Puttin' on The Mitts: All about herbs
Familiarizing yourself with fresh herbs might be the best thing you could ever do to take your homemade cuisine to the next level. In the past, I've shared how learning to properly season my food was like a lightbulb going off for me as a home cook.
Familiarizing yourself with fresh herbs might be the best thing you could ever do to take your homemade cuisine to the next level.
In the past, I've shared how learning to properly season my food was like a lightbulb going off for me as a home cook. Suddenly, with the addition of the right amount of salt, the flavors of what I'd cooked came to life. But salt is by no means the only way to boost flavor, and in an age when heart disease experts warn against excess sodium and so many processed foods contain too much of the mineral, alternatives to flavoring foods are a must.
A variety of dried herbs are available from the grocery store, but if you've never used the herbs when they're fresh, please do yourself a favor and try it. The intensity of flavor of fresh herbs is unparalleled compared to the dried variety, particularly given its likely yours have sat in your cupboard for years (let's be honest here).
Each herb brings its own characteristics to the table, but one thing all fresh herbs have in common is the ability to make any dish look instantly fancier. What happens when you sprinkle some chopped parsley atop your lasagna, even if it came from a box? Why, you have a presentation fit for a dinner to impress.
How it looks, however, is secondary to the variety the little leaves and stems add to almost any dish. You just need to know how much to use and which flavors go well together, and that comes with experimentation, cookbook reading and time.
I'm so enamored with fresh herbs, I ensure myself a year-round supply of the trusty ingredient-well, it's almost fresh, anyway. I freeze the herbs in tablespoon-sized increments with just enough water to fill the slots in ice cube trays. Once frozen, I remove the herb cubes and place them into a freezer bag, where I have portioned almost-fresh herbs for easy access. They may discolor a bit, but the flavor remains intact, knocking dried herbs out of the park in that respect.
Plus, fresh herbs at the grocery store are overpriced in comparison to those you can find at summer farmers markets. I filled 10 ice cube trays at home with five or six different types of herbs, and spent no more than $8 on it all. The bunches were gigantic in comparison to the tiny plastic clamshells you get from the produce shelves-not to mention, they're grown locally.
The best way to use fresh herbs all year is to grow them yourself. Even in the wintertime, herbs can be grown in a kitchen window, and the stems of many herbs offer the opportunity to regrow from the same plants again and again.
Is your curiosity sufficiently piqued? Here's what I recommend: start with the herbs you know the names of first, and learn more about them. I know you've heard of parsley, and likely seen it on your plate as a garnish. I'm sure you've heard of basil, too, an ingredient showing up in various flavors of crackers, cheeses and more. These two are considered to be more delicate herb varieties, better used fresh and added to the end of a dish, for the most part.
Once you've mastered a couple you like and know, start to expand your expertise to other herbs. You don't know what you like until you try it, right?
Herbs such as thyme, rosemary and marjoram are what I think of as "cooking herbs"-or those added to dishes at the beginning or in the middle of the cooking process. They can be used fresh as well, but they stand up to more heat. These are used in rubs, in broths and in sauces, among other applications. They tend to be more robust, and the stems aren't traditionally used (although I've seen recipes using rosemary stems in place of skewers!).
Once you've mastered what I would consider the "basics"-move on to some more exotic herbs. What about sorrel? Or Thai basil? Or lemongrass or chervil?
Or don't. Just stick with the basics. Either way, you've added another tool to your culinary toolbox, and have learned a multitude of skills that can be applied in many different cooking situations.
One skill that's important to know when it comes to herbs is how to use them simply. You don't want to purchase a bunch of lavender, only to find you have use for just 1 tablespoon and the rest goes to waste.
The recipe I've included in today's column is just that: simple, and the herbs are the stars.
HERB AND FETA FRITTATA WITH KALAMATA OLIVES
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 8 eggs
- 1-2 tablespoons heavy cream (optional)
- 3 tablespoons chopped dill
- 2 teaspoons chopped chives
- 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons crumbled feta
- 2 tablespoons chopped Kalamata olives
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt, to taste
Heat the olive oil in a large, non-stick saute pan over medium heat.
In a medium bowl, add the eggs, cream, chopped herbs, feta and olives.
Whisk to combine.
Pour the egg mixture into the pan and cook for about 7-8 minutes, or until a nice browning of the eggs has occurred.
Note: You can flip the frittata if you choose, or allow it to cook through from the bottom while partially covered. Some people prefer it to be browned on both sides, while others prefer a crust to form on the bottom with a softer top.
To serve: Flip the frittata out of the pan onto a cutting board and slice into eight pieces. Serve with a tomato salad and top with additional chopped herbs.
--- --- --- --- ---
Meet The Mitts at the fair!
Now that I've dedicated an entire column to herbs-we want to know how well you know your herbs and spices!
The Mitts will be testing your culinary know-how at the Crow Wing County Fair.
Stop by the Brainerd Dispatch booth between 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Aug. 3 to guess the mystery herbs and spices-those who get the most right will be entered into a drawing for a prize package!