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September, 2008

Cooking with Fresh Herbs

By Dennis Linden

Herbs contain no calories or fat and are essential for use in salt-restricted diets to enhance flavor without adding sodium content. Herbs should be used to augment a food’s natural flavors without overpowering the palate.

Organic Cilantro
Recently a chef submitted a recipe for another article I had been working on for this feature that included the simple plating suggestion of frying up some fresh herbs as a garnish that added both great flavor and eye appeal to the dish. I not only tried it, but combined the leftover fried herbs with some high quality olive oil to make a wonderfully tasty sourdough bread dip. The experience reminded me of just how versatile this produce category can be, with a bit of handling and storage knowledge. Herbs contain no calories or fat and are essential for use in salt-restricted diets to enhance flavor without adding sodium content. When using herbs to season foods it is important to use them sparingly. Herbs should be used to augment a food’s natural flavors without overpowering the palate. Try not to mix two very strong herbs together. Instead combine one strong herb with several milder herbs to complement both the stronger herb as well as the food. Usually, the weaker the flavor of the food, like eggs, fish or poultry, the less herbs are required to produce a nice taste balance. Conversely, using too much or a mix of very strong herbs with the same lighter foods can smother a dish.

Baby Leaves
Since the flavor and aroma of herbs deteriorates very quickly after purchase, use them immediately. If you must store them, keep them in the refrigerator in a plastic bag that is perforated and can breathe. Freezing fresh herbs is a great way to store them for longer periods of time. Clean the herbs delicately, blot them dry, and remove leaves from the stalks. You can freeze them whole or chopped in freezer safe bags or airtight containers. Another great trick for herbs that will be used in soups or stews is to finely chop a blend of herbs, then spoon the mixture into an ice cube tray, cover with water and freeze. When you are ready to use the herbs, just remove the amount of cubes that you need from the tray and add to the pot!

Another way of using herbs in a dish that requires a lengthy cooking period is to make a small, tied bunch of fresh herb sprigs. This bundle is generally known as a bouquet garni and customarily contains parsley, bay leaf, and thyme. Herbal combinations can also be minced and added to a meal immediately upon completion of cooking, or added as a garnish just before serving. This mincing is a French practice referred to in recipes as fines herbes and usually contains chopped fresh chervil, parsley, tarragon, and chives. Remember, extended cooking times reduces the flavoring of herbs, so add fresh herbs to soups or stews about 45 minutes before completing the cooking time.

Today there has been a great surge of renewed interest in herbs, with the popularity of various ethnic cuisines having prompted the new interest. Melissa’s carries a wide range of herbs that will open up a world of new flavors with a little experimentation. Start sparingly with the amount of an herb used until you become familiar with it. If you are unsure of a particular herb, finely chop 1 tablespoon of it into a half cup margarine, butter, or cream cheese. Let it set for at least an hour to blend the flavor; then taste test on a plain cracker or a melba round. You will gain a great feel for the dimensions of what the flavor will be good with by taste testing in this manner. Plus it’s a great excuse to nibble on cream cheese and crackers with a purpose. Enjoy!