Herbs Jazz Up the Culinary Landscape

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Piquant sauces, featuring fresh or dried herbs and traditional spices, are a part of almost every cuisine in the world and include a wide range of flavors. Many Americans are familiar with pungent sauces from Mexican, Latin American and Asian cuisines, but are surprised to learn that intensely flavored sauces also were part of the cuisines of the Germans, Eastern Europeans and English long before chiles found their way to Europe.

One reason for the worldwide commonality of piquant sauces is that sharp accompaniments serve as a foil for the rich flavors of pork, lamb, duck, goose, and wild venison and boar. They also aid with the digestion of the heavy fats of such meats. And in hot regions, such as India, Pakistan and much of the New World, hot condiments can help cool the body by promoting sweating.

Luckily for Europeans and Asians — to whom chiles weren’t an option until after the discovery of North America — hot chile peppers aren’t a requirement for piquancy in a sauce, which also can draw a sharp bite from peppercorns, fresh ginger, horseradish, mustard, garlic and many other foods. Spicy-hot and spicy-sweet ingredients combine with other herbs and spices to create memorable blends of intense flavor that transcend familiar boundaries of ethnic cuisines. We have only to taste, learn and enjoy.


Nearly all piquant sauces around the world feature the diverse flavors of the herbs local to the area where they are created. Everyone knows about Italian basil pesto, with its healthy dose of garlic, but countless other combinations feature the classic herbs of the Mediterranean.

There is the German Grüe Sosse, or green sauce, of Frankfurt, that is delicious served with fish, red meats or hard-cooked eggs. Sometimes known as salsa verde or verte in other areas of Europe, in Frankfurt the sauce is loaded with at least eight different finely chopped fresh herbs, including delicate chives and chervil and the stronger flavors of sorrel, savory and tarragon.

Meanwhile, salsas from Latin America traditionally are vegetable-based, with ripe tomatoes or tomatillos (small husk tomatoes) serving as the primary tart ingredient. Along with odiferous coriander leaf, also known as cilantro, we like to add other herbs such as mint marigold (Tagetes lucida), a mild oregano, pungent rosemary or sweet spearmint.

A wonderful but lesser known Latin American sauce is chimichurri (see “Fresh Herbal Seasoning Blend” at right), the condiment and basting mixture that is the backbone of meat cooking in much of Central America, as well as Argentina. Fresh parsley is always the dominant herb in this ubiquitous oil- and vinegar-based mixture, reinforced with garlic, cilantro and whatever other pungent herbs may be available. Oregano and rosemary are favorites, but we make chimichurri with many different herbs to keep things interesting.

The green chutneys of Central Asia usually are made of fresh spearmint and cilantro, along with ground toasted cumin seed and a liberal dose of fresh ginger and hot chile. The recipe shared on Page 22 is from nationally known author and cooking teacher Suneeta Vaswani.

Other condiments have made their way to the United States from remote Central Asia and North Africa. In the Republic of Georgia, a relish composed of great quantities of celery, bell peppers and onions is seasoned with two seemingly incompatible herbs — cilantro and dill. Yet, it works. The mixture typically is served with Georgian melons, which are more like cucumbers than our sweet summer fruit.

In Morocco, charmoula is a fiery sauce drizzled on freshly fried small fish. It is a typical street food and includes cilantro as well as parsley, preferably the more intensely flavored flat-leaf or plain variety, along with cumin and paprika.

Hot chile peppers aren’t a requirement for piquancy in a sauce, which also can draw a sharp bite from peppercorns, fresh ginger, horseradish, mustard, garlic or other foods.


When searching out potential recipes to add to your repertoire, keep in mind that mixtures may be adapted to suit a particular need. A salad dressing may have the oil and acid measurements reduced to yield a concentrated seasoning. Recipes based on dried herbs usually are improved when fresh herbs are substituted (use two to three times the amount called for in dried form). A super pesto can be adapted into a dressing or marinade by adding wine vinegar or lemon juice.

Whether your idea of “piquant” is a mildly flavored mixture, such as the Green Sauce of Frankfurt, or packed with the volatile punch of hot chiles, piquant condiments can brighten Tuesday night’s quick chicken breast sauté or put the finishing touch on a VIP meal of beef tenderloin. The trick is to keep several different mixtures on hand in the fridge so they are quick to use in perking up everyday cooking. Most of the recipes included here will last for several days. Seasonings from the global kitchen will keep your cooking interesting and provide new ways to use the harvest from the herb garden. Keep experimenting to broaden your seasoning palate — and your horizons.

Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay are a mother/daughter team who have been growing and cooking with herbs for decades at the Festival Institute in Round Top, Texas.


Green Indian Chutney

Makes about 11/2 cups
Serve with fried fish, steamed dumplings, roasted or grilled meats, seafood and poultry, or stirred into soups and stews as a seasoning. Delicious added to yogurt or sour cream for a dip or dressing.

1 cup cilantro, packed
1/3 cup spearmint leaves and tender stems, packed
2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon chopped gingerroot
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 serrano or jalapeño chile
1 teaspoon whole cumin seed
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon sugar

Place all ingredients in food processor or blender; process until smooth. Adjust sharpness with additional water, salt or sugar.


Makes 31/2 to 4 cups
This salsa is delicious served with chips as a traditional dipping salsa. Or, serve as a condiment for fish, poultry or shellfish dishes. The tomatillos will wilt when cooked.

1/2 pound tomatillos, husks and core removed, washed and cut in 1/4-inch dice
1 large ripe avocado, peeled, pit removed and cut in 1/2- inch dice
1 large seedless orange, peeled, segments cut into 1/2 -inch pieces
1/2 cup slivered red onion (soak in sugar water if too hot)
1 to 2 teaspoons minced, seeded jalapeño or serrano chiles
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons Fresh Herb Seasoning Blend (recipe on Page 21)
Salt to taste
Additional chopped cilantro for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a glass or stainless-steel bowl. Toss lightly and taste for seasoning; adjust to balance salt and acid. Set aside at room temperature until ready for use. Note: Once avocado is peeled and cubed, combine immediately with lime juice to keep from browning.


Makes about 11/2 cups
In the style of Frankfurt, Germany, this condiment is the perfect foil for hot or cold meats, poultry and duck.

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon each chopped chives, sorrel, parsley, watercress or nasturtium leaves, savory, dill, tarragon and chervil (if some seasonal herbs are not available, use more of others)
1 tablespoon finely chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon finely chopped leeks, white portion only
2 hard-cooked eggs, finely chopped

Using a wire whisk, combine olive oil and vinegar in a medium bowl to emulsify. Add water, sugar, salt and pepper, mixing well. Fold in chopped herbs, onion, leeks and eggs; taste for seasoning. Serve at once or within several hours to maintain texture of eggs.


Serves 6
This tangy, flavorful marinade works well with any firm, strong-flavored fish, such as salmon or halibut.

6 swordfish steaks, 4 to 6 ounces each
Vegetable oil for grill

Citrus Marinade

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 large cloves garlic
1/4 jalapeño pepper or 1/2 serrano pepper, seeds and membrane removed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons chopped basil
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary

Cucumber-Melon Salsa

2 medium cucumbers, seeded, peeled if waxed and cut in diagonal strips
2 cups cantaloupe cubes or balls
1 large avocado, peeled, pitted and diced
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced
(including green portion)
1 small serrano chile, seeds and membrane removed, minced
1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup shredded basil leaves
Citrus Marinade to moisten other ingredients
Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste

Remove skin and fat from swordfish steaks. Mix all Citrus Marinade ingredients together in electric blender until smooth. In a nonreactive dish, generously brush fish steaks with part of marinade. Refrigerate 30 to 45 minutes.

Mix salsa ingredients, adding just enough marinade to moisten. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside at room temperature.

Preheat grill to very hot; brush grill with vegetable oil. Grill marinated fish steaks on the diagonal for 3 minutes, then rotate 45 degrees to mark in a criss-cross pattern. Cook 2 more minutes until browned. Flip steaks and cook other side for 3 to 4 minutes more, until flesh feels firm. Total cooking time should be 8 to 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Fish steaks often are best cooked rare or medium rare. Drizzle with additional Citrus Marinade and serve immediately with Cucumber-Melon Salsa.


Makes about 3/4 cup
This North African pungent sauce is a versatile condiment for fried fish or potatoes, and can be used as a seasoning marinade for whole fish or fillets.

1 cup firmly packed cilantro leaves
1 cup firmly packed flat parsley leaves
6 to 8 cloves garlic, sliced
2 cups fruity olive oil
2 cups mild cider vinegar, wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground cumin seed
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 to 1 teaspoon red chile, ground, or flakes, to taste

Combine all ingredients in food processor or blender; chop evenly. Taste and adjust salt and hot pepper. Store covered in refrigerator. Prepare at least one day before use. Bring to room temperature for use as dipping sauce. Variation: With addition of chopped tomatoes and onions, Charmoula doubles as a braising liquid for fish and shellfish.


Makes 4 to 5 cups
Many variations of this mixture are popular throughout Russia. This version from the Republic of Georgia is our favorite.

6 to 8 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed
4 ounces jalapeño, tabasco, serrano or other hot peppers, stemmed and seeded
1 small whole stalk celery, cleaned and ribs cut into 1-inch pieces (use leaves also)
1 large red sweet bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups dill leaves and tender stems, packed
11/2 cups cilantro leaves and tender stems, packed
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Place garlic and hot peppers in food processor; mince, using pulse. Gradually add celery and bell pepper, chopping fine. Add dill, cilantro, olive oil, vinegar and salt; pulse until finely chopped. In a glass storage dish, refrigerate overnight to marry flavors. Taste for salt before serving. Note: Reduce hot pepper for a milder taste.


Makes about 2 cups
In French-speaking areas of the Caribbean, various piquant sauces are often referred to as sauce chien, meaning “dog sauce.” The name is a mystery, but does not indicate an ingredient or serving suggestion, so Fido is safe! Use this as a basting sauce and serve with grilled or roasted meats, poultry or seafood, and as a general seasoning mixture in sauces, soups and dressings. Your hot pepper amount can vary widely, according to taste.

1 small yellow onion, minced
2 large cloves garlic, mashed
1 to 3 habanero or Scotch bonnet chiles (or other very hot chile), stem, seeds and membrane removed, minced
1/2 cup chopped mango or papaya
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric or small piece of fresh turmeric rhizome, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup malt vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon chopped gingerroot
2 teaspoons chopped oregano (Cuban or other strong oregano suggested)
1 teaspoon chopped thyme

Place all ingredients in a stainless-steel or ceramic saucepan and bring to a boil; reduce heat and cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and let cool 10 to 15 minutes. Blend until smooth in an electric blender. Add a few tablespoons of water to thin sauce if necessary. Store covered in refrigerator.


Makes about 4 cups
This is our version of the many green salsas found in Texas and along the Mexican border — piquant but not too fiery hot! Try stirring room-temperature salsa into hot, steamed rice.

1 pound tomatillos, husks removed
1 tablespoon chopped serrano or jalapeño chiles (remove seeds if using jalapeños), or more to taste
2 large green chiles, roasted, peeled and seeded (or substitute 1/4 cup canned chopped mild green chiles, drained)
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large avocado, peeled and seeded
6 ounces cream cheese
1 cup sour cream
21/2 teaspoons salt
2 to 3 tablespoons cilantro leaves, packed

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place tomatillos, chiles and garlic in a heavy baking pan. Brush with olive oil and roast 10 to 15 minutes, until tomatillos and chiles are softened and beginning to char in places. Remove cores from tomatillos and place roasted vegetables in food processor; pulse until roughly chopped. Add avocado, cream cheese, sour cream, salt and cilantro; blend until smooth. Adjust flavor with additional salt as necessary.

Thin salsa with milk if too thick. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve.


Makes about 1 cup
Based on the classic Harissa of North Africa, of which there are numerous versions. Our Middle Eastern Red Chile Paste can be used as a concentrated seasoning in other dishes, or it can be diluted with additional oil and lime juice and added directly to a dish.

4 small dried, red hot chiles, such as tabasco or serrano
1 large red sweet pepper, roasted, peeled and seeded
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 large cloves garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin seed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground coriander seed
1 teaspoon ground caraway seed
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice

Place dried red chiles in a small bowl and add just enough boiling water to cover. Let stand for 15 minutes to soften. Strain, reserving liquid, and blend with remaining ingredients in electric blender or food processor. If needed, add a small amount of reserved water to thin to a thick, saucy consistency,. Store in refrigerator up to two weeks. It will bubble if spoiled.

Variation: Add a small amount to yogurt or sour cream for a quick and easy dipping sauce.

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