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Rosemary: The perfect winter herb

Rosemary's bold flavor is perfect counterpoint to rich, sweet and starchy holiday foods

Fine Cooking Issue 62
Photos: Scott Phillips
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There are so many reasons why rosemary is my favorite herb: I love its pungent aroma, which wakes up my nose and taste buds and gets me thinking about cooking. I admire its handsome dark green, needlelike leaves and its dainty pale blue flowers. And I absolutely adore the look this Mediterranean shrub gives to my patio in summer and my sunroom in winter. Of course, I also appreciate rosemary’s strong, piny flavor, which is more versatile than you might think (you can even use it to flavor sweets and baked goods). Rosemary pairs wonderfully with most meats. It’s famous as a partner to lamb and pork, but it’s equally suited to chicken, beef, veal, venison, turkey, duck, and game birds.

Rosemary’s bold flavor adds an important counterpoint to rich, sweet, or starchy foods. Use it with dried beans, winter squash, potatoes, onions, peppers, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and breads and baked goods. Good seasoning companions for rosemary include garlic, citrus zest and juice (especially orange and lemon), tomatoes, and olives. Because of its potent flavor, the one caveat is not to overdo seasoning with rosemary. It’s also a good idea to use a sharp knife when chopping rosemary; a dull knife would bruise the leaves and make them taste bitter. A clean cut releases just the right amount of the potent oils.

Shopping for fresh rosemary

Fresh rosemary is now available at most grocery stores. You’ll often see it in packages of 4- to 5-inch sprigs, or as bundles of long, straight branches. Be sure the leaves look fresh, green, and pliable, not dry, brittle, or blackened. Store it in the refrigerator wrapped in a damp dishtowel. Or, even better, grow your own rosemary to have availaible all year round.

Growing rosemary, indoors & out

I grow my own rosemary so I can always have fresh leaves with the most flavorful oils whenever I want them. Besides, a terra cotta pot of rosemary looks so pretty and smells so good.

Bring a pot of rosemary inside for the winter. Although common rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is only hardy to about 25°F, it adapts happily to a container, so you can bring it inside if your winters get below that temperature. (A few hardy varieties— ’Arp’ and ‘Hill Hardy’ are two— have been known to survive single-digit temperatures if well mulched.)

Pick a cool, sunny spot. Your rosemary plant will be happiest near a sunny window (a southern exposure is ideal) in a cool spot (a chilly room helps deter powdery mildew, which can attack indoor rosemary). It’s also important to get the watering right, because rosemary is sensitive to both over- and underwatering. Wait until the top of the soil is dry and then water thoroughly. If you’re prone to forget to water, use water-absorbing polymer crystals mixed into the potting mix to help prevent the plant from drying out completely. Finally, to avoid lanky growth, don’t fertilize in winter.

Repot rosemary every spring to keep it healthy and growing strong. Once your plant is in its final, biggest pot, you can repot it in the same container. Pull the plant from the pot and, using a sharp knife, trim away an inch or two off the bottom of the rootball and an inch all around the sides. Repot the plant using fresh potting soil that’s been boosted with some time-release fertilizer. To make up for the loss of some of its roots, trim the top back accordingly.  I’ve kept rosemaries gowing for years this way.  As the plant ages, the trunk becomes gnarled and full of character.

Common rosemary and waterabsorbing polymer crystals are readily available at most good garden centers. Mail-order herb nurseries with a good selection of rosemary cultivars include Shady Acres Herb Farm (952-466-3391; www.shadyacres.com), The Thyme Garden (541-487- 8671; www.thymegarden.com), and Well-Sweep Herb Farm (908- 852-5390; www .wellsweep.com).

Try using whole rosemary leaves and sprigs

  • Use rosemary as a bed for roasted poatoes (see Skillet-Roasted Rosemary Potatoes). Strip off the leaves first, but don’t chop them.
  • Wrap sprigs around roasts or chicken destined for the rotisserie or grill; secure them with kitchen twine. Pork and lamb work especially well.
  • Use rosemary as a basting brush. Bunch several branches, tie them with kitchen twine, and use to baste meats on the grill or in the oven.
  • Tuck a few sprigs in the cavity of a chicken or game bird before roasting.
  • Use stripped rosemary branches as skewers. Although coarse and tough, rosemary branches stripped of their leaves still have lots of flavor.  Save the thickest, straightest ones to use as skewers.

Bake, roast, or braise with chopped rosemary

  • Add rosemary to a simple chicken braise. Brown seasoned chicken breasts or thighs in olive oil, add rosemary leaves, a bit of chicken broth, and dry vermouth; cover and braise until tender.
  • Toss rosemary with winter vegetabls before roasting. Cut vegetables like sweet potatoes or squash into large dice; season with salt, pepper, olive oil, and coarsely chopped rosemary. Spread in one layer in a roasting pan and roast at 400°F until tender.
  • Flavor your favorite pizza dough with rosemary. Add a tablespoon of finely chopped rosemary to focaccia or pizza dough in the early stages of mixing. Combine with a little black pepper for interest.
  • Bake a batch of flaky biscuits spiked with a teaspoon or two of finely chopped rosemary; add a cup of grated sharp Cheddar.
  • For butter cookies with a twist, add a little finely chopped rosemary and grated orange zest.  Try adding this combination to pound cake recipes, too.

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