One Ingredient: Fresh Herbs
by Julie Van Rosendaal
Even those of us who lack gardening skills, or the back yard
necessary to accommodate raised beds, are able to nurture a
gratifyingly lush display of fresh herbs on our decks or window sills. If you can avoid the hail, flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, tarragon, chives, dill, sage, rosemary and thyme will grow happily in small or large containers indoors or out with minimal tending. Fresh mint is so prolific it can easily take over your yard or garden beds (which is likely what prompted the invention of mojitos), but basil must be coddled – too hot, too cold, too much water or not enough and it will pack it in, so it’s best to use it up on pizzas and in pesto before its leaves begin to curl.
Bundles of fresh herbs have largely replaced the tiny glass jars on the shelf of my childhood. Filled with dusty, Oscar-the-Grouch coloured oregano, Italian seasoning and herbes de provence, you’d have to crush the dry leaves between your fingers to coax out a faint whiff of the herb you wanted your dinner to be flavoured with. But rarely do we go for a pinch these days; fresh herbs have become major players rather than mere seasonings, added by the roughly chopped handful for maximum freshness and flavour, particularly in bold South American and Middle Eastern dishes. If you’re buying instead of growing them, store hardy herbs by laying them out on a damp paper towel and rolling them up jelly roll-style, then sliding the roll into the plastic bag they came home in to extend their fridge life. More fragile herbs, like basil and mint, can be stored upright in a glass of water, like a bouquet; some people cover them with a plastic bag in the fridge.
There are exceptions, of course – sprigs of rosemary and thyme could easily overwhelm a dish, and are often added by the small branch to flavour a pot of stew or a braise before being plucked out at serving time. (Alternatively, pull the leaves from their stem, and in the case of rosemary, chop it rough or fine.) And dried herbs are still perfectly acceptable, particularly if you dry them yourself – unless you successfully cook your way through an entire bunch (or summer harvest), you’ll need to. Fortunately, it’s easy: lay branches of rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage or other fresh herbs on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and slide it into the oven at its lowest setting for an hour or two. Turn the oven off and leave it inside to dry as it cools. Rub the herbs off their branches and store in small airtight containers to rub between your fingers into whatever you’re making that could use a little lift.
Read One Ingredient in the digital issue of City Palate.