Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fresh Ways with Fresh Herbs--for Freshest Summer Flavor

Fresh Ways with Fresh Herbs
(adapted from my story in The Washington Post)

By Nancy Baggett
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I'm always looking for new ways to heighten flavor in dishes, but especially in summer, when spirits and appetites flag. It's the best possible time to pursue light, sprightly tastes and surprising combinations and to go easy on fat, sugar and salt. Which is why I use the fresh, fragrant herbs from my garden and local markets as often and as creatively as I can.
As the best cooks know so well, herbs provide an array of weapons in the never-ending culinary battle against blandness: Just a few fresh snippets of the right herb, like the chives pictured above, can brighten a dish, offset oiliness, add zip, increase complexity, refresh and clear the head.

If you're a newbie, the starting point for tapping into the power of herbs is simply to spend time tasting and smelling an assortment of them. You'll immediately notice, for instance, that rosemary and oregano have an assertive pungency and an invigorating, almost piney scent. Parsley, in contrast, goes low profile with a subtle, clean-green aroma and taste. (If you've always relied on dried parsley as well as the dried versions of basil, cilantro and many other herbs, the fresh forms will be a revelation.) The mints and dill are cooling, which is partly why they appear in mojitos, raitas and cucumber salads. Basil is a complex, aromatic blend of peppery, spicy, bitter and sweet; no wonder it's a key component in pesto, a brilliant recipe for transforming a plain bowl of pasta into a feast.

Once you get to know each herb's distinctive properties, it's much easier to take advantage of its appeal. Initially, I gained insights into how to use fresh herbs just by trying out traditional pairings: tomatoes with oregano, salmon with dill weed, baked potato and sour cream with chives, beef bourguignon with thyme. The next step was riffing on those combinations: Because oregano enlivened tomato sauces and salsas, I guessed -- correctly -- that it would be dynamite in a salsa featuring the tomato's cousin, the tomatillo. Because chives perked up baked potatoes, I successfully threw the herb into potato soups and salads, then branched out by tossing chives into other starchy dishes such as breads, crackers and biscuits.
Kentucky Colonel Spearmint

Gradually I've gotten bolder, especially in exploring what has become downright trendy: the use of herbs in sweet baked goods, fruit dishes and desserts. I took a cue from a luscious truffle made by a chocolatier friend and paired chocolate with tarragon and grapefruit in a sorbet. The citrus and anise flavor notes are not only unexpected but utterly addictive. I had originally assumed that lavender was for soaps and sachets but after experimenting, realized its slight zest and sweet spiciness add dimension to cooked blackberry and raspberry sauces and apple compotes. I'd thought that the resinous qualities of rosemary made it better suited to savory than sweet dishes but have found that flour somehow tames it, yielding pleasing cookies and sweet muffins and breads.

Here are some ideas for using the herbs I love most that can usually be found in their fresh form.

Basil: Try it with sauteed spinach, braised broccoli, mild white beans, pasta dishes, mixed vegetable soups, Thai- and Vietnamese-style soups and stir fries, simple fish and chicken entrees, nontraditional oyster stew, tomato and cheese dishes and, of course, pestos and pizzas.

Chives: The loveliest, most versatile "oniony" herb. Use them to enliven cream cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, yogurt, ricotta, raitas, vegetable dips, compound butters, mustard cream sauces and vinaigrettes. Sprinkle them over cooked veggies and frittatas and in omelets. Stir them into pasta, rice and mixed vegetable salads. Fold them into potato, tomato, root vegetable and creamy onion soups, broths and wherever you need a substitute for the flavor of green onion.  Here's a cheese ball that actually features fresh chive blooms.

Dill: It has a pleasing presence when accompanying cucumbers, pickles, slaw, potatoes, cauliflower, carrots, beets, summer squash, smoked and fresh salmon, lemony and mustardy salad dressings, briny sauces and deviled eggs. It ratchets up flavor yet soothes and refreshes in raitas, dips, chilled tomato soup, carrot soup, muffins, quick breads and savory yeasted loaves.

Mint: There are many, many varieties of mint, but the two basic ones that everybody knows and likes are peppermint and spearmint. These are hardy, vigorous growers to the point of being invasive, so I suggest that you want to grow them at home,  grow them in pots. (If planted in thick-walled polystyrene pots, the roots will be insulated from the cold and the plants will usually come back year after year.) Good, fresh spearmint is a must for good mojitos (shown right), by the way.

Oregano: A must in many pasta sauces, salads, salsas, full-bodied meaty soups, minestrones, lasagnas, pizzas, hearty bean dishes, chilis and spanakopita. A nice addition to lamb, pork and, occasionally, beef. Oregano is very hardy, yet not invasive in the garden. I have a couple plants I put in more than a decade ago. They come back and provide all the fresh oregano I need every summer.  Fresh, chopped oregano is wonderful in the salad featured in this post.

Rosemary: This highly aromatic herb teams beautifully with lemon or orange in cookies, muffins and other sweet baked goods. It brightens up focaccias, breadsticks, rustic boules, stuffings, roasted potatoes, bean and lentil dishes, pork, lamb, beef and even venison.

Tarragon: Use it to spark vinaigrettes, wine vinegar, bearnaise sauce, herb butters, heady mustards and even some tapenades. Good with chicken, turkey, fish, lamb and vegetables. Adds a pleasing anise accent to chocolate ganaches, sauces, buttercreams, ice creams and sorbets.

Thyme: The herb I most often reach for, it brings out the best in mushrooms, beets, cooked tomatoes and nearly all red-wine dishes. Adds depth to stocks, broths and ragouts; vegetable, meat and seafood soups; Indian-style curries, beef stews, gumbos and fricassees. Zips up seafood, lamb, pork, beef, poultry, bread and rice stuffings, corn bread and other dishes too numerous to mention.

Tomatoes with Fresh Oregano

This recipe is a fine way to take advantage of those succulent, peak-of-season tomatoes and herbs that are now in our markets. (Mostly just for the look, I like to use yellow or orange tomatoes along with the red.) The dish makes a great addition to a barbeque or picnic. Since the tomatoes have so much natural flavor, they don't need a lot of fussing to taste good; a simple dressing yields remarkably savory results. Though this recipe should serve six or seven, don't be surprised if four or five people polish it off!

Tip: To easily peel the tomatoes, core them first. Then, using tongs, submerge them in boiling water for about 1 minute, or until the skins just begin to loosen. Immediately lift them out and let stand until cool enough to handle. The peels will usually slip off easily.

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 -3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano leaves
1/8 teaspoon dry mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon celery salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
6 to 8 flavorful, sun-ripened tomatoes, cored and peeled
Fresh oregano sprigs, snipped chives and garlic chive blossoms for garnish, optional

In a 1-cup measure or glass jar, stir together vinegar, oil, sugar, chives, oregano, mustard powder, celery salt, and pepper until dressing is well blended.

Cut cored and peeled tomatoes crosswise into 1/4- to 1/3-inch thick slices. Arrange a layer of slices in a non-reactive platter or bowl. Drizzle some of dressing over the slices. Top slices with another layer of tomatoes, and drizzle with more dressing. Repeat until all slices and dressing are used. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and no more than 2 hours before serving. Garnish with more fresh herbs before serving, if desired. Makes 6 or 7 servings.

You might also be interested in using assorted fresh herbs to make delectable and easy herb vinegars .

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Julie and Julia—A Must-See for Fans, Foodies, & Me

There are a number of good reasons to go see “Julie & Julia:” Fans who fondly recollect Julia Child from her TV French Chef heyday will enjoy rekindling memories and getting to know more about this likeable dynamo. Meryl Streep’s deft performance reveals Julia as not only lively, but a lot more complex than the affable auntie type they might have imagined.

Foodies of all ages will also leave the theater thoroughly sated. Scenes featuring the characters cooking and lustily enjoying French food and wine are so numerous that many in the audience will want to rush home and whip up the boeuf bourguignon from her Mastering the Art of French Cooking (or at least pop open a fine bottle of Burgundy). Butter is brandished about and savored with such abandon that Land O' Lakes executives may already be handspringing around offices at the surge in sales. (My beef stew with red wine inspired by Julia's recipe is here .)

I went to the film mostly because I’d known Julia professionally and wanted to see if she was accurately portrayed. Streep plays her as bright, ebullient, down-to-earth, intellectually curious, dedicated to her calling, and fiercely competitive but not unkind. Which is quite consistent with what I recall.

I didn’t have the good fortune to know Julia well, and we only became acquainted after she was already America’s greatest culinary luminary. The pic at right shows her in front of her Garland stove in her Cambridge, MA home and sometimes cooking show set. I'm told she bought the stove secondhand.

We met and briefly chatted at a number of professional culinary conferences, and she never seemed evenly slightly self-absorbed. She was, in fact, the consummate colleague: gracious, approachable, more interested in learning from her compatriots than in touting her latest tome, and always, always encouraging of other cookbook authors. Instead of grandstanding or making cameo appearances, she often mingled and attended the various workshops, including a primer on cooking on TV and one on cookbook writing, both topics she, of course, should have been teaching herself. (I happened to be instructor in the cookbook writing class—she was completely unassuming but, gulp, her presence was still unnerving!) 

The Grande Dame of cookbooks apparently never forgot her own early struggles to be published, and identified with others still enduring the usual indignities of the cookbook business. She was a particularly great supporter of new authors, allowing the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ annual “Best First Cookbook” award to be named the “Julia Child Award” in her honor. (The interesting peeks behind the publishing industry curtain are another reason cookbook junkies will enjoy this flick: In one particularly ironic manuscript rejection scene—which I’m sure my current-day friends at Houghton Mifflin wish had been cut—the publisher flatly informs Julia and Simone Beck that their work would not interest American housewives.)

I actually got to know Julia Child best through a quirk of alphabetical fate. Since C follows B, Baggett and Child often sat next to one another at conference book signings. Before the doors opened and the crowd ascended upon her, she usually took time to look through and compliment my latest work, once exclaiming over my cookie cookbook in that unforgettable, lilting voice, “Why, what a lovely book! You should be so pleased.” Even more revealing was her response to the excited fans queuing up for an autographed copy. She understood that what they wanted most was a moment of her undivided attention, and they got it even when the lines were long and she didn’t feel well. Yes, she was a true Grande Dame, and the movie does her proud.

That's a shot of Julia's stove at left. If you are interested in seeing more pics of Julia's famous kitchen, which is now a part of a Smithsonian exhibit, go here.
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Sunday, August 16, 2009

More Gifts from the Garden and Kitchen—Fresh Herb Vinegars

Decades ago at a gourmet shop I encountered my first fancy herb vinegars. You know--the ones that come with real sprigs of tarragon or basil or some other culinary herb tucked inside. I was charmed, but after checking the prices, immediately decided to see if I could make my own. I could, and have been ever since!

In fact, I make a point of growing certain herbs, like purple basil, garlic chives (shown at the very bottom), nasturtiums, and tarragon partly because they are so useful in creating tasty and enticing-looking vinegars. (Yes, nasturtiums are sometimes categorized as herbs and they taste a lot like watercress--which can actually be used in their place in vinegars if necessary). Just for the fun and the color, I also grow pansies to tuck into the vinegars--they are edible, too, though they don't add much flavor.

Don't worry if you don't have a garden--the vinegars will taste just as good made with fresh herbs purchased from the grocery store or farmers' market.  But you absolutely must use fresh dried herbs to make these vinegars!)

The bottle in the top left pic is brightened with a red nasturtium bloom and a couple pansies that after a few hours will tint the vinegar an orange pink!) The center bottle in the pic at the was also made with a nearly colorless unseasoned rice vinegar and  purplish basil sprigs that will also infuse it for a purple color in few days. The bottle on the right contains creamy green and white varigated and a couple Mexican marigolds; these won't change the color of the vinegar much. Though these vinegars are all quite easy to make, they are so tasty and stunning-looking it's no wonder the bottles in shops are pricy.

Homemade Herbed Vinegars

The pictures here and just below show the nasturtium-chive and purple basil- chive vinegars during preparation. As you can see, an old fondue fork is an especially handy tool for inserting the herbs into small-mouthed bottles.

The exact same approach can also be employed to ready a lovely tarragon or tarragon-chive vinegar, or a chive-watercress vinegar, or a very simple but pretty garlic chive vinegar using both the leaves and white flowers (see the pic at the bottom). A blend of thyme, chives, and parsley is nice, too.  This year, I grew Thai cinnamon basil (it's greenish-gray leaves have purple veins), which lent the vinegar a distinctive spicy taste and pale pink-tinged color. Oregano is a bit strong and dillweed yields a vinegar that tastes like pickle brine, so I don't recommend these herbs.

Due to the unique character of each of the various herbs, every vinegar will have its own unique and savory appeal, so it's fun to experiment with using them in recipes. Try a little splash  to enhance a simple butter sauce for seafood or a pan sauce for sauteed meat. Or use a little to perk up sauteed cabbage or slaw; add life to store-bought mayo; or whisk into a pleasing vinaigrette.

Herb vinegars can be kept unrefrigerated but away from bright light or heat for up to a year. After that the flavors and colors fade, so plan to use them up and make more each season!

Tip: While it's easiest to just add herbs to the bottles the vinegar comes in, for a more decorative look, try interesting recycled bottles topped with corks or non-reactive caps. The herbs stay in the bottle, so the flavor intensifies further over time.

For each bottle of vinegar, have on hand either: 3-4 large fresh basil, tarragon, or thyme sprigs, or 6-8 watercress springs or nasturtium leaves (plus a nasturtium bloom or two, if desired); or 1 small handful of fresh chives or garlic chives (include blooms, if desired); or some of both for a more complex blend. (The pic below shows garlic chives, which send up their white, lacy-looking blooms in fall.)

You'll also need: About 12- to 16-ounces white wine vinegar or unseasoned rice wine vinegar or red wine vinegar

Cut (or purchase) some fresh sprigs of  the herbs of your choice. Discard any brown, yellowed, or bruised leaves. Rinse the sprigs under cool water. Gently pat dry with paper towels. Push the sprigs down into a nearly full bottle of vinegar (a fondue fork is great for this but a long skewer can be used). Keep working until all the leaves are completely submerged in the vinegar. If the vinegar overflows the top, just pour off the excess. Let the mixture steep at least a few days so the flavor can develop.

Makes 1 12- to 16-ounce bottle of vinegar.
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Thursday, August 13, 2009

High Summer Pleasure—Blackberry Sorbet

Seems like I'm always waiting forever for the wild blackberries in my neighborhood to ripen. But eventually every summer, Mother Nature delivers, and her gifts are always worth the wait.

Last week one morning instead of working, I grabbed a bucket, a hat, and long sleeve shirt and went out to seek my treasure. Just look what I found!

I'd like to talk about the idyllic setting of the berry patch, but I can't. These berries came from a stand of canes right beside a busy Maryland highway near my house. So the whole time I picked, cars and trucks kept whizzing by. I just kept picking though, and collected almost 1 1/2 quarts in an hour.

To celebrate my good fortune, I created this Blackberry-Plum sorbet. It’s about as close as I will ever come to catching the essence of summer in a bowl. Sweet-tart, vibrant, intensely fruity, and utterly refreshing, it was just perfect for savoring in the shade of my deck.
By the way, if you have the good fortune of coming upon some boysenberries, you can use them in place of blackberries in the following recipe. Boysenberries are actually a blackberry-raspberry-loganberry cross created by a horticulturalist named ... Rudolph Boysen in the early 1930s.

High Summer Blackberry-Plum Sorbet

There are two good reasons to add plums to a blackberry sorbet: They are a clever way to stretch the berries when you don’t have enough. Even more important, underripe, unpeeled plums have a lot of pectin, which helps keep the sorbet pleasantly smooth in texture and readily “scoopable” even when stored a week or more.

Tip: If your berries are extremely tart, you may want to increase the sugar by a tablespoon or two. For best texture, don’t reduce the sugar to under 3/4 cup.

3 cups blackberries
2 medium underripe, tart red or black plums (unskinned), pitted and chopped
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon zest (yellow part of the peel) or 4 or 5 lavender flower heads
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Thoroughly stir together the blackberries, plums, 1 cup water, sugar, and lemon zest  (or lavender flower heads) in a large, non-reactive saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring, then adjust the heat so the mixture boils gently until the berries and plums are soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat; let cool.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 and up to 24 hours. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, pressing down hard to extract as much pulp as possible. Process the strained mixture in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Place in a storage container and freeze, airtight, until firmed up at least 2 hours, and up to a week.

Makes 1 generous quart.

Don't have an ice cream freezer? Therefreshing minted lime sorbet below doesn't need one. 
Or perhaps you're more interested in the refreshing popsicles here.
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Blackberry (or Black Raspberry) Sauce--Simple, Summery, Sensational

 If you happen to have fresh berries now, but sorbet just doesn't sing to you and you don't have time for a blackberry cobbler, consider making this easy sauce. It is an especially good choice for wild blackberries like those pictured at left. They tend to be intensely flavorful, but quite seedy, and this doesn't matter because the seeds are simply strained out and discarded.

The sauce makes a great vanilla or blackberry ice cream sundae topping. Try it over lemon sorbet or peach ice cream as well. If you like using lavender for culinary purposes, do add a few flower heads to the sauce when it cooks. They will lend a subtle but delightful flavor element. Note that this sauce is cooked, so it is not a coulis--which although it sounds fancier (and will likely cost you more in a restaurant) is not, in fact, as good.

Yes, the uncooked fruit coulis are in vogue now, but, trust me, brief cooking produces a sauce with much fuller flavor, more body, and more vibrant color. A cooked sauce is also more convenient, since it can be held in the refrigerator a few days. (For a berry sauce that can be frozen and is suitable for making ice cream ripple ice cream, go here.)

BTW, you can also use the recipe for black raspberries. If you're not familiar with them (shown at left), they aren't quite like either red raspberries or blackberries.They are tart, bold, and black like blackberries, but have the complex berry flavor and aroma more reminiscent of raspberries.

Another key feature that marks them as raspberries is that, like red raspberries, they are hollow on the bottom. (Look carefully at the picture.) Each fruit grows up around a little nub in the manner of a cap, and when ripe the berry neatly pulls away from from its base. (This is why some people call these berries "blackcaps.") The best place to find black raspberries (other than growing wild in wooded areas!) is at farmer's markets and roadside stands during June and July.

All the berries pictured are ones I picked along a path in the woods behind my house. The canes shown below are from earlier in the season when the nearby blackberry bushes were blooming and just beginning to set their fruit.

Blackberry (or Black Raspberry) Sauce

6 to 7 tablespoons granulated sugar, or to taste
1 teaspoon cornstarch
3 cups fresh or unsweetened frozen (thawed) blackberries or black raspberries
1/4 cup blackberry or peach brandy or orange juice
Generous pinch of finely grated lemon or lime zest (colored part of skin) or 3 or 4 lavender flower heads

In a heavy, medium non-reactive saucepan stir together the sugar and cornstarch until well blended. Mash the berries with the back of a large spoon or the bottom of a large drinking glass.

Stir the berries, brandy (or juice) and lemon zest or lavender into the saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, stirring. Continuing to stir, cook until the mixture thickens and clears, about 3 or 4 minutes. Remove from the heat; let cool. Press the mixture through a fine sieve, forcing through as much juice and pulp as possible and discarding seeds. Be sure to scrape off the sieved pulp clinging to its underside. Refrigerate in a nonreactive airtight storage container at least 1 hour, and up to 5 days. Stir briefly before using and thin it with a little water if it seems too thick.

Makes a generous 3/4 cup (enough for 4 to 6 sundaes).

 Other berry recipes you may like--a delectable blackberry sorbet here.

Or a crumb-topped cobbler here.

Or perhaps a lavender syrup infused with a few blackberries here.
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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Seafood the Old Bay Way

Anybody who lives around the Chesapeake knows that part of the appeal of steamed crabs and shrimp is their distinctive spicy scent and flavor. It comes mostly from a highly aromatic herb-spice mixture that’s been popular here for decades. The best known brand is called Old Bay, and it is pungent with celery salt, dry mustard, bay leaves, paprika, and enough pepper to draw your attention but not make you cry. A clever tag line for the product is “Bold Never Gets Old;” locals like myself would definitely agree. (A lot of seafood houses actually use similar blends from other companies, but Old Bay was the original brand.)

I’ve already made quite a few trips to my favorite seafood market to stock up and feast on shrimp and crabs this summer. I usually buy my crabs already cooked, but prefer to steam the shrimp myself. Frankly, both steamed crabs and shrimp just seem lacking to me unless they are prepared the Old Bay way.

Should you wish to try some Chesapeake-style shrimp yourself, here is a recipe which I’ve adapted slightly from one on the Old Bay tin. Though originally available only locally, it's now sold by McCormick's nationwide.

Maryland-Style Steamed Shrimp

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 to 3 tablespoons Old Bay Seasoning
1 1/2 to 2 pounds fresh, headless shrimp (in their shells)
Cocktail sauce and fresh lemon wedges

Set out a deep pot fitted with a raised rack or steamer basket. Add vinegar and enough water to reach just below level of the rack. Layer the shrimp, sprinkling each layer with Old Bay Seasoning as you work. (It's fairly peppery and salty, so don't overdo it!) Cover tightly and steam 3 to 5 minutes; stir once or twice to redistribute the shrimp and continue just until they all turn red. Avoid overcooking or they may toughen. Let stand until cool enough to handle, then serve along with lots of paper towels. After peeling the shrimp diners can dip them in cocktail sauce and/or squeeze over a little lemon juice.

Depending on whether other dishes are served and how heavy and rich they are, the recipe may serve 4 to 6 people.
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