Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fun With Herbs

Herbs have such potent flavors that they can be used to enhance food with very little preparation required. I want to go over three of my favorite methods of using herbs without any cooking at all (at least not the herb portion of the food).

The first method is pesto, which is nothing more than a paste made from a few simple ingredients. The classic Genovese pesto is fresh basil, olive oil, a clove or two of raw garlic, parmesan cheese and pine nuts. Ground up in a mortar and pestle or a food processor, pesto can be added to cooked pasta, stuffed into ravioli, or used as a spread on pizza. The amount of flavor in pesto means you don't need to add very much to make a big impact. Also, almost all of these ingredients can be substituted with other ingredients.

I have used spinach, parsley, arugula, coriander, mint and watercress either in combination or in place of the basil, and all have been very nice. Also, the pine nuts can be pretty expensive, so you can use chopped walnuts in place of them, or pistachios or any soft nut with a neutral flavor. Peanuts could be used, but I would be picky about which herbs to use with them because of their distinct taste. Lastly, any good quality oil can be used, including grapeseed oil.

The second herb application I like to use is something called Chimichurri in Argentina. It is basically the same as pesto, but without the parmesan or nuts. By grinding or blending various herbs with garlic and oil, and perhaps a small amount of chilis, you can make a wonderful sauce that can be added to practically any savory dish, from rice and potatoes to steaks and fish. I keep this around in place of ketchup, and once you taste this I think you might do the same. The classic herbs to use are half parsley and half coriander, but any nice fresh green herbs will do. For pork dishes, basil works best, while mint goes very well with lamb dishes. No matter what it will be tough to make one that tastes bad!

The last of my three herb preparations is herb butter. I let the butter soften at room temperature, and then I chop some herbs up. Sometimes I will also add chopped garlic, or a bit of lemon zest for some extra zip. I then blend these into butter, roll up the butter in some wax paper to make a two-inch thich roll of butter. I then toss this into the freezer to chill. When I need a little extra fresh flavor on some steak or on fish or in rice, I cut off a slice or two as needed. Again, you can pick flavors to match your food; I like to use dill if I know I will be cooking salmon (which is pretty often!).

I would love to see comments about how you use herbs; I think they are a great addition to any meal, not only for their flavor but for the nutrients as well.

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