Question: My first herb garden is thriving. How do I use all these herbs I’m harvesting? Can you suggest some ways I can add more herbs to my cooking that my children won’t object to? (They complain about green flakes.)
Answer: Sprinkling flakes of herbs into food as you cook is only one of many ways to use herbs. Here are some other ideas.
• For soups, stews, spaghetti sauce, and other simmered foods, try packaging the herbs so that you can lift them out before serving. Gather the stems of fresh herbs into a bundle and tie it firmly with string. Put dried herbs, which crumble easily, in a tea ball or muslin tea bag, or tie them into a small square of cheesecloth or nylon panty hose.
• Simmer herbs with soup bones and vegetables, or with vegetables alone, then strain the broth to use in soups, sauces, or casseroles, or for cooking rice or pasta.
• Pour boiling water over herbs, let it stand for a few minutes as though brewing tea, then strain it and use it for cooking vegetables or pasta, poaching fish, or as the liquid when making bread.
• Add a pinch of herbs to the water in the bottom of the pan when you’re steaming vegetables or other food.
• When grilling foods, put a few stems (fresh or dried) of rosemary, thyme, savory, oregano, or marjoram on the coals to produce fragrant smoke. Tie fresh stems of those herbs and/or parsley, basil, or tarragon to a chopstick, and use this herb brush for basting meat and vegetables as you grill them or roast or broil them in the oven.
• Prepare herb-flavored vinegars and oils, following printed recipes or experimenting with your own combinations of ingredients. Simply fill a clean glass jar with fresh herbs, cover them with cider vinegar or wine vinegar or with olive oil or other cooking oil, put on the lid, set the jar aside for a few weeks, then strain out the herbs and rebottle the vinegar or oil. Store flavored vinegars at room temperature but refrigerate flavored oils. (Don’t include fresh garlic in flavored oils that you expect to keep longer than a few days, as it can spoil even when refrigerated.) Sprinkle herb-flavored vinegar on steamed vegetables, add it to soups and sauces, or use it in marinades. Herb-flavored oil is also good in marinades, as well as for stir-frying, basting roasted meats and vegetables, and drizzling over potatoes or pasta. Use it as the fat in muffin and other bread recipes. Combine an herbed vinegar with an herbed oil to make a savory salad dressing with no objectionable flakes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
However you prepare them, use herbs sparingly to create a delicate flavor that enhances but doesn’t overwhelm the food itself. Also, be aware that our taste buds become less sensitive as we mature, so something that tastes good to an adult may seem unpleasantly intense to a child.
Herb Flavor at the Table
Another approach is to let people season their own food at the table. Some herbal options:
• Mix finely chopped parsley, chives, basil, lemon thyme, or other herbs into softened butter or margarine. Spread it on bread, potatoes, rice, and cooked vegetables. (Refrigerate the butter between meals.)
• Combine table salt and dried, powdered herbs to make an all-purpose seasoning that you can keep in a shaker alongside the salt and pepper. Try different combinations of salt, parsley, chives, lovage, celery seeds, dill, lemon balm, paprika, black pepper, garlic powder, and spices. Use a mortar and pestle, coffee grinder, or blender to pulverize the herbs fine enough to pass through the holes in a salt shaker. Some commercial herb jars have large-holed shaker tops that will accommodate coarser mixtures.
Rita Buchanan grows lots of culinary herbs in her gardens in Winsted, Connecticut.