Most mornings in the summer you will find me in our garden, scissors in one hand and basket in the other, selecting fresh dew-touched herbs to add to the dishes created in the kitchen at the Carolina Bed & Breakfast. When I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s few people cooked with fresh herbs at all, let alone grew them. My mother had a mint patch from which she gathered leaves to add to peas and my father used to muddle the mint with sugar as the base for Mint Juleps but that was about the extent of it. Otherwise herbs were dried things which came in small glass jars and went in Italian dishes like spaghetti.
Because we moved overseas in 1980, it is difficult for me to know exactly when fresh herbs starting finding their way back into the American kitchen but certainly they were back in the supermarkets in the cities by the early 90’s and today one can find the ubiquitous plastic clam shells filled with basil, mint, thyme, sage and other herbs almost everywhere. But nothing beats the pleasure of walking across wet grass in the cool early morning air and gathering a handful of sweet smelling basil, pungent tarragon and sharp-smelling mint. Unless it’s the smell of these same herbs being released to the air when I cut into a warm quiche or breakfast dish.
We discovered the joys of having our own herb garden when we lived in England. There the oregano grew thick and bushy, lavender spilled over the other plants and thyme grew in the cracks between the pavement stones making the most wonderful smell when we walked across. Of course the climate here at our Asheville bed and breakfast is just a little bit harsher in the winter and a little bit hotter in the summer then in England so my herb garden has yet to achieve the lush fullness of our garden in Surrey. But I once read that the reason herbs grow so well in Provence and Italy is because the hot dry conditions concentrate and intensify the flavors. About.com says “It’s the combination of sun and slightly lean soil that seems to cause the oils, and therefore the fragrance and flavor of the herbs, to intensify. Herbs grown in a rich soil or given an abundance of food will grow lanky and have less scent and taste. ”
Whether you grow your own herbs or harvest them from a Farmer’s Market or grocery store, here are some tips from our kitchen to yours:
1) Don’t be afraid to experiment but until you feel comfortable you may want to invest in “The Flavor Bible” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. In its simplest form it will provide you will a dictionary of ingredients and flavors which have an “affinity” for each other. But if you delve into the book a bit more you will discover lots of other useful information about creating dishes. I find myself picking it up and flipping through it for ideas from time to time and always have a take-away.
2) Fresh herbs like damp airy places, kind of the opposite of your refrigerator! We’ve tried placing the stems in water like fresh cut flowers but invariably someone knocks the glass over in the fridge and that’s a mess. What seems to work best is a plastic box lined with a damp paper towel on the bottom. Layer in the herbs and then cover with one more damp paper towel. Leave the lid off the container. Instead use one of the filmy thin plastic bags you get at the grocery store for vegetables. Put the container inside it and leave the bag open to the air. We find that our herbs will keep for much longer this way and stay fresher.
3) Dried herbs should be added at the beginning of the cooking process and fresh ones towards the end.
4) Think of the meal as a whole, not a series of discrete dishes. If the main ingredient has an affinity for more than one flavor use the secondary flavor in an accompanying dish. For example, we use fresh tarragon in our asparagus quiche and serve it with a lemon muffin as both lemon and tarragon are classic pairings with asparagus (Bearnaise Sauce!)
5) Don’t limit yourself to chopped herbs. Try some other treatments as well. Leaves can be fried in a little olive oil. Use the flavored oil in your dish and then garnish with an edible fried leaf. Sage and Parsley are especially good this way. Infusions are another great way of using your herbs–particularly if you have a lot of them. We make a “tea” of fresh basil, water and a little wine which we use with blackberries. It’s fun to experiment.
How do you use herbs in your cooking? I would love to hear about it!