Whether you carefully add the exact amount required by a recipe or instinctively add them according to your taste buds, simple leaves can add an extraordinary amount of flavour and excitement to your meal. But just as there are myriad herbs for the choosing, so are there ways to use them.
Fresh herbs, in bunches or in plastic clamshells, can be expensive. Usually, you need only a small amount of the herb, and if you can’t make use of the remainder, it languishes in the fridge until it becomes green sludge.
If you’re not up to planning your meals around pricey herbs, you can prolong their life by washing the bunch (remove the elastic first), then run them through a salad spinner and refrigerate them in one of those plastic containers specifically designed to keep produce fresher, longer. Add fresh herbs near the end of cooking to preserve their delicate taste and colour.
It seems that most contemporary recipes scorn the use of dried herbs. While they may not be as pretty or socially aspirational, dried herbs definitely have their place in the kitchen, including my own. Dried herbs resurrect their flavours when simmered in liquids for long periods of time, like in soups and sauces. They can be a challenge in baking — I once added dried rosemary to a savoury cake, only to have my gums poked upon consumption. The same recipe, with fresh rosemary, was a pain-free revelation.
Dried herbs are an affordable alternative to fresh because they have a long shelf life — but if you open a container and can’t smell anything, it may be time to replace your supply. Look beyond the grocery store; you can find a variety at bulk stores, ethnic groceries, our own farmers’ market and even health stores. Regardless of your supplier, your dried herbs will keep longer if you store them in air-tight containers in a cool, dry place.
But at this time of year, when everything is growing, it seems only natural to plant a few seeds of savory, marjoram or parsley in your garden, whether it’s a corner of the family farm or a few containers on your deck. If you don’t have a green thumb, you can buy a ready-made herb garden to grace your windowsill.
As the home-made, home-grown movement becomes a permanent aspect of our culinary culture, having fresh herbs at your fingertips is practical, while providing that wow factor cooks desire, especially while entertaining. Plus, you can enjoy the greenery and even dry extra for off-season use. And of course, you can’t beat the taste of something that was still growing mere moments before.
If the ground ever dries up, I intend on sowing a few thyme and peppermint seeds — both perennials — in our tiny backyard. The annuals will go into pots on our porch, and hopefully Charlotte will reap some educational rewards as we witness the seeds sprout and grow. I know our meals will benefit, too.
One of my chosen annuals is coriander, also known as cilantro. It’s a particularly divisive herb: people either love the pungently fresh, almost soapy taste, or despise. The herb is also interesting because the seeds and leaves can be used. The seeds are more often called coriander and give a warm citrus flavour to Indian dishes, while the leaves — commonly called cilantro — are often found in Thai recipes, or as a garnish on Chinese and Mexican foods. If a recipe calls for a small quantity, and you’re not a fan, substitute regular parsley.
But I’m firmly in the “love” camp when it comes to cilantro — and I loved this unique potato salad. The sweetness of the peas counteracts some of the cilantro’s bite, and the bright green dressing is a real eye-catcher on the buffet table.
Fingerling Potato and Pea Salad with Cilantro Pesto
(From House & Home, May 2013)
2 lbs. fingerling or mini potatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cups frozen peas
1 1/2 cups cilantro leaves, packed
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp. pine nuts
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp. white wine vinegar
Cover potatoes with cold water in a large pot, bring to a boil over high heat, add salt, and cook until tender, 12-15 minutes. Drain. Spread onto a baking tray to cool, then cut in half. Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil, add peas and cook until tender, about two minutes. Cool, drain and dry on a paper towel.
In a food processor, combine cilantro, garlic and pine nuts, and pulse until finely chopped. With motor running, add oil in a stream, and season with salt and pepper.
In a large bowl, combine potatoes, peas, pesto and vinegar. Mix thoroughly prior to serving. Serves six to eight as a side.