Always room for herbs


Couple of issues back, Bon Appétit had their cover photo of pasta with a parsley pesto. I was reminded of how tasty  a simple pasta dish is with just one or two good herb flavors.

A few years ago, I looked at our patio, which is just off our kitchen, and decided we should have pots of kitchen herbs close and handy. So I planted rosemary, parsley, spearmint, peppermint, sage, thyme, dill, chives and tarragon; it’s amazing how many plants can be squeezed into a few pots (since hedges of mint and rosemary aren’t in our landscape plan, I’ve learned the hard way not to plant them directly into the ground). In the spring, as the garlic is sprouting in our refrigerator, I can’t help planting a few in the same pot with the patio tomato. And as soon as it warms up, I take that pot of fresh basil from the grocery store, and put that in there too.

Yeah, some herbs don’t do so well: catnip gets regularly destroyed when Gus, the 22-pound orange kitty (he brings the term “fat cat” to life), drags himself off the couch and into the backyard. And just as the chervil begins getting close to maturation, Biscuit pulls it out claiming she doesn’t want weeds on her patio. But the rest grow fast and profusely. What to do and how to use it?

I know mint is used in a lot of Middle East and Asian fare, but we pretty much limit our use to mint juleps, exotic tropical drinks and garnish on fruit.

I guess one could dry the others, but honestly, if you want dried thyme or sage, there’s a good selection in every grocery spice rack, and it’s a lot easier.

So I use them as pesto and to flavor oils.

“Traditional” pesto is basil, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil. I use slivered almonds, instead of expensive (and hard to find) pine nuts. A nice variation is parsley, instead of basil. The other day, I made a sage, rosemary and thyme pesto. Hold the garlic and parmesan — you can add those later, if you want — and in the meantime you can freeze the base mixture. All of these are tasty shmears on various roasted, grilled or sautéed meats, and it adds unaccustomed flavors. Incidentally, while basil-based pesto turns black when exposed to air (it doesn’t affect the flavor), other herbs don’t . Of course, because of the cheese and garlic, you should refrigerate your pesto. A couple of cookbooks say you can freeze it as is. Other sources say you should leave out the garlic and cheese before you freeze.

I froze mine and it works.

The other day, on a variation of grilled burgers, I sliced patties of pork loin, pounded them a little flatter into burger patty size, and grilled them quickly at high heat. After turning the first side, I smeared a rosemary/thyme/sage/chives/garlic/Parmesan pesto on the cooked side. You could smear it directly on a toasted bun. It makes a nice change, and it’s healthier, too.

Use flavored oils for frying, marinating or in your favorite salad dressing. A basil and thyme oil, with champagne vinegar, is pretty good over greens.Flavored oils bring an unexpected zing to various meats and marinades. Simply heat oil (I usually use grape-seed oil, because it doesn’t burn easily and has a neutral taste) and add a bunch of herbs. “French fry” the herbs and remove just before they burn or blacken. Let the oil cool and put it in a jar and label. There’s some question about whether or not you should  refrigerate the oil for long-term storage. I guess to be safe, you probably should.

I came home from a fishing trip the other day, and in a variation of a recipe from my newest favorite (“Farmhouse Cookbook,” Susan Loomis), I marinated fresh trout with a sage, rosemary and garlic oil for about eight hours, then sautéed it slowly in the same oil with potatoes and mushrooms. Use flavored oils for frying, marinating or in your favorite salad dressing. A basil and thyme oil, with champagne vinegar, is pretty good over greens.

So don’t let those herbs go to seed (except the caraway!) in your backyard. You know they’re out there somewhere. Remember how you stocked up on those cute little plants last spring?

In the meantime, I need to find some mint recipes; ours is beginning to shade the side of the house.


Ol' Mick

I'm an old guy, been eating all my life. And I've been blessed with marrying a really good cook (she's an actual prize-winner) who still looks much better than do I. Two daughters, both in the food business (one in PR, the other in sales), and both married guys, who also like to cook. Consequently our family gatherings sometimes resemble a raucous cut-throat foodie TV contest on a cooking channel.

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