Thursday, July 21, 2011

Spice Up Your Cooking with Herbs!

As the herb garden at my house grows, the aromas fill the air and I start to relate the smells of the herbs to culinary dishes I have used them with — basil, of course, makes me think of pasta tossed with summer tomatoes and pesto. Rubbing the leaves of thyme reminds me of freshly made soup seasoned and finished with chopped thyme. Rosemary brings to mind wonderful roasted new potatoes. Sniffing the cilantro plant immediately makes my mouth water with the thought of freshly made salsa with jalapenos, garden tomatoes and lime.

Throughout history, there have been many different culinary and medical uses of various herbs. Ancient Romans and Greeks crowned their leaders with dill and laurel. The Romans also used dill to purify the air. In the 5th century B.C., Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, listed approximately 400 herbs in common use. In the Middle Ages, herbs were often used to help preserve meat as well as cover the rotting taste of meals that couldn't be refrigerated. Herbs also helped mask the odors of people who bathed irregularly, if at all. This period was not favorable to the use of herbs in medicine. In fact, the Catholic Church began burning herbalists, having associated them with both witchcraft and paganism.

Herb gardens were almost an essential feature of pioneer homes. They were placed in sunny corners near the house to be readily available to the busy homemaker. As the population of the new country grew, people from many nations brought herbs with them. This resulted in an exchange of slips, seeds, and plants. Many herbs familiar to settlers from other countries were found growing wild in the new country. These included parsley, anise, pennyroyal, sorrel, watercress, liverwort, wild leeks, and lavender. American Indians knew uses for almost every wild, nonpoisonous plant, but they used the plants chiefly for domestic purposes — tanning and dyeing leather and eating.

Today, many herbs are still used both medicinally and for culinary purposes. I will list some of the herbs I use at the Inn. I certainly use some more frequently than others — thyme perhaps being my most favorite. It can be used for almost all types of food, from the lightest broth soup up to hearty beef dishes. While not a hard and fast rule, a basic rule of thumb is to use a softer and more delicate herb with a lighter dish. Chervil, which is very delicate, goes great with light salads, but would be overwhelmed by hearty red meats. Likewise, rosemary, a more substantial herb, can overpower light white fish, but goes very well with crusty roast meats. As always, feel free to experiment, but make sure to start with a small amount of any herb before adding more to suit your taste. Even a light herb like cilantro can overpower and ruin a dish if too much is used. Add fresh herbs only at the end of cooking or upon serving, while it is best to add dried herbs at the beginning and during cooking in order to release their oils and flavors. When cooking and seasoning with herbs, a little can go a long way towards making every bite count.

Arugula: While technically known as a salad green or salad herb, arugula can be added to lettuce, tomatoes and any other mixed baby salad greens to create new and exciting taste sensations. It makes a great pesto herb, though certainly much different than basil. Arugula is very low in calories and is also high in vitamins A and C. Arugula, also known as rocket, is very popular in Italian cuisine. Its leaves have a unique, peppery sweet tang, adding pizzazz even to the blandest salads. Although arugula provides a flavor impact, it does not have a strong aftertaste.

Basil: Sweet basil is one of the most popular culinary herbs. Its flavor is strong enough to hold up to ingredients such as garlic, which make it perfect for pesto. Also indispensable for many Mediterranean dishes, the fresh leaf has a sweet, clove-like spiciness and is excellent with tomato dishes. Basil is considered one of the most important and highly used herbs in the culinary world and is popular in the cooking of many types of cuisine. Especially good in Thai dishes is the Thai Basil whose leaves have a spicy aniseed aroma with hints of mint and citrus. If this is not available, try mixing in a small amount of mint with your basil as a substitute in your Thai dishes.

Bergamot: Although limited in its culinary uses, bergamot imparts a wonderful citrus-like flavor and fragrance that complements fruits and summer beverages and teas. At one time native Americans used it to season and preserve meats. Bergamot oil, which is used in authentic Earl Grey tea, is extracted from this plant.

Chervil: Also known as Gourmet Parsley and Garden Chervil. Chervil is a delicate herb with subtle taste. It has a slightly anise-like flavor that can be quickly lost in cooking. Garnish salads with it, but serve it at the last moment. Chervil is a very popular herb in France. It is one of the classic ingredients in the traditional French herb blend, Fines Herbes and is very popular in French cuisine. It has a delicate flavor and is suitable wherever parsley is used. Chop the leaf into soups (in the last 10 to 12 minutes of cooking so its flavor is not cooked away), omelets, salads, and dressings.

Chives: Chives are a mild member herb of the onion family. Chives have many uses and can be added to potato salad, baked potatoes, soups, salads, omelets, dips and spreads, pastas and sauces. Use it anywhere you want to add onion flavor without the harsh pungency of onion. Add fresh at the end of cooking to preserve the flavor. The flavor is so brilliant that you will probably want a fresh pot of chives on your windowsill, even if you have nothing else in your herb garden. Store fresh chives in damp paper towels in an airtight container in the refrigerator. You can also chop fresh chives and freeze them with water in ice cube trays to use later when needed.

Cilantro: This is one of the first “exotic” herbs I used after graduating from culinary school in the mid ‘80’s. Back then, the most common herbs were the classic French and Italian herbs. Many herbs from other cuisines just were not popular yet in American cooking. Cilantro is also known as Chinese parsley. Cilantro is used in many cuisines around the world. Most notably it is used to enliven Mexican and South American food as well as Thai and Vietnamese. This is a multi-ethnic herb that is used in everything from delicate Asian spring rolls to substantial Mexican dishes. Cilantro is the leafy part of the coriander plant. Its unique flavor is quite distinctive and can liven up even a simple chicken broth. Cilantro has a faint overtone of anise and a somewhat delicate peppery taste. Use cilantro in tacos, salsas, soups, stews, chicken and rice, salads, tomato-based sauces and as a garnish. Use sparingly, though as it can very easily overwhelm your food.

Dill: Dill is available as both fresh weed and seed, both fresh and dried. Fresh leaves can be kept in a plastic bag in the refrigerator or chop finely and mix with one tablespoon of water and freeze in ice cube trays. Dill or dill weed is an herb that produces clusters of small flowers from which dill seed is gathered and dill weed is obtained from the thin, feathery leaves. The light aroma of dill faintly resembles licorice. Dill weed is good in soups, omelets, seafood dishes, herring, salmon, potato salads, and steamed vegetables. Dill seed is used in breads, pickling, cabbage dishes, stews, rice and cooked root vegetables. Dill has a totally unique spicy green taste. Add whole seeds to potato salad, pickles, bean soups and salmon dishes. Ground seed can flavor herb butter, mayonnaise and mustard. The leaves go well with fish, cream cheese and cucumber.

Juniper Berry: The juniper berry is the female seed cone produced by the various species of junipers that are herbal trees. It is not a true berry but a cone with unusually fleshy and merged scales, which give it a berry-like appearance. Not all species of juniper berries are edible. Some are toxic and consumption is inadvisable. The mature, dark berries are usually, but not exclusively, used in cuisine, while gin is flavored with fully-grown but immature green berries. The crushed berries of the juniper tree have an aromatic, resinous flavor often featured in pâtés, marinades and stuffing for pork, venison and other wild game. They are also a popular flavoring for sauerkraut, sauces, ham and cabbage. They are also used with root vegetables, legumes and bean dishes.

Lemon Balm: Lemon balm is a lemon-scented herb of the mint family. For a zesty, flavorful general seasoning, use it paired with tarragon. Adding some freshly minced leaves to lamb or fish marinades for the grill will add a wonderful layer of flavor. The taste of the leaves adds the perfect tangy note to fruit salads. Freshly steamed vegetables come alive when tossed with a chiffonade of Lemon Balm and a touch of cracked pepper. When using whole leaves be sure to handle with care, as they tend to bruise and turn black. Mix lemon balm with other fresh herbs for homemade herb vinegar. Freeze some leaves in ice cubes to serve in lemonade. This is a great herb for growing in window boxes. It does well indoors in a sunny window. The citrus aroma can help keep mosquitoes away as well.

Lemon Verbena: If you like lemon, this is the herb for you! It has a very lemony taste without any bitterness. Originating in Central and South America, this herb was carried home by Spanish explorers in the 17th century. Its popularity quickly spread throughout Europe. When sprinkled over salads and vegetables, it adds a wonderful lemony flavor. Use this to create flavor in stuffing for meat or poultry. Lemon Verbena is a great herb to use liberally when on a low salt diet due to its intense flavor. Also try combining lemon verbena with dried celery, ground peppercorns, lovage leaves or any mix of herbs and spices that taste well with lemon as a mild seasoning mixture.

Lovage: Lovage is also known as love parsley, sea parsley and smallage. The grated fresh root can be cooked as a vegetable or used raw in salads. Lovage is a hardy perennial herb, with ribbed stalks similar to celery with hollow stems that divide into branches near the top. It has yellow flowers and it leaves are dark green. Roots have a nutty favor. Lovage has a strong taste and aroma similar to celery and parsley
Marjoram: Marjoram is an herb that has a mild, sweet flavor similar to oregano (it is closely related and of the same family — Origanum) with perhaps a hint of balsam. It is said to be “the meat herb" but it compliments all savory foods. While fresh marjoram is excellent with salads and mild flavored foods, it has the best taste and greatest pungency when dried. Marjoram has a slightly more delicate flavor than Oregano. Because it is more delicate, marjoram should be added toward the end of cooking so its flavor is not lost. Marjoram goes well with pork and veal and compliments stuffing for poultry, dumplings and herb scones or breads.

Mustard: Mustard has been known since prehistoric times and has many culinary uses. The Romans named this herb from mustus (the new wine they mixed with the seed) and ardens (for fiery). The hot little black and brown mustard seeds are ground and mixed with water, vinegar or other liquids, and turned into a condiment also known as mustard. The seeds are also pressed to make mustard oil, and the edible leaves can be eaten as mustard greens. White mustard seeds are used in pickles as a strong preservative and in mayonnaise as an emulsifier. The yellow, four petal blooms of the plant that flower in mid-summer are also edible and contain a mild mustard flavor. They can be sprinkled on sandwiches or tossed on salads.

Mint: One of the most versatile herbs, thought mostly thought of as a sweet herb. Mint is an herb that comes in many varieties such as peppermint, spearmint, apple mint, lemon mint and even chocolate mint. Mint came to the New World with colonists, who used it in tea for medicinal purposes. Mint is used for seasoning lamb, vegetable such as carrots, bell pepper, and tomatoes, in yogurt dressings, and breads. It is also used in the Middle East for salads, tabouli and marinated vegetables. Mint is good in soups, salads, sauces, plain meat, fish and poultry, stews, sweet or savory recipes, extremely good with chocolate- or lemon-based desserts. Add near the end of cooking for a better flavor.

Oregano: Oregano is an herb that derives its name from two Greek words meaning "the joy of the mountain." It is a hardy member of the mint family that has been used for flavoring fish, meat and sauces since ancient times. Oregano goes well with vegetables, roast beef, lamb, chicken and pork. Generally used to season Mexican, Italian, Greek and Spanish dishes, oregano has a warm, aromatic scent and robust taste.

Parsley: Also known as curly parsley, flat leaf parsley and Italian parsley. Parsley is a great all around herb. It quickly adds a touch of color and texture to any recipe. The aroma and taste of parsley is very distinctive, which is in contrast to its reputation as being bland and only used as a garnish. Especially good in omelets, scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, soups, pasta and vegetable dishes, parsley also works nicely in sauces for fish, poultry, veal and pork. Use fresh leaves as garnish. Parsley has a delicate favor that combines well with other herbs like basil, bay leaves, chives, dill weed, garlic, marjoram, mint, oregano and thyme. Flat leaf or Italian is used primarily in cooking because of its more robust flavor, which should be added at the end of cooking for better flavor.

Rosemary: Rosemary is an herb of the mint family. It is a small evergreen shrub that is native to the Mediterranean and likes warm climates, but will flourish in nearly any climate. It is grown all over the world. It makes a great addition to window boxes and is a nice natural mosquito repellent. Rosemary's aromatic flavor blends well with garlic and thyme to season lamb roasts, meat stews, and marinades. When used sparingly, rosemary also enlivens lighter fish and poultry dishes, tomato sauces, and vegetables. Some nice uses include dressing fresh steamed red potatoes and peas or a stir-fried mixture of zucchini and summer squash. Rosemary has a tea-like aroma and a piney flavor. Crush leaves by hand or with a mortar and pestle before using.

Sage: One of my favorite herbs is sage. It must be used carefully though as it easily can overpower a dish. Sage is an herb from an evergreen shrub in the mint family. Fresh sage sprigs have long, narrow grayish green leaves and, although it is a member of the mint family, it has a musty yet smoky aroma. Sage enhances pork, lamb, meats, and sausages. Chopped leaves flavor salads, pickles, and cheese. Crumble leaves for full fragrance. If using dried, ground sage, use sparingly as foods absorb its flavor more quickly.

Savory: There are two types of savory — winter and summer. The two look much the same, but winter is a bit more pungent. Savory smells and tastes like mint and rosemary chopped together. Savory is nicknamed the bean herb. It is typically used in soups, beans and as a meat and poultry seasoning. This herb tastes slightly warm and sharp. It is a very strong herb and should be used sparingly. Use summer savory, with its more delicate flavor, for tender baby green beans, and winter savory to enhance a whole medley of dried beans and lentils.

Tarragon: This is one herb that took me a while to enjoy. It was overused at some of the first places I worked and it has taken me years to appreciate its qualities. Tarragon is an exceptional herb. It has a subtle and sophisticated flavor and is an essential herb in French cuisine. Its flavor is delicate and almost licorice- or anise-like. Tarragon, together with parsley, chervil, and chives make a traditional French blend, Fines Herbes. Tarragon is exceptional in egg dishes, poached fish, mushrooms and other vegetables, as well as with chicken and in salad dressings. It is the main flavoring in sauce béarnaise. Tarragon is also used to infuse vinegar and olive oils.

Thyme: This is my absolute favorite herb due to it fragrance, taste and versatility. There is just something magical for me when I chop fresh thyme. It brings back memories of new and exciting foods from my early culinary jobs. Fresh garden thyme is an herb that has thin grayish green leaves and a subtle lemon, yet minty aroma and taste. Thyme is used in a wide variety of cuisine, but is most closely associated with French cuisine. It is often used in soups and sauces, with meat, poultry or fish. It is also a very important component of herbes de Provence and bouquet garni. Thyme is included in seasoning blends for poultry and stuffing and also commonly used in fish sauces, chowders, and soups. It goes well with lamb and veal as well as in eggs and croquettes. Thyme is also often paired with vegetables such as tomatoes as it brings out the fresh garden flavors of these foods.

Garden Fresh Basil Pesto
Makes 1 cup

2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup pine nuts (can substitute walnuts)
3 medium-sized garlic cloves
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine basil, pine nuts and garlic in food processor; pulse a few times. Slowly add oil in slow steady stream. Scrape down sides; add salt and pepper. Add cheese and process to desired consistency. Store covered in fridge. Push plastic wrap tight against pesto to keep from turning brown. A little fresh lemon juice will also help to prevent browning.

— Orlo Coots is Head Chef at Adair Country Inn & Restaurant. Enjoy his cooking featuring local produce, cheeses and meats Thursdays through Mondays by making a reservation at 603-444-2600. Orlo can be reached at for questions about this recipe or any other food-related questions. Remember — whether cooking for one or for a crowd, make every bite count.

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