Fines Herbes Recipes
Fines herbes, the classic French seasoning blend made of equal parts parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil, is a perfect reason to grow herbs year-round. All four ingredients are at their best fresh and lose most of their flavor when dried. And while parsley, chives and tarragon are available fresh in many supermarkets today, chervil has such delicate leaves that you’ll rarely see it for sale in the produce aisle. These four herbs are easy to grow, do well in containers and indoors, and taste divine when partnered in the traditional blend.
Fines herbes (pronounced feen erbs) combines a hint of onion flavor from the chives with a subtle anise aroma from the tarragon and chervil and a fresh green note from the parsley. But what makes the blend a classic is that the ingredients combine to create a taste that is unlike any of the individual herbs. Use fines herbes to bring out the sweetness of mildly flavored, cream-based recipes while also adding an intriguing savory note. Traditionally added to egg, dairy, and seafood dishes, fines herbes is also delicious with potatoes, rice and fresh corn.
Some recipes for fines herbes add other herbs to the classic four. However, most of these add-ons—among them thyme, marjoram, cilantro and basil—have bold flavors that can overpower the other tastes, so I think it’s best to stick with the classic four. These herbs lose most of their delicate flavor if they are exposed to heat for more than a few minutes. Add them at the end of cooking, or use them in dishes that do not cook longer than 15 minutes.
Grow Your Own French Flavor
You can grow these four plants together in a spot where they receive a few hours of direct light but are shaded during the hottest part of the day (although chives, parsley and tarragon prefer full sun). Outdoors, they do well in the cool temperatures of early spring and late autumn, as long as nighttime temperatures are not below freezing. In areas with mild winters you might be able to harvest them outdoors throughout the year. Grown indoors, all four need a bright, sunny window.
• Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are hardy perennials that form attractive clumps of grasslike, hollow leaves. The lavender-pink pompon flowers appear in early summer. Chives are good edging plants for beds and borders; remove spent flowers to prevent unwanted seedlings. The leaves are thin and spindly at first and can take a while to grow to a useable size, so purchase a potted plant if you’re in a hurry. Their relatives, garlic chives (A. tuberosum), are delicious but can be too strongly flavored to use in fines herbes.
• Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a biennial that forms a rosette of the familiar divided leaves during its first year, then flowers and goes to seed before dying the following year. It is quite cold-hardy, staying green even when temperatures are barely above freezing. To grow parsley from seed, soak the seeds for 24 hours before planting. Without the soak they can take as long as three weeks to germinate. I prefer using Italian flat-leaf parsley (P. crispum var. neapolitanum) for fines herbes.
• Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is perennial in its native Mediterranean climate and is hardy to Zone 3; it can be grown as an annual in the hot, humid South. Culinary tarragon will be labeled “French” or “German” (not “Russian,” which is flavorless) and will have a distinct tarragon fragrance. If you see tarragon seeds for sale, they are quite likely Russian tarragon, as the true culinary tarragon does not set seed and only can be grown from cuttings.
• Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is an annual with feathery leaves resembling delicate lace. It does not last long once cut and is easily bruised, which is why it is not commonly available in stores. Sometimes you can find the potted plants at farmer’s markets. Fortunately, chervil is easy to grow from seed. The seeds need light to germinate, so don’t bury them. Just stir them lightly into the soil surface before tamping down and watering. Chervil grows quickly, and you can expect to start harvesting about a month after planting. The hot temperatures of midsummer cause chervil to bolt, but it thrives in the cool temperatures of early spring and fall. Chervil will usually self-seed outdoors. Indoors, plan on doing succession plantings every 3 to 5 weeks to ensure a continuous supply.
Leda Meredith teaches both gardening and botany classes in New York, specializing in edible and medicinal plants.