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How to Make the Most of Fresh Herbs

Bulgur Salad with Herbs, Apricots, and Pistachios

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By Aimee Olexy
from Fine Cooking #123, pp. 40-47

I live in a little village in the Pennsylvania countryside. When I walk out on my porch, the scent of chive blossoms hits me first, then thyme, then lavender. Inhaling, I am once again grateful that the person who lived here before me planted an herb garden.

I’ve always loved herbs. Talula’s Garden, my Philadelphia restaurant, is filled with them–in containers outside on the patio and under grow lights inside, in view of our customers, who can see us clipping them to add to almost every dish on the menu. Even our cocktails and desserts feature fresh herbs. And since moving out here from the city, I use fresh-picked herbs in my home cooking more than ever.

Whether you grow your own or pick up a bouquet at the farmers’ market, herbs are at their best (and least expensive) in summer, which means now is the time to use them with wild abandon. When warm-weather hits, I even take to stirring my lemonade (or my gin and tonic) with a rosemary sprig, a delicious luxury I forgo in winter when the rosemary at the supermarket comes at a steep price and in a tiny plastic container. On the following pages, you’ll find some of my favorite summer recipes made even better by the addition of fresh herbs–a juicy burger, a colorful grain salad, fragrant roasted potatoes, and a cornmeal-flecked pound cake–plus more ideas for using herbs, including flavored oils, butters, and syrups.

My herb garden yields more herbs than I can use during the fleeting season. By summer’s end, I’ll be hanging bunches of thyme and sage to let them dry. Then I’ll use these “fresh” dried herbs throughout the winter. But that’s a long way off. For now, I’ll revel in the fragrance and flavors of just-picked herbs. You should, too.

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Handling Fresh Herbs
Herbs, especially tender ones, need to be handled with care. Follow the tips below to keep them bright, fresh, and fragrant.

Washing Wash herbs in a large bowl of cool water, swishing them with your fingers to release grit. Lift the herbs from the water with your hands. If there’s a lot of grit left behind in the bottom of the bowl, wash the herbs again in fresh water. Spin them dry in a salad spinner or blot them dry with a clean kitchen towel.

Storing Wrap the washed and dried herbs loosely in a damp paper towel and refrigerate in a heavy-duty zip-top storage bag (or plastic container) left slightly open for air to circulate. Most herbs will last up to a week in the fridge, longer for hardy herbs like thyme and rosemary. Basil is best stored at cool room temperature, with its stems submerged in a glass of water.

Chopping Chop herbs using a very sharp knife–a dull one can cause bruising. After stripping the leaves from the stems, gather the herbs in a pile on a cutting board. Rest the fingertips of your guiding hand on the tip of the chef’s knife to keep it in contact with the cutting board. Keeping the tip against the board, lift and lower the knife to chop through the herbs, pivoting the blade across the pile as you chop and stopping to gather the herbs back into a pile as needed.

Washing Storing Chopping
Washing   Storing   Chopping

Video: How to Chop Fresh Herbs

Ideas for Extending the Flavor of Fresh Herbs Well Past the Season
Flavored butters Mash chopped herbs (chives, parsley, and thyme, for example) plus salt and pepper into a stick of softened unsalted butter. Wrap the butter well in plastic and refrigerate for up to 2 days or freeze for up to 1month. Melt over potatoes or just about any grilled fare. For a Thai-inspired herb butter, combine 4 oz. of unsalted butter with 1/4 cup each of Thai basil, cilantro, mint, the finely grated zest from 1/2 lime, 1 tsp. finely grated fresh ginger, and salt and pepper to taste.

Simple syrup Bring 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup packed herbs to a rolling boil in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat, let cool completely, strain, cover, and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks. Use the syrup to flavor iced tea, sorbet, and cocktails. Mint is especially versatile, but rosemary and lavender can be more fun to play with.

Herb oil In a blender, purée 3/4 cup tender herb leaves and stems with 1/3 cup olive oil, 2 small cloves garlic, and 1-1/2 tsp. fresh lemon juice. Brush on bruschetta, drizzle over grilled fish, or add to vinaigrette. The oil will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 2 days.

Herb vinegar Put herbs and other aromatics, such as garlic and spices, in a wide-mouth jar. Heat white wine vinegar to 110°F and pour over the herbs. Let cool, then seal the jar and refrigerate. Decant after 1 week. The vinegar will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 1 month. A combination of a half-dozen sprigs fresh dill, a pinch of dill seeds, 1Tbs. mustard seeds, and a garlic clove makes a delicious vinegar to splash on potatoes or grilled salmon.

Herb stock In a medium saucepan, sauté 1 chopped celery stalk, 1 chopped carrot, 1 chopped onion, and 2 cloves chopped garlic in about 2 tsp. olive oil until tender. Add 2 cups of herb stems and leaves and 1 quart water. Simmer for 15 minutes, then strain. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze for up to 3 months. Use to make risotto, to cook grains for grain salads, or in your favorite vegetable soup.

Fried herbs In a small bowl, combine 3 Tbs. all-purpose flour with a drizzle of olive oil and enough water to make a mixture the consistency of pancake batter. Dip sage leaves or clusters of curly parsley in the batter and fry in a small saucepan of hot oil until crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Serve as a garnish for grilled meats and fish.

Photos by Scott Phillps


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