Food & Dining
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Come summer, it's the query herb experts and Washington Post Food section staffers get asked the most: "I have so much 'insert name of home-grown herb here.' What can I do with it?" So before you surrender — or resort to zucchini-esque measures — we thought we'd offer advice and suggestions from people who are used to dispatching herbs in great quantities. Tips:
Because of its sweet and savory characteristics, thyme is my go-to herb. It's rounded and balanced, which means it can work in any dish: orange vegetables, meats, sauces, beans and even desserts. It pairs especially well with garlic, mushrooms, squash and onion. Its sweetness makes it a good infuser for alcohol and for homemade bitters.
It makes the best vinaigrette for Greek salad (see accompanying recipe).
• Use lots of thyme in a tomato sauce instead of basil or oregano.
• Stir it into scrambled eggs and chili.
• Add 2 teaspoons of fresh thyme leaves during cooking for every pound of black beans or pinto beans.
• Flavor batches of white sauce, whole-grain mustard with lots of chopped fresh leaves.
• Toss a handful of lemon thyme (on the stem) into any fruit salad; macerate, then remove the stems before serving. I use lemon thyme in a spice cake (cake and frosting; see accompanying recipe).
TIP It takes time to harvest those tiny leaves from their thin stems. Hold the top of the stem, about a half-inch down; gently pinch your thumb and forefinger together and zip down the stem. It's easier to get the leaves off after the thyme stems have air-dried for a day or two.
— By Susan Belsinger, an herb expert for more than 40 years who published her first article on herbs in Gourmet in 1980.
Of all the varieties, I like chocolate mint the best. It has a dark note to it and seems less minty. The most delicately scented and flavored leaves are the three or four tender ones at the top of the plant. I like the taste of mint and basil together; at the restaurant, we use the combination in a shaved asparagus salad with a licorice vinaigrette.
• Use lots of mint to infuse high-proof alcohol. Stuff 4 to 8 ounces (including stems) in a 750-milliliter bottle of Everclear or high-test vodka. Let it sit for 3 or 4 days, then strain. We then like to add some bitter root, such as cinchona, and let that sit for 4 days. Strain, mix the whole lot with 250 or 300 ml of homemade honey syrup, and you've got a nice after-dinner drink. Keep it in the freezer.
• Make mint tea: Tear up a big bunch of leaves and throw them into a large Mason jar filled with water. Let it sit in a full day's sun.
TIP Don't chop it up too much. Use a sharp knife so it doesn't get all black.
— By Tucker Yoder, executive chef of the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville, Va.
They are part of a classic fines herbes blend that can include parsley, chervil, thyme and tarragon. I like them paired with tarragon best. Chive blossoms can come on strong, so discard the purple petals and stir the remaining head of the blossom into risottos or cold soups such as vichyssoise.
Use a sharp knife or kitchen scissors to chop chives, as opposed to slicing them. You will be cutting across lengthy fibers, and the cleaner cut will keep them from becoming slimy.
• Pasta doughs, bread doughs and quiches can take a lot of chives — I'd say a big handful if you're making fresh pasta for four people.
• Blend them into panko crumbs to use as a coating for fish.
• Fold them into ricotta cheese; stir them into risottos or cold soups such as vichyssoise.
• Cover a bunch of finely chopped chives with just enough oil to coat, and cover them. Refrigerate for several weeks.
• Make a salsa verde with finely chopped parsley, capers, green olives and/or cornichons. The pickled components provide acid but won't discolor the chives, as vinegar would.
TIP When you pick the chives, you have to assess their moisture content in order to store them properly in the refrigerator. If they seem dry, wrap them in a damp paper towel. If they are wet, put them in dry paper toweling.
— By Aliza Green, a Philadelphia chef and author of several cookbooks as well as "Field Guide to Herbs and Spices" (Quirk, 2006).
It's true that marjoram is subtler than regular oregano. I find it to be elegant, floral and lemony. It loses something when it's dried.
• Use lots of chopped fresh marjoram when slow-roasting tomatoes (at 275 degrees, with garlic, olive oil and salt). They can become a sauce, or you can use them as a sandwich component.
• At the restaurant, my favorite thing to do is a fresh version of za'atar: chopped marjoram, sumac, ground toasted sesame seeds, salt and olive oil. It can be a dip for breads.
• Make a citronette dressing for fish: lemon juice and zest, olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes, roasted garlic, capers and/or anchovies and plenty of chopped marjoram.
TIP Lemon and olive oil are complementary flavors.
— By Michael Costa, executive chef at Zaytinya in D.C..
It's a fragrant and light version of parsley. I appreciate its subtlety; it needs to be treated with a soft hand. Keep it in the warmest place in your refrigerator, wrapped in lightly dampened paper towels.
• Use lots of chervil to garnish salads, along with chopped parsley and chive.
• Fold it into a compound butter, but make sure the chervil doesn't get overwhelmed. Try a mixture of about 2 ounces of the herb with a generous amount of shallot, salt and a few drops of lemon juice to help bring the flavor through the fat.
• Make it the base of a salsa verde, or create a green oil by processing a bunch of chervil to a paste and adding it to oil. Leave in the pulp or strain it out.
• Puree it with spinach for a side dish.
• Sprinkle it into a beurre blanc.
TIP Chervil is all about the finish. Don't put it in a cooked dish early.
— By Jeff Black, chef-restaurateur of the Black Restaurant Group.
It's so fresh and clean-tasting. You just have to be careful with it, so it doesn't overpower anything. Tear the leaves, or use a mortar and pestle to bruise them to release their oils. Even people who have problems with the taste of cilantro like a cilantro pesto when it's made with almonds instead of pine nuts.
• We used lots of cilantro at Poste, in sweet corn soup; with gravlax and smoked salmon; and with a saute of lobster mushrooms in the summertime.
• Pair it with a crudo of thinly sliced scallop or kampachi marinated in lime juice for about 10 minutes; maybe add chives or chive blossoms or a ginger vinaigrette.
• To flavor vinegar, wrap 1/2 cup of the dried seeds or 2 bunches of fresh cilantro (28 to 36 stems total) in a cheesecloth sachet, then sink it in 4 cups of apple cider vinegar. Seal in a jar and let it sit in a cool, dark place for a month or two.
• Chop up cilantro and add to a black bean and corn salad; it's classic and delicious.
• Steam a bunch with mussels, chilies, garlic and lime.
TIP Use the stems as well as the leaves whenever you have a recipe that calls for cilantro. They have great flavor.
— By chef Rob Weland.
The herb has a great mineralistic, almost briny quality; it's not sweet like chervil. Sage is also fat-soluble, so we like to use lots of it when we confit turkey. We cure the turkey thighs in salt, sugar and spices for a day, then submerge the thighs in a mixture of duck and chicken fat and tons of sage leaves. Cover and cook in a low-temperature oven for hours till really tender.
• That mineral quality pairs well with the taste of active, lean poultry — not lazy chickens!
• Same goes for shellfish, flavorwise. Try sage with oysters and clams and mussels; it complements their brininess. Not long ago at my house, I tossed a bunch of sage in a pot with mussels, a lot of onions, some duck fat and beer; use any kind of beer you have on hand. Steam them, then add butter to finish.
• Infuse homemade kombucha with sage leaves and raw turnip juice. You'll be surprised at how sweet it can be after a week or 10 days. After that, the sage lends more of an earthy note as the kombucha gets fizzier. Sage marries well with the flavor of gunpowder tea kombucha.TIP Sage flowers are purply-blue and sweet; not like the flavor of the leaves. Use them in salads.
— By Tarver King, executive chef at the Ashby Inn in Paris, Va.
Theories abound regarding food and wine pairing, but none has ever held more weight to me than the idea of pairing like to like, molecules to molecules, an approach propounded by sommelier and author Francois Chartier. Finding those pairings that sing means searching out combinations that share similar aromatic compounds.
With rosemary, I head straight to fino sherry, a dry fortified wine. They both share floral terpenic compounds that give them strong aroma and resonance.
So, when you have excess rosemary, simply add it to good olive oil. Heat them up together for a few minutes, and, after cooling, transfer the oil to a glass bottle. I always add a sprig of rosemary to the bottle as well. It's decorative. Drizzle the rosemary-infused oil over goat cheese or cured ham and pour yourself a chilly glass of fino sherry. You'll see.
TIP Its leaves become more resinous, piney and tough in the summer, so use fewer of them, and chop them finely.
— By Derek Brown, mixologist and co-owner of three bars in D.C., including the new Mockingbird Hill.
Lemon Thyme Spice Cake
Makes one 13-by-9-inch cake (15 servings)
This tender cake combines a pleasant hint of thyme with the spices; the addition of nuts gives the cake more depth of flavor, but they are optional. The frosting is soft rather than buttercream consistency. You can leave the cake in the pan to cool and spread the frosting over the top, or carefully turn the cake out of the pan onto a platter when it cools, then frost it. Culinary herbalist and educator Susan Belsinger likes to use lemon-scented thymes, such as orange balsam or Provencal, for this recipe. They are sweeter and have less thymol and carvacrol than other thymes, which impart a more savory flavor. Because it takes a while to harvest the thyme leaves used for the cake, it's a good idea to have them prepped and ready to go. Adapted from Belsinger's "Not Just Desserts: Sweet Herbal Recipes" (Herbspirit, 2005).
For the cake
1/2 cup whole or low-fat milk
15 to 20 sprigs lemon thyme, plus a sprig or two for garnish
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for the baking pan
2 1/4 cups flour, preferably unbleached
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs, separated
3/4 cup nonfat buttermilk
2 tablespoons fresh minced thyme leaves
1/3 cup chopped, toasted walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts, optional, with optional nuts for garnish (see NOTE)
For the frosting
4 ounces low-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
About 2 tablespoons reserved lemon-thyme-infused milk (see STEPS)
1 tablespoon good-quality maple syrup
Few dashes freshly grated nutmeg
For the cake: Combine the milk and lemon thyme sprigs in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring just to a boil (to scald), then remove from the heat and cool.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with a little butter, then line the bottom with parchment paper, using a piece large enough to allow for overhang on two sides (for easier cake removal).
Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and salt in a bowl.
Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer or a hand-held mixer; beat on medium speed for 1 minute, then add the granulated sugar and beat on medium speed for a few minutes, until fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition and stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Discard the lemon thyme sprigs from the milk. Add half of that infused milk to the buttermilk, reserving the rest of the infused milk for the frosting. On low speed, alternately add the flour mixture (in three additions) and the milk mixture (in two additions), beginning and ending with the flour mixture, to form a stiff batter.
Beat the egg whites in a separate bowl on high speed to form stiff peaks. Fold them into the batter in three additions; add the minced thyme and nuts, if using, with the last addition and blend well.
Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and the cake starts to pull away slightly from the sides of the pan. Cool (in the pan) on a wire rack.
Meanwhile, make the frosting: Combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer or hand-held electric mixer, beating on medium speed for 2 or 3 minutes. Add the confectioners' sugar in 1/2-cup increments, alternating occasionally with 2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons of the reserved infused milk (you won't need all that you reserved). Stop to scrape down the bowl as needed. Add the maple syrup and nutmeg; beat on high speed for a few minutes, until the frosting appears to be whipped and is slightly thickened. It will be soft. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Use a round-edged knife to loosen the sides of the cake from the pan, then use the parchment paper to lift and transfer the cake to a platter or cutting board. Spread the frosting on the top of the cake (not the sides). Garnish with thyme sprigs and walnuts, if desired.
NOTE: Toast the nuts in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat for several minutes, shaking the pan to avoid scorching. Cool completely before using.
Per serving (based on 15, using low-fat milk): 370 calories, 5 g protein, 57 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 41 g sugar
Greek Salad Vinaigrette
Makes about 3/4 cup (enough for 6 to 8 servings)
A long-ago trip to Greece inspired culinary herbalist and educator Susan Belsinger to reproduce the hearty salads she had there, dressed with a vinaigrette that's heavy on fresh thyme. Typically, she uses shredded green cabbage, thinly sliced red onion, kalamata olives and crumbed feta cheese. She tosses the salad with the vinaigrette and lets it sit at room temperature for 2 hours. She refrigerates the salad for about 30 minutes before serving. Then final additions of spinach leaves and grinds of fresh black pepper are tossed in. The vinaigrette can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. From Belsinger.
1/2 cup olive oil
About 3 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar plus lemon juice (the ratio of vinegar to juice is up to you)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Combine the oil, vinegar, lemon juice, chopped thyme and salt in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake until well emulsified. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Per tablespoon: 80 calories, 0 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 160 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar