Using Fresh Herbs
If you're a pesto lover, you can likely describe in great detail the fragrant and flavorful properties fresh basil can bestow on one's pasta. A little sprinkling of fresh chives on a baked potato makes an instant and tasty impact. Using fresh herbs, whether common or rare, single or in combination, is a simple way to transform an ordinary dish into an extraordinary one.
For those new to using fresh herbs, it needn't be intimidating—many of the same dried herb combinations, like basil, oregano and thyme for Italian cooking, for example, apply to fresh herbs. But don't let old standbys limit you when there are so many ways to enjoy the deliciousness of fresh herbs.
There's no time like the present to start experimenting with (and growing) an assortment of fresh herbs. Here are some tips:
- Purchase fresh herbs as close to the time you're going to use them as possible. (You may even want to grow your own in your garden, or on a sunny windowsill. You'll have the fresh herbs ready at the snip of your scissors and save money, too. If you grow an abundance, it's easy to dry or freeze the bounty.
- When you bring herbs home from the store, place them in an open plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper. To keep them fresher longer or to revive tired looking herbs, cut off the bottoms of the stems and place them in a glass of water. Then tent them with plastic and place in the refrigerator (for sun-loving herbs, like basil, another method is to skip the plastic and refrigerator and place herbs in a water filled vase by a sunny window). Change the water every day.
- Wash herbs just before using as you would salad greens; don’t store the leaves wet.
- For maximum flavor and nutrition, add delicate herbs like basil, parsley, and cilantro just before the food is finished cooking. Heartier herbs like oregano and thyme can be added earlier on.
- When substituting fresh herbs for dried seasonings, use three times as much. If a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of dried basil, for example, you'll want to use 1 tablespoon of fresh instead.
- If using fresh herbs in cold dishes (like dressings and side salads), add them a few hours before serving, if possible, to allow the flavors to meld.
Learn the standard affinities: dill with fish and pickles, basil for pesto, chives in the baked potatoes, and sage in the stuffing. But experiment, too. Add the mildly anise-like flavor of fresh chervil to your next caramelized onion frittata. Stir fresh, aromatic sage into your polenta, along with roasted corn, bell peppers, and fresh Parmesan. And don't be afraid to include fresh herbs in the simplest of recipes; one fresh, pungent basil leaf will transform an otherwise ho-hum grilled panini, and fresh tarragon in the sweet potato casserole will have everyone at the holiday table wondering exactly how you improved that old family recipe.
To learn more about growing your own herbs outdoors, see Herb Gardening 101; for indoor planting see, Planting a Windowsill Herb Garden on The National Gardening Association's website; for more information on specific herbs and their uses, see Fresh Herbs Primer; and for preserving fresh herbs, see Preserving Herbs.