Herbs — a magical food ingredient
It can replace the need for salt in recipes and gives food a flavor all its own.
What can this magical ingredient be?
Herbs of course.
“Cooking with Herbs, 50 Simple Recipes for Fresh Flavor” is a book that has an herb for any situation or food.
It notes that an herb is a word used for the green leaves of aromatic plants, whereas the term spice refers to woody plant parts and seeds, such as cinnamon bark or coriander seed.
The small book reports that no one knows for sure why herbs developed such strong smells and flavors, but scientists have surmised that the sometimes bitter, aromatic oils that develop in little pods on the surface of the leaves are a natural insect repellent.
In addition, their little oil glands also store moisture in the form of oil in the leaves, useful in the dry Mediterranean climate where many herbs originated and where water would quickly evaporate.
It is the oils that give the plant its characteristic flavor and aroma. As it turns out, the better the growing conditions, good soil, plenty of nutrients and adequate water, the more fully the little glands develop. Because they are so volatile they evaporate easily and quickly, unlike spices, and don’t stand up to prolonged cooking periods and are best added at the end of the cooking time.
How and why people first began to use herbs in their cooking is that the flavorful green things made even the plainest ingredients taste more appealing.
The author, Lynn Alley, explains that she appreciates simplicity in cooking and uses ingredients on hand or in the garden.
Here are some tips for cooking with herbs:
– Wash herbs off in the garden and let them dry and cut them. To quickly dry larger quantities, place them in a pillowcase and whirl it around. This might be better outside.
– To remove small-leafed herbs such as thyme or woody leaves, such as rosemary, run your index finger and thumb down the stems.
– To cut herbs, such as basil or mint, stack the leaves and roll them into a cigar shape. Using a very sharp knife or a pair of sharp kitchen scissors, cut thin slices crosswise. This is called a chiffonade.
– Coarsely chopped herbs are good for more rustic dishes, and they yield their flavors more slowly to the finished dish.
– Finely chopped herbs are great for smoother dishes and will blend in with other ingredients quickly but will lose their flavors more quickly.
Culinary herbs can be divided into sweet and resinous categories.
The sweet herbs are parsley, chervil, basil, cilantro, mint, hyssop, lovage, chives, tarragon and dill. They have more flavor when used fresh rather than dried.
The resinour herbs are hardier, woodier and more pungent than sweet herbs. They tend to dry well but are still generally best when used fresh.
They are savory, sage, marjoram, oregano, rosemary and thyme.
Fresh herbs should generally be added to a dish at the last minute. Cooking or standing around quickly vaporizes the volatile oils that give herbs their flavor and aroma. If chopped and added at the last minute, their textures remain evident and their flavors stand out. Dried or more resinous herbs can be added early on to the cooking process with greater success.
Herbs give soup a tantalizing taste. This bean soup with rosemary is a great example.
Tuscan White Bean Soup with Olive Oil and Rosemary
2 cups dried white beans, cannellini, navy beans, baby limas or whatever you desire
6 to 8 cups water, depending on how thick you want the soup
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon salt
4 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil, for garnish
1/3 cup fresh rosemary leaves, chopped coarsely for garnish
1 small firm tomato, diced for garnish
Rinse the beans thoroughly and place in the insert of a 6- or 7-quart slow cooker. Add the water, onion and bay leaves and cook on high for about four hours or low for about eight hours or until the beans are tender. When tender, add salt and press the garlic into the soup. Remove and discard bay leaves. Using a hand-held immersion blender, pour some or all of the beans to thicken the soup. If you desire a thinner consistency, add more water. Serve in individual bowls, garnished with a generous drizzle of olive oil, a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary and a few pieces of tomato. Serves six.
This is a side dish served by Italians. Cooking the polenta is the most time consuming part of the recipe.
Polenta with Marinara, Ricotta Cheese and Basil
5 cups water
1 cup corn meal or polenta
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup marinara sauce, heated
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
Combine all ingredients in a 4-quart slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for about 6 hours or on high for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring a few times until creamy and grains are tender. Either spoon polenta into a large serving bowl or scoop mounds of it on four individual plates or in individual bowls. Top with marinara sauce and add a scoop of ricotta and a dusting of Parmesan cheese. Garnish with a shower of basil leaves and serve immediately. Serves four.
Plain pasta can be dressed up with garlic, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and herbs fresh from the garden.
Herb and Garlic Pasta
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/2 cup grated Cheddar or fontina cheese
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh sage
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil
2 firm tomatoes, diced
1 pound pasta, cooked and drained
Place garlic, parmesan, cheddar, olive oil and herbs in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse until the mixture forms the texture of coarse cornmeal or chop coarsely with a knife if you want them more coarsely chopped. Toss with pasta and other ingredients. Add salt to taste. Toss the cheese mixture and tomatoes with the pasta and serve immediately. Serves four to six.
A good salad dressing can be used not only to embellish garden fresh greens but to drizzle over cooked vegetables or as a dip for eating veggies raw, according to the cookbook.
This recipe is for a walnut vinaigrette that is good with fresh greens, sliced tomatoes and mozzarella or feta cheese.
1/2 cup wine vinegar or half wine vinegar and half balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic
1 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil or mixed oils
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped coarsely and toasted
Combine vinegar, mustard, garlic and basil in the work bowl of a food processor and process for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and with the motor running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste, then add walnuts, pulsing only until the walnut pieces have reached the desired texture. Do not pulverize them. Makes 1 cup of salad dressing.
Lemon and rosemary are such a classic combination for a spring summer lunch or dinner. This cheesecake should prove that to be true.
6 or 8 shortbread cookies
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Three 8-ounce packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoons lemon zest
1 cup sour cream
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons rosemary leaves chopped coarsely
Strawberries or raspberries for garnishing
Preheat oven to 325 degrees and place rack in the center of the oven. Combine shortbread cookies and butter in the work bowl of a food processor and process until they form a coarse, even powder.
Divide the mixture among four mini, 4 1/2-inch, springform pans and press firmly into the bottom of the pans.
Filling: Place cream cheese, sugar, lemon juice and zest, sour cream in the work bowl of a food processor and let the machine run until the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Then add eggs and beat in thoroughly. Add the rosemary leaves and pulse until they are the desired size and texture.
Divide filling evenly among the four pans and gently tap each pan on a cutting board or countertop to evenly distribute the filling and release any air bubbles.
Place on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes or until edges are ever-so-slightly puffed. Do not overbake. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for about 45 minutes. Refrigerate for at least six hours. Unmold each cheesecake on a serving place and garnish with fresh berries. Makes four.