomplete without cilantro and Middle Eastern tabouli is lost without parsley. In fact, entire restaurants in Queens would lose all their customers if they did away with herbs.
For starters, herbs can be used to flavor oils and vinegars, meat, poultry, fish, beverages, soups, stews, breads, desserts, sauces and dressings.There is such a variety of fresh herbs that you can be sure to find one to complement any dish. Even desserts can be enhanced with herbs such as mint or lavender. Fresh herbs make a wonderful addition to many breakfast dishes including omelets and even pancakes and waffles. Fresh herbs have the best flavor and aroma, but dried herbs are much more pungent ounce for ounce. If you are using dried herbs in a recipe that calls for fresh herbs, use only one third to one half of what is called for.When picking herbs from your own garden, the ideal time is in the morning before the sun gets hot. If you dont have home grown herbs, look for them at your local farmers market or in the grocery store. Normally the part of the herb used in recipes will be the leaves, although with herbs, such as thyme, parsley or cilantro, the stems can also be used. Fresh herbs can be stored in airtight containers or with their stems in a glass of water. Too freeze herbs for later use, clean and dry the leaves. Then chop them and put them in an ice cube tray. Cover each cube with water and store in the freezer. Fresh herbs have subtle flavors and prolonged cooking may cause them to lose their fragrance and/or flavor. Herbs should be added near the end of cooking time. Delicate herbs such as basil, chives, dill, parsley marjoram and mint should be added only a minute or two before the food is served. If using fresh herbs in batters or dough mixtures, remember that the cooking process will weaken flavors and add extra to achieve the desired flavor intensity. Most recipes call for fresh herbs to be minced, which requires chopping them finely. Be careful if you decide to use a food processor because it is easy to turn them into a paste rather than tiny pieces. Consider planting a kitchen herb garden. Having fresh herbs on hand can certainly expand your aromatic and flavor horizons.Christina Abuelo is market manager for the Foothill Farmers’ Market Association.
Farm-fresh herbs (both plants and fresh cut) are available at these Certified Farmers Markets: Tuesdays at Kings Beach, located at the corner of Highway 28 and Coon Street; Tuesdays at Truckee, located on Brockway Road at the Truckee River Regional Park on Brockway Road; Thursdays at Tahoe City, which meets Thursdays at Commons Beach; and Saturdays at Homewood Mountain Ski Resort. Hours at all markets are from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information, call (530) 823-6183 or check the Web site http://www.foothillfarmersmarket.com.
Basil PestoPlace in food processor and process to uniform, creamy consistency:2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves, washed and patted dry1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil3 Tbs pine nuts, pan-toasted if desired (walnuts or pecans may be substituted)2 garlic cloves(At this point, if desired mixture may be frozen for future use in ice cube trays.)Right before serving, transfer mixture to bowl and add:1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese2 Tbs freshly grated romano cheese2 Tbs hot water in which pasta has been cookedSalt and pepper to tasteMix together by hand. Use with 1 1/2 pounds pasta, or in omelets, on pizza or as a sandwich spread.
Tabouli (Parsley Salad)1/2 cup bulgur wheat covered with boiling water for ? hour4 cups snipped parsley1/2 chopped onion5 tablespoons chopped mint6 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped1/2 cup lemon juice1/2 cup olive oilDrain bulgur wheat and add to parsley, mint, onion and tomatoes. Dress with lemon juice and olive oil, adjusting amounts to taste. Season and serve room temperature with pita bread if desired.