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Volume 37 Issue 7, June 7 - 13, 2007
now in our 37th season

Forget the Rules

by Maryjane Mojer

I’m a firm believer that cooking and baking both offer something for everyone as a hobby or profession.  You can feed yourself, feed your family, nourish your creative side, and tame your inner science geek.  With cooking, though recipes are there to follow, the rules are somewhat flexible.  A pinch of this, a dash of that, and you’re adding a bit of you and creating what may become a signature dish.  With baking, it’s more about rules and structure. Baking is a science, and the way that the ingredients interact and depend on each other is imperative to the success of the finished product.  Herbs fit in quite nicely to both schools of thought and small bit can transform a recipe—even one that you make regularly— into a special event.                        

Using herbs can be very intimidating. There are so many, and they have the same sort of reputation as wine used to….red goes with beef, white with fish, tarragon with…is it chicken?  Or beef?  Or both?  Much like wine, it depends on you, on your taste.  There are absolute classic dishes that call for particular herbs, and learning to make a killer béarnaise with fresh chervil or tarragon is an accomplishment.  But making a classic sauce and then adding your own spin can be just plain fun.

For me, the number one rule with herbs is to forget any rules.  First, let’s tackle fresh herbs verses dried.  Fresh herbs will give a cleaner, fresher flavor, and a brightness that you won’t get with dried, although dried herbs do have their place in your cupboard.  With fresh herbs, more often than not, you’ll add them at the end of a cooking process, and with dried earlier on, allowing time for them to be revived and become incorporated into a dish.  A good place to start when replacing dried with fresh is one to three: that is, if a recipe calls for one teaspoon of dried parsley, add a tablespoon of fresh.

A few suggestions: (Not rules!)

When adding more than one herb to a dish, add them one by one.  Let them sit and simmer, then taste before adding another.  Educate yourself by tasting, smelling as you go.  Cooking (and baking!) are multisensory activities.  It’s not just about the finished product…the joy is in the process, too!

Plant pots of herbs to use all summer long.  Herbs grow great in containers, take up little room, are easy to harvest and look beautiful in a windowbox or on your porch.

When you use fresh herbs from your herb pots, give them a rinse, pat them dry with a paper towel and chop away.  I use a pair of scissors for chives or scallions and a sharp knife and cutting board for most others.  I only cut or chop what I need for a particular recipe, and if I cut too much, I wrap the extras in a damp paper towel, and keep them in the refrigerator.

If, however, you have a bit too much chopped or minced and not enough to store, a basic herbal vinaigrette is a great use.  Any herb is fine to use.  I like to use a small mason jar to mix and store this:

Herb Vinagrette

1 tablespoon minced shallots

1 tablespoon chopped thyme

2 tablespooons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon of salt (or more to taste)

1/4 teaspoon of pepper (or more to taste)

1/2 cup of good olive oil

In a jar with a tight fitting lid, add the shallots, thyme, lemon juice, salt and pepper.  Shake vigorously until the salt is dissolved.  Add the olive oil and shake.

If you have one of those handy, dandy hand-held blenders, use a jar that the blender will fit in.  If you prefer a creamy dressing, add a bit of Dijon mustard.  It will help to emulsify the oil, and create that creamier texture.

Harvest and Storage

I use to have this lovely, romantic notion of my home filled with dried herbs and baskets hanging from the rafters or my grandmother’s drying rack. The honeymoon was quickly over after discovering how quickly dust and bugs are attracted to hanging, drying herbs.  I prefer to freeze them. You’re absolutely not going to get the same flavor and quality with frozen that you have with fresh.  Parsley and other tender herbs will lose it’s taste and bright green color when frozen.  However, when you do use it frozen, you’ll get a tiny bit of flavor, a bit more aroma, and the satisfaction of having not wasted that last bit of parsley in your garden.

Basil is very forgiving to being frozen.  Also, I tend to make massive quantities of pesto when the basil is available.  I put the pesto in small resealable bags, squeeze the air out, lay them flat, and toss them in the freezer.  I tend to use this more frequently than a plain, frozen basil.  However, if you want to freeze it alone, that’s fine, too.

Another way to freeze tender herbs is to chop them up, (though not too fine), pack them into an old-style ice cube tray, fill it with water and freeze. Once frozen, pop them out and store them either in a plastic container or in resealable freezer bags so they won’t pick up any off tastes in your freezer. (Not that you have such things, but better safe than sorry!)   When you want to add a bit of flavor to a stock, a soup (homemade or store-bought), a pot of rice, or a bowl of pasta, grab a cube and pop it in. It will melt in no time.

If you really, really want to go down the drying herbs road, there is hope. For drying herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano and so on, hang them upside down for two to three days.  I find that, if I hang them for a few days in a well ventilated room, THEN place them in a paper bag, with holes in the sides, still ventilated, after a couple of weeks I can just mush the bag around, breaking off all of the dried bits.  I can then easily pour the nicely dried, not dusty and buggy herbs into jars and store them in a cool, dark place.

There is one rule: each summer, as the new, beautiful plants emerge,toss out your old dried herbs.

Basil Pesto

2  packed cups fresh basil leaves, removed from stem

1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves

1/2 cup olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1/4 cup roasted pine nuts

1/4 cup fresh Parmesan or Asiago cheese

In a blender or food processor, puree the basil, parsley, oil, garlic, salt, and pepper. Add the nuts and the cheese and process briefly until the pesto reaches the desired consistency. Makes 2 cups.

Herb Butter

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

3 cloves garlic, finely sliced

1 tablespoon minced basil

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon minced marjoram

1 teaspoon minced sage

Chop, chop, chop all herbs and garlic. Combine with all other ingredients. Smear generously on bread or biscuits.  Broil in oven untiltoasty brown.  Store butter in refrigerator or can be frozen.

My favorite summer herb use is the following.  It’s also the most requested dish from my summer guests.

In a large pot with a lid, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil.  Add a few chopped cloves of garlic and a chopped shallot or two.  Then add a couple of chopped up tomatoes, if you happen to have them.  If not, add a can of tomatoes, or leave them out.

Stir everything to blend well.

Add about a cup of mixed herbs. I grab my scissors and head for the herb pots.  Chives, thyme, basil, marjoram or whatever I grab first, and I really just rough chop it with the scissors.  Toss all of this into the pot and stir.

Add a few pounds of cleaned mussels, toss to coat with all of the herby, tomato-ey, garlicky goodness.  Pour in a bottle of beer, put the lid on, reduce to a simmer, and walk away for about eight to ten minutes.  If you'd like to add vermouth, go right ahead.  I like beer.  Make sure you have some great bread on hand for sopping up the goodness.

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