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How and When to Use Fresh Herbs

Tips and tricks from The Essential Good Food Guide by Margaret M. Wittenberg.

The Essential Good Food Guide by Margaret M. WittenbergThe Essential Food Guide is the definitive guide to buying, storing, and enjoying whole foods, in full color for the first time and revised and updated throughout.

Fresh herbs are valued for their exceptional flavors, textures, and shapes, which can make even the simplest salad or sandwich a delicious, stylish masterpiece. They’re also a rich source of nutrients. Even when used as a garnish, they can make an irreplaceable contribution to a dish: a whole sprig or chopped leaves arranged on an entrée or as an accent on a plate can help whet the appetite and create a harmonious mood. Herbs are generally easy to raise, and because many of them can be grown in pots, even someone without a garden or backyard can have a personal culinary herb garden.

As a general rule, use three times as much fresh herb as dried. Except for the more hardy herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and winter savory, fresh herbs should be added only during the last ten to fifteen minutes of cooking—just long enough to lose their volatile oils without losing flavor or becoming bitter. Sometimes it’s best to add especially tender herbs, such as cilantro and chervil, at the very end of the cooking time, when you turn off the heat. On the other hand, when you’re making dips, herb butters, and cheese spreads, fresh herbs should be added several hours before serving to allow the flavor to fully develop.

While basil, chives, cilantro, dill, oregano, parsley, rosemary, and sage will always remain cherished favorites, I encourage you to explore the fresh herbs described below.

Fennel
Fennel root is a marvelous vegetable; the plant also has feathery bluish green leaves with a mild aniselike flavor and fragrance, which can be used as an herb. Mince the leaves and sprinkle them sparingly on salads or use them to garnish soups, beans, cabbage, fish, egg dishes, and rice. Fennel leaves are also delicious when added to gently heating oil to add dimension to a vegetable sauté. (Fennel seeds, while they are not a fresh herb, are equally important as a seasoning; I always add them to spaghetti sauce and even include a few when preparing oatmeal.)

Lemongrass
Lemongrass has long, fibrous stalks with a decidedly lemony flavor, which is so characteristic of soups, stir-fries, and noodle dishes from Thailand and Southeast Asia. When it’s intended as an ingredient within a dish, only the tender inner stalk is minced. To use as a flavoring agent, cut a large piece from the whole stalk that will be easy to remove once the dish is cooked.

Mint
Mint is available in many varieties beyond the familiar peppermint and spearmint, several with names that suggest their heavenly scents and flavors. Use chocolate mint in tea (two tablespoons fresh mint per cup of hot water) or as a garnish on desserts, or just rub the leaf between your thumb and index finger to enjoy its marvelous aroma. Pineapple mint, which has just a hint of pineapple taste, also makes a wonderful tea and works well as a garnish for sweet beverages, fruit salads, and desserts. Finely chopped, it’s a delicious addition to cooked rice or other grains; stir it in just before serving. Ginger mint, another must-try fruity-flavored variety, is delicious in salads or when stirred into steamed carrots or cooked rice just before serving.

Tarragon
Tarragon has narrow, delicate, grayish green leaves that are at their best when used fresh. The preferred variety, French tarragon, has an assertive but sweet flavor and an aroma reminiscent of anise and fennel. It’s a familiar component in culinary blends such as herbes de Provence, fines herbes, and bouquet garni, and sprigs of tarragon are often used to flavor vinegar. On its own, it’s a good seasoning for beans, vegetables, sauces, poultry, eggs, and fish dishes, but use a light hand when adding it.

Thyme
Thyme is an all-purpose herb that, like mint, is available in a wide range of flavors. Some have a lemony taste; others, a hint of orange or caraway. Use all varieties in salads, as a garnish, or cooked with vegetables, especially sautéed or grilled mushrooms, as well as in soups and stews and to season poultry, meat, or fish dishes.

Reprinted with permission from The Essential Good Food Guide by Margaret Wittenberg, copyright (c) 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

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