In spite of dill’s inexorable dillness, the fresh herb is sold year round in many supermarkets, which seems to indicate that it is used by many. Yet few people I’ve spoken with over the years have nominated dill as their favorite herb. And when I ask, “What do you like dill with?” the overwhelming response is, “Dill? Yes, well, pickles.” Are refrigerators across the country filled with bunches of dill languishing to sliminess in the farthest recesses of crisper drawers?
Part of the problem may be that people don’t know what to do with the fresh herb when they get it home from the store. Try pulling that dill out the crisper and treating it like cut flowers. (I do this with most annual herbs.) Rinse the bunch well, shake to dry, strip the leaves off the lower stems, recut the stem ends, then place in a jar with a couple of inches of water. Cover loosely with a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator. It will lose a little flavor over time, but not as much as basil or chervil would. Store-bought dill will last as long as week when treated this way; fresh dill from your garden will last even longer if you change the water after a week, but long storage doesn’t make sense when smaller amounts of the herb can be harvested as needed. Dill becomes watery and flavorless when frozen, and dried dill is about as tasteless as dried parsley.
Dill leaf, usually called dill weed, is a nice change from parsley as a garnish with many dishes. It goes well with most vegetables and is popular as a salad herb throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It’s particularly good in breads, especially quick breads, and sets off the slightly cashew-nut flavor and aroma of rice in salads as well as hot dishes. Though using dill in paella is unconventional, I find that it enhances and lightens the richness of this complex protein dish. Dill is good with barley in soups or stews, with quinoa, and with several forms of wheat. It goes well with couscous and bulgur dishes—it’s excellent in tabouli. For my palate, dill’s pasta applications are few, though I find it attractive in pastas that combine smoked fish or caviar with cream or crème fraîche.
Dill adds interest to virtually any soft cheese—cottage, farmer’s, goat, ricotta, sheep cheeses such as fresh pecorino, or mozzarella—whether sprinkled on top, incorporated into a dip or spread, or used in a cooked dish. The Greeks, Turks, and Cypriots have all exploited dill’s special affinity for feta.
Cooks from Scandinavia to the Middle East have shown that dill is wonderful with all sorts of fish, some kinds of shellfish, and the lighter meats. It complements virtually any white-fleshed fish and boosts the flavor of blander varieties. The most famous fish-dill pairing is gravlax: dill leaf, aquavit (a Scandinavian caraway liqueur), and salt-cured salmon. Dill is frequently teamed with shrimp, prawns, and mussels, and small amounts are also good with crab and lobster. Jewish, Eastern European, and Russian cuisines use it in chicken stews, braises, and broth. The French, though not frequent users of dill, are fond of mustard and dill with braised rabbit, and the English like that combination with veal. Persian and Arabic cooks often add dill to lamb dishes, especially those that contain yogurt. Thin slices of pork chops, loin, or tenderloin are delicious when sautéd quickly and sprinkled with a little dill leaf and lemon juice.
Dill seed is much less versatile than the leaf and is used principally in pickles, breads, and crackers. I also like it in slaws and occasionally in stuffings. The high concentration of carvone in its essential oil makes the seed taste more bitter than the leaf, but that bitterness is a good accent for many foods. Use the whole seeds for crunch; for a more subtle flavor, grind the seed with the salt used to season the dish.
The gardening cook can select dill seed in different stages of development according to its intended use. I prefer the immature seed heads for pickling because of their softer flavor and appearance. My favorite use for mature dried dill heads and stems is in grilling. Fish is a natural choice, readily absorbing the smoky dill flavor; chicken, veal, and pork take on some of the taste. Marinate the fish or chicken with dill leaf to accentuate the flavor, then toss three or four dried dill heads and stalks on the fire just before you are ready to grill.
My favorite dill cultivars are Bouquet and Long Island Mammoth. The flavor of the young leaves is well balanced, tasting of mint, anise, and parsley. The large heads of Long Island Mammoth are lovely in the garden as well as the kitchen. Verling is another cultivar with nice balance and aftertaste. Dukat’s high carvone content gives it a decided menthol flavor while Fernleaf dill, sometimes recommended for hot climates, has a more muted flavor and is a good choice for those who usually consider the taste of fresh dill too sharp. To my palate, all dills have a pleasing grassiness, which in some becomes almost like hay, especially as the plant ages. Flavor differences are best appreciated in the young fresh leaves. Cooking dulls the flavor of the leaf, though cultivars with good balance and plenty of carvone stand up to cooking well. Boiling dill seed releases the bitterness of the oil, though baking does not.
Dill is similar to chervil and coriander in that, as soon as it sets flower buds, its energy goes to flower production, and leaf production virtually ceases. Because heat and day length trigger flowering, dill is best grown for its leaves in spring and early summer. Where summers are long and hot, it’s best to make successive sowings at two-week intervals from the last frost through the end of June to ensure a steady supply of leaves with good flavor. Dill grown for the seed can be planted anytime. Though dill requires plenty of sun, here in California the plant tends to get leggy unless it gets some afternoon shade. Provide plenty of water. I work in a little balanced fertilizer once a month until the plants begin to flower.
Dill thrives in well-drained loamy soil, though it has done well enough in the heavy clay of my garden after I’ve amended it with compost, rice hulls, and sand. I start my earliest crop indoors in late January or in February; to minimize transplant shock, I transplant the seedlings when they are 3 to 4 inches tall into soil that is as friable as I can make it. Dill germinates at 55° to 60°F and withstands a drop of 10° or so at night. When spring temperatures reach this range, I sow directly into well-worked small beds by scattering seed, covering them lightly with soil, and tamping. I thin the plants to about 6 inches apart if I plan to harvest the leaf, or 12 to 16 inches apart if I want flower heads and seed. In cooler climates, dill often self-sows if the seed heads are not harvested, and plants will emerge in late spring.
Whether you prefer the majestic Long Island Mammoth, which produces large, handsome flower heads rather quickly, or the distinctly branching leaf form of Fernleaf, a dwarf cultivar, I urge you to try growing dill. It offers many pleasant discoveries and rediscoveries in the kitchen.
If Carolyn Dille’s name were Carolyn Parsley, would the following recipes be as wonderful? Probably.
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