Practical Tips and Historical Lore
Your kitchen probably has a stash of them: little bottles, cans and bags stuffed with dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, sage and other herbs. If so, The Herbal Palate Cookbook doesn’t waste time in breaking the news about what you’re missing. “Quite simply, fresh herbs are best,” authors Maggie Oster and Sal Gilbertie assert in the first sentence of the introduction to the book. “Yes, dried, frozen, or otherwise preserved herbs are better than none at all. But once you become attuned to the flavor of fresh-from-the-garden herbs, nothing else seems quite the same.”
Chilled Herb Soup [top]
2 Tbs unsalted butter
2 Tbs canola oil
1 pound sweet onions (such as Vidalia, Walla Walla or Maui), chopped
¼ cup unbleached or all-purpose flour
4 cups vegetable stock or canned vegetable broth
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups fresh parsley leaves
1 cup fresh chives or garlic chives
¼ cup fresh burnet leaves
2 Tbs fresh thyme or lemon thyme leaves
2/3 cups low-fat or nonfat sour cream
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbs herb vinegar or lemon juice
Low-fat or nonfat sour cream
Minced fresh herbs or edible flowers
1. In a large saucepan, heat the butter and oil over medium heat and stir in onions. Cook for about 8 minutes, or until onions are soft, stirring occasionally.
2. Sprinkle flour over the top and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Stir in stock or broth and wine and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes or until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and stir in parsley, chives, burnet and thyme. Cool to lukewarm.
3. In a blender, puree soup in batches until very smooth. Whisk in sour cream, salt, and pepper. Refrigerate in a covered container for at least 4 hours but not more than 24. Just before serving, stir in vinegar or lemon juice, cream and minced fresh herbs or edible flowers.
Source: The Herbal Palate Cookbook
Preserving Herbs [top]
The authors of The Herbal Palate Cookbook are both avid gardeners. Sal Gilbertie operates a retail garden center and grows more than 400 herbs for the wholesale market. Maggie Oster, who grew up on a farm, now lives in New York City where she has had to perfect the art of container gardening. Their personal bias is clear: for the freshest herbs, grow them yourself. They offer pointers on indoor cultivation to help you extend the season. Yet try as you might, you won’t have fresh herbs at your disposal year-round, the authors acknowledge. So they offer a number of suggestions on how to preserve the herb harvest.
The simplest way to freeze herbs is to blanch them, dip them in ice water, pat them dry and freeze them on a cookie sheet. Or you can puree the herbs with a small amount of water and freeze the pulp in ice cube trays.
Dry herbs for one day then layer the leaves with either granulated or powdered sugar in an air-tight jar.
Mix herbs and room-temperature butter in the proportion of 1 tablespoon minced herbs to 4 tablespoons butter. Then blend in 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer, in logs or molds if you like. As for which herbs to use in making butter, the authors suggest, “Experiment with them all, even with herb seeds and edible flowers.”
Edible flowers and the leaves of mint can be crystalized and used to decorate cakes, puddings and other desserts. To crystalize, beat an egg white at room temperature until it is frothy. Using a clean artist’s brush, paint all sides of the leaves or flowers with the egg mixture. Immediately sprinkle the sticky leaves or flowers with superfine sugar, place them on a cake rack or screen set over a baking sheet and leave them to dry in a cool, dry place.
Herb-Infused Oil [top]
The technique for making infused oil is much the same whether the ingredient is basil, rosemary, oregano, garlic, chiles, mushrooms or citrus fruit. For every cup of olive oil, use two tightly packed cups of basil or any other soft-leaved green herb–chervil, chives, cilantro, mint. (Tarragon does not work well except early in the spring when it is very sweet, he writes. Otherwise it tends to taste bitter when infused.) Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add the herbs, making sure that the leaves are submerged, and blanch for five seconds. Drain into a strainer and immediately plunge the herbs into a bowl of ice water. Drain well and squeeze out all liquid. Puree in a blender with olive oil. Strain puree immediately through a fine-mesh strainer. Strain again through four layers of cheesecloth. Put in a sterilized glass bottle, cover tightly and refrigerate. For optimum flavor, use within a week.
Chiarello recommends using a blender, which makes a finer, smoother puree and extracts more flavor than a food processor. To filter the mixture, he uses cheesecloth, which he first rinses and squeezes dry. Coffee filters can also be used, although they, too, should be rinsed and squeezed dry first. Patience is required. Pour the oil slowly, and stir occasionally. You will probably need several filters.
You can use the infused oil in, among other things, the following recipe for a vinaigrette, which tastes as good on chicken or roasted eggplant as on a green salad.
Source: Flavored Oils: 50 Recipes for Cooking With Infused Oils, by Michael Chiarello
Herb Tea [top]
To make herb tea, Sara Perry, author of The Book of Herbal Tea, recommends immersing 2-3 teaspoons of the fresh herb or 1 teaspoon of dried herb in one cup of water that has just come to a boil and steep for 5 to 10 minutes. Place the herb either directly in the water or use a tea ball. Don’t use water that has reached a rolling boil as it will evaporate too many of the volatile oils. Capturing as much of those oils as possible in the tea itself is the key to expert herbal tea-making, she writes. For that reason, dedicated herbalists should, if possible, grow or gather their own herbs or buy them at farmers markets, where they are likely to be fresher and handled less. The following recipe is recommended by one of the Pacific Northwest’s most renowned herbalists, Patti Chambers, for the days of springs when plants are just coming to life.
Spring Garden Herbal Tea
10 fresh purple sage leaves
16 fresh lemon balm leaves
12 small mint leaves
petals of 1 red rose
2 rose-scented geranium leaves (optional)
6 cups freshly boiling water
1. In a pre-warmed, 6-cup teapot, place the sage leaves, lemon balm leaves, mint leaves, rose petals, and geranium leaves (if using).
2. Pour in the freshly boiling water, and let the tea steep for 10 to 20 minutes.
Source: The Book of Herbal Tea, by Sara Perry
Herbal Tips and Lore [top]
- An all-purpose “herbal rule of thumb,” the authors write, is this: “When in doubt, use thyme.” It is most commonly used as a stewing herb, but a more offbeat suggestion was inspired by the most highly prized honey of ancient Greece, made by bees that swarmed over the thyme meadows of Mount Hymettus. You can make your own version of this legendary concoction by steeping thyme in store-bought honey.
- Roman soldiers bathed in thyme to boost their courage. Others have sworn that it prevents nightmares, repels moths and is an excellent conditioner for dark hair.
- Pineapple sage “is rapidly becoming a favorite among herb lovers, adored for its pineapple-scented-and-flavored leaves.” It “can only be used fresh,” the authors assert, though its essence can be captured in an herbal vinegar, butter or sugar.
- Students in ancient Greece wore sprigs of rosemary around their necks during exams to improve their memory.
- The resinous flavor of rosemary make it a natural with lamb, poultry or pork.
- Savory was said to be such a powerful aphrodisiac that monks in medieval Italy were prohibited from growing it.
- The flavor of delicate herbs such as chervil and lemon balm is lost when cooked for more than a few minutes, so add them at the last minute or don’t cook them at all.
- In the “don’t try this at home” department, consider this bit of wisdom from ancient Greece: rub lemon balm on a hive of riled-up bees to calm them down.
- Most herbs are at their peak of flavorful perfection just before they begin to flower. The best time to harvest them is in the morning just after the dew has dried.