Sunday, July 25, 2010

Flavor Profile: Herbs

As third in my series of flavor profiles, I wanted to discuss herbs. I am a fiend for herbs and every time I am at the market, I can't help myself: I am drawn to them. Wrapped in their little bunches, tied together, they look so inviting and smell so heavenly! Some of my favorite fancy gardens are herb gardens and many plants produce lovely flowers that rival "regular" ones. Chives, for example, produce a lovely purple flower this time of year.

I love herbs because they have this natural essence that I find more interesting than salt and pepper and less biting than most spices. There is this sublety to herbs and cooking with them is a delightful experience. As Deborah Madison put it, "Fresh herbs are the greatest joy to cook with. As your hands move through their leaves, the air around you fills with their scents. Their flavors are alive, their leaves and flowers varied and charming." Herbal poetry, that is.

She goes on to explain that despite fresh herbs being superior, sometimes dried herbs are necessary because of the time of year, lack of availability, etc. Dried herbs are usually considered more potent, so less is needed. The rule of thumb is to use 1/2 to 1/3 dried herbs in lieu of fresh. Always crumble them between your fingers before adding to food to release their aromatic oils.

Herbs vary immensely and each is unique. There are so many, and perhaps I'll cover more in another Flavor Profile, but today I'm going to cover my "Top 3 Herbs for Summer". They are (in order of preference) thyme, basil and chives.

Thyme is by far my favorite herb. What aroma! There are several varieties. I grow 3 kinds: regular French thyme, creeping thyme, and lemon thyme (with its lovely hint of lemony brightness). Thyme lends itself to so many wonderful dishes. If I were to describe its aroma, I would say it imparts an earthy fragrance which makes it ideal for so many dishes, especially "comfort foods". My favorite way of enjoying them is with roasted potatoes, but thyme pairs well with: beans, in a bouquet garni, with goat cheese, in and on roasted chicken, fish, Italian cuisine, grilled lamb, meats, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, soups and stews and tomatoes.

Basil is notoriously used in Pesto. I'd include a recipe, but it's in nearly every cookbook. Basil is another one of those all-around herbs but its freshness and brightness are perfect for summer. It can be used both fresh and dried, and both work well, depending on the application. Fresh basil has a bolder flavor than dried and a little goes a long way. It also grows at my house, but it always seems to do better on my kitchen window sill than in the garden. Basil pairs well with the following: cheeses, chicken, eggs, fish especially salmon, garlic, Italian / Mediterranean cuisine especially pasta dishes and sauces, lemon, extra virgin olive oil,  pizza, roasted peppers, salads and dressings, soups, Thai cuisine, tomatoes, summer veggies and zucchini.

Chives are often overlooked, I think. As a friend recently told me, they seem to be used more in Europe than the U.S. In Germany, for instance, there is this fantastically simple dish of boiled little new potatoes, fresh cheese called Quark, and chives. Heaven! I grow 2 varieties of chives in my garden: regular and garlic chives. With a slight onion flavor, they are great with vegetables, cheese, eggs and potatoes, and in soups, salads and dressings, as well as sauces, especially those that are cheese and cream-based.

Here are a couple of herbal ideas I discovered on the blog, which is also doing an article on herbs at the moment.

HERBAL ICE CUBES: Suspend fresh herbs in ice cubes to create a beautiful presentation and to add delicious flavor to your summertime beverages. Just make sure you don’t go overboard. Use just a small amount of any herb – half a pinch of thyme or rosemary or a single basil or mint leaf, per ice cube. Try thyme ice cubes with fresh squeezed lemonade, or mint ice cubes in watermelon margaritas!

HERB-INFUSED BUTTER: This is one of those simple touches that you see at fine dining establishments that helps to separate them from their more casual counterparts. It’s also one of the easiest ways to instantly elevate your next gathering. Finely chop your favorite herb (or combination of herbs) and add to a dollop of room-temperature butter. Mix well, salt to taste and serve in a cute little ramekin. Estimate about ¼ tsp. of herb to 1 Tbsp. of butter. The blog offers several recipes for using the butter (great with either fish or vegetables, or slathered on a baguette).

For more uses for herbs this summer, try this Green Goddess Dressing, or my all-time favorite Potato Salad.
Warm Italian Potato Salad (Insalata di Patate)
2 lbs. waxy potatoes (I like Yukon Gold, they are nice and buttery)

For the dressing:
6 Tbsp. olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, basil, thyme or oregano (I prefer thyme)
salt and pepper to taste

Do not peel potatoes but boil them until tender. Then peel them. Cut them into a dice or however you like. While the potatoes are cooking, make the dressing. Pour the dressing over the potatoes while they are still warm so they absorb some of the dressing. Mix well. Serve at room temperature. Serves 6.

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