Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Flavor Profile: Herbs (Part Deux)

In July, I posted about my favorite summer herbs, and many of you made the potato and green bean medley that was featured. I am thrilled you liked it, too.  Thank you to everyone for your feedback!

Sage leaves
Now that it's Fall, other favorite herbs of mine appear in many of this season's dishes, such as sage and rosemary, both offering bold flavor to the dishes to which they are added.

Sage grows as a bushy plant and is evergreen in warm climates. Its strongly aromatic leaves are a soft gray-green color are are especially lovely grown in your herb garden or container. Sage is particularly good with fatty meats and cheese, fish, pasta, rice and in vinegars. Sage can be used fresh or found as a finely ground powder.

You can fry sage leaves very briefly in olive oil and add the crispy leaves as a pretty garnish on top of soups and pasta dishes such as ravioli filled with butternut squash or pumpkin, and then drizzle the flavored oil that results from the frying on top of those dishes for an excellent flavor enhancer.  You'll find this technique in the following recipe.

This is one of my favorite soups. I made it once as a first course for Thanksgiving and dinner guests that night still remember it, years later! I have made it many times since because it is simply fantastic.

Winter Squash Soup with Sage

2 Tbsp. olive oil
18 small fresh sage leaves
2.5-3 pounds winter squash (this can be anything you wish. Try a combination of Butternut, Kabocha, Red Kuri, Buttercup, or Acorn)
2 unpeeled onions, cut in half
6 cloves unpeeled garlic
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh sage leaves
3/4 tsp. fresh or 1/4 tsp. dried thyme leaves
4 cups vegetable or chicken broth
salt and pepper
3 ounces (1/2 cup) 1/2 inch cubes fontina cheese

Pour oil into a 6-8 inch frying pan and place over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add whole sage leaves (make sure they are dry, else oil will spatter everywhere) and stir until they turn a dark green, about 45 seconds to 1 minute. With a slotted spoon, lift out leaves and drain on paper towels, set aside. Reserve the oil.
Rinse squash, slice in half and scoop out seeds. Discard seeds. Brush cut surfaces of squash and onion with reserved oil. Place squash and onions cut side down in a baking pan and slip garlic underneath the squash. Bake in a 375F oven until vegetables are soft when pressed (45-60 minutes). Reserve pan juices. Scoop flesh from squash skins and discard. Peel garlic, peel and chop onions.
In a 3-4 quart pan, combine squash, garlic, onions, parsley, chopped sage, and thyme. Mash squash mixture with a potato masher and stir in reserved pan juices and the water or stock.  Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, to blend flavors, about 25 minutes. Season soup with salt and pepper to taste. Stir any remaining sage cooking oil into soup. Distribute cheese equally among 6 bowls, and ladle soup into bowls. Nice with a dollop of creme fraiche on top (but optional). Do search out Fontina cheese (Hint: Trader Joe's). It has a nutty flavor that works very nicely with the other ingredients in the soup.

Recipe courtesy of Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

Rosemary is another one of those fantastic fall herbs. Its narrow, spiky leaves perfume the air with an unmistakable piney scent. At this time of year, and occasionally in the spring, too, lovely little blue flowers nestle among the sharply pointed leaves. It's easy to grow and mine has turned into a five foot tall bush, affording me access to it all year round.

Rosemary is great with all kinds of meats and vegetables. Lamb, turkey, chicken, beef, pork all benefit from rosemary's fragrant addition. It's particularly good on the grill alongside the meats so that as it gets grilled itself, it can impart a subtle flavor to the meat. Finely chopped and added to salt and pepper, it can encrust meat before roasting. The herb is also fantastic in all sorts of soups and stews.

With such rainy weather today, it was meant to be "Soup Night" tonight, and on the menu was Italian Lentil Soup with Tomatoes.

Lentil Soup with Tomatoes

1 cup dried green or brown lentils
1-2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
3 strips bacon, diced
1 onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely diced
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
1 can (14 oz.) chopped plum tomatoes
8 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the bacon and cook for about 3 minutes. Stir in the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until softened. Stir in the celery, carrots, rosemary, bay leaves and lentils. Toss over the heat for 1 minute until thoroughly coated in oil. Pour in the tomatoes and stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, half cover the pan, and simmer for about 1 hour or until the lentils are perfectly tender. Remove the bay leaves and rosemary stem (all that will remain is the stem, the leaves will have fallen off during cooking, leave those in the soup). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4.

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