Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Big 5 Herbs

Here is my Petaluma Post column from September.  Enjoy.

Sweet Basil, Opal Basil and Thyme
One of the most common questions that I get asked is what herbs pair well with what foods.  It is such a broad question that it could take a book to answer properly.  Part of the answer is easy; herbs are often associated with dishes of certain countries, like cilantro with Mexican, basil with Italian, and dill for Mediterranean and Russian.
Fresh herbs will add a brightness and freshness to any dish, so remember to clip those pots that you have sitting on your windowsill and experiment.  Dried are fine, but fresh pack more pop.  But that being said, dried herbs are more concentrated, so as a rule of thumb use twice as many fresh herbs.
Cilantro, most commonly used in Mexican cuisine in salsas, is also known as coriander (the dried seeds) or Chinese parsley.  Another common use is in many Asian dishes.  Add a touch to a Chinese chicken salad or fresh spring rolls. Cilantro is very tender and most of the pant can be used down to the tougher stems, try chopping and adding to a green salad for flavor.
Basil well known for uses in Italian sauces and pesto is also used the world around. Originating in India over 5000 years ago is one of the most used herbs in the world.  It is very easy to grow and comes in a variety of hybrids.  Sweet basil is most commonly seen in Italy and the US, however Thai basil with a sweeter flavor and a purple hue is growing in popularity.  There is also lemon basil that can be a great addition to seafood dishes.  One concern when using basil is that it bruises easily, so when using fresh basil make sure to take care to cut it at the last minute, and into long thin strips (a chiffonade).

Lemon Basil Cream Sauce
1 small shallot, minced
2 Tbl olive oil
1 cup heavy cream
1 Tbl Chiffonade of lemon basil
Salt and pepper

Sauté the shallot in olive oil until translucent, then add the cream and reduce by half, about 8 to 10 minutes.  Sauté your fish of choice.  Then, just before serving add the basil and season with salt and pepper, and Ladle over the fish.  Enjoy.

Dill, one of my favorites, is known for Mediterranean and Russian cuisine; however it is probably one of the most used herbs in the world.  From its use in Gravlox in Sweden to borscht in Romania, it is also heavily used in Vietnamese cuisine. We all know the traditional use of both the seeds and the fronds in pickles.

Dill Tomato Cream Sauce 
4 cups diced tomatoes (canned is fine)
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 tsp fresh dill
1 oz olive oil
¼ cup cream
½ oz honey
Salt & Pepper to taste

Sauté the onions in the olive oil until translucent, then add the tomatoes and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes.  Add the cream, honey and S&P and blend well with a beurre mixer.

Thyme is very underused here in the US.  With its earthy flavor it is often over looked.  Most people think to bring it out in the winter months to add to soups and stews.  Yes a pinch can add a great flavor to your French onion soup, but it is also a great addition during the summer to your fresh vegetables.  Just a pinch will add depth.  When using with meats it is great with both pork and chicken.  Unlike the other herbs that we discussed the leaves are edible, however the stems are not.  In my opinion it is ok the throw a branch in, allow the leaves to cook off, and then retrieve before serving.

 Summer Succotash
1 small yellow onion diced
½ lbs zucchini, small dice
3 ears of corn cut off the cob
½ lbs green beans cut into 1” pieces
2 to 4 Tbl olive oil
1 large sprig fresh thyme
Salt and pepper

Sauté the onion and thyme in olive oil, then add in the rest of the vegetables and sauté will tender.  Remove thyme stem.  Season with salt and pepper enjoy.  We had this at home just the other day and everyone loved it.

Oregano another one of our popular Italian herbs is also commonly used in Mexican cuisine.  Often used in pasta sauces and stew.  It is a close cousin of sweet marjoram that is used more in the northern Italian cuisine. Try adding a touch to your stews and soups for a bit of added flavor

Here’s a handy cheat sheet.  Just don’t be limited by it.
Cilantro – Mexican, Asian and with chicken
Basil – Italian, Indian, and with seafood
Dill – Mediterranean, Russian, Vietnamese, and with seafood
Thyme – French and with vegetables, pork and chicken
Oregano – Mexican, Italian and with soups

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