Fifty years ago, Harry Truman brought fame to the phrase “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” This time of year, many of us heed his advice by cooking outdoors every chance we get. We already know that cooking with herbs indoors adds flavor and color without adding calories and fat, so why not take those benefits outside too. Here are dozens of ideas for making herbs essential elements of this year’s cookout season.
If your rosemary has gone leggy or your oregano is reaching for the sky, put those long stems to work as skewers for kabobs. Slightly woody stems work best, but any sturdy herb stems will do as long as you handle them gently. Thread rosemary stems with colorful sweet peppers, summer squash, sweet onions, and either chicken or shrimp. If you’re using sage stems as skewers, include large sage leaves in the kabobs for extra flavor. Choose stems at least 8 inches long, and remove the leaves except for a small tuft at the tip. Should you have trouble with the threading, use a wooden skewer to pierce the pieces of food before threading them onto the stems.
As long as you’re gathering stems, why not bind some together to make an herbal basting brush? This idea comes from John Lingle of Lingle’s Herbs, and all you need are five or six herb stems and a 12-inch piece of cotton or jute string. Strip the leaves from the base of each stem, gather the stems together into a bunch and wrap the string around the base several times before tying off the ends.
Do you have a smoker or metal smoking box that you normally fill with hickory or mesquite chips before tucking it into your gas grill? Dried herb stems make fantastic smoking material, and you will always have a good supply if you make a habit of setting aside herb stems that might otherwise go into your compost heap.
If thoughts of herb-crusted foods make your mouth water, try experimenting with herbal rubs. Simply blend together fresh or dried herbs and massage them into meat that has been washed in cool water and patted dry. As the heat from cooking releases the meat’s juices, they will meld with the rub to form a tasty crust.
Tip: Use a zip-top plastic bag to marinate meats or vegetables destined for the grill. Simply flip over the bag to make sure every morsel gets a good soaking. Fish or shrimp can become tough if they are marinated for more than an hour, but you can marinate chicken and other meats (as well as tofu) overnight without worry.
Mona Lundstrom, shopkeeper at Bristen Herbs, Waseca, Minnesota, credits a customer with the best rub recipe she’s tried. Mix together 2 tablespoons dried herbs de Provence (basil, rosemary, thyme, parsley, marjoram, lavender, chervil and tarragon), 2 minced garlic cloves, 1/2 cup prepared mustard and 1 tablespoon of prepared horseradish. “The mustard interacts with the lavender to create rich flavor,” Lundstrom says. She also suggests adding freshly chopped herbs to lemon-pepper seasoning to make a great rub. “Use whatever you have growing fresh, such as thyme, basil, oregano or rosemary.” Adding a little brown sugar or flour to your rub mixture makes the crust thick and crisp, but you will need to watch the meat closely to keep it from burning.
Marinades are more popular than ever, if grocery store shelves are any indication. But there’s no need to buy pricey, prepared marinades when fresh and flavorful versions are so easy to make at home. Start with a mixture of two parts olive or canola oil to one part lemon juice, and add whatever herbs suit your taste. Pair freshly chopped dill leaves with mild-flavored fish, or tame more assertive fish flavors by adding tarragon and mustard. Garlic and rosemary make a tasty marinade for chicken, or go Mediterranean by using marjoram or oregano in place of the rosemary. Substitute sesame oil for half the olive or canola oil, use soy sauce in place of lemon juice, and add chopped fresh ginger and garlic for an Asian flavor twist.
Discard marinade that contains traces of raw meat or seafood juice. If you want a dipping sauce to serve at the table, simply set aside some of your marinade mixture before adding the meat. Fine-tune the marinade by whisking in a little mayonnaise for a creamy consistency, or add honey to give it a sweeter finish.
Some of the greatest herbal hits of barbecue season never see the inside of a grill. Instead, these herbs are major players in salsas, pestos or butters that are used to enhance the flavor and juiciness of grilled meats or vegetables and breads. Condiments have the added benefit of helping keep the grill clean, because they eliminate the need for marinating or basting during the cooking process. They also allow diners to dress their foods to their individual flavor preferences. Use cilantro, parsley, or basil to make a salsa and serve it as an accompaniment for grilled burgers, tofu, chicken or fish. Top a steak with a dollop of garlicky basil pesto, or make a batch of tarragon butter to accent a delicate piece of fish.
When someone else is hosting the cookout, use herbs to flavor delicious take-along dishes. The day before the get-together, prepare a batch of green beans seasoned with summer savory and add a splash of balsamic vinegar before chilling the beans overnight in glass jars. Add color to the cold beans with a generous sprinkling of parsley, and your delicious dish is ready to go. As a change of pace from potato salad, cut baking potatoes into rounds, toss them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and a light dusting of paprika, and roast them in the oven. When they are almost done cooking, remove them from the oven and let them cool until you can handle them. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray and place a single sage or small basil leaf on each potato round. Place the potato slices leaf-side down in the pan and return to the oven for 10 minutes. The herb leaves will bake into the potatoes, creating a dish that looks as good as it tastes.
Use a similar approach to prepare bread. Slip whole basil leaves between slices of garlic bread before heating, or make a topping of chopped oregano, basil or parsley mixed with Parmesan cheese and sprinkle it over bread and broil until the topping begins to bubble. For a simple treat, place chopped herbs, finely minced garlic, freshly ground black pepper and high-quality olive oil in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, and shake to combine. Pour oil into a shallow dish for a gourmet-style dip for fresh bread.
One of the most enjoyable parts of cooking and eating outdoors is actually being outdoors. Dress the table with a pretty bouquet of fresh flowers and use aromatic stems of mint, basil or thyme as greenery. All that’s missing is a pitcher of iced, herb tea to keep you cool as the dog days of summer give way to fall.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant enjoys grilling with herbs at her home in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina.