PORTLAND, MAINE – “Every dish needs a flavor pop,” says Rob Evans, chef and co-owner of Hugo’s in Portland, Maine. Often that pop comes from fresh herbs in his kitchen. “I probably use more herbs than the typical chef. They’re a huge focus in our food. I love them for their aromatic qualities and the freshness they add to food,” he says.
Evans admits he’s obsessed with finding the freshest local ingredients and turning them into dishes that admittedly stretched the palates of his diners in 2000 when he and partner Nancy Pugh bought a tiny restaurant here named Hugo’s. “I was in a blue-collar town trying to do really great food. I had to go slow at first and get customers to trust me.”
The trust came, and so did reputation. Food & Wine magazine named Evans to its Best New Chefs list in 2004. Today, Hugo’s draws a regular local crowd as well as fine food aficionados from all over New England. They come to sample appetizers like Cucumber Panna Cotta with Maine Peekytoe Crab and Fines Herbes Salad or Duck Salad with Red Bell Pepper and Lavender Vinaigrette. As a main course, they might try Juniper-Cured Venison or Seared Halibut with Ramps and Chives. Diners who opt for his multi-course tasting menu sometimes start their meal with a lemon verbena soda and a selection of snacks, including potato chips seasoned with herb salt. Throughout his menu, Evans uses herbs in supporting roles to enhance and enliven the flavor of his food.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT HERBS
At any given time, Evans has a dozen or more herbs in his kitchen. Some, like basil, thyme, rosemary, chives and tarragon, are commonplace. Others are not as well known. For example, Evans uses burnet, an herb with a cucumberlike taste, to boost the flavor of cucumber dishes or provide a cucumber flavor in crab and lobster salads. He likes anise hyssop, which has a flavor somewhere between tarragon and mint, with lamb and duck or in dessert sorbets.
In spring and summer, Evans grows many of his own herbs. “If I can’t buy what I want, I grow it,” he says. Generally, he uses his own herbs, picked fresh, for garnishes. He usually purchases the herbs he’s going to chop and use in cooking.
While most herbs go with almost anything, selecting just the right herb for a particular dish takes “years of experience,” Evans believes. “Herbs really can change the essence of a dish and you can overuse them.” He cautions against using an herb twice in the same meal. “Don’t make a chowder with thyme and then use thyme in another dish,” he says. Herbs also should be combined with care. “Tarragon and thyme never go together. Tarragon is sweet and thyme is earthy.” Basil and rosemary also should not be combined. “Cilantro,” he says, “is overused and shouldn’t be combined with anything. Parsley, on the other hand, adds a freshness to dishes and is very versatile.”
When using herbs in cooking, consider their strength. “Sage, thyme and rosemary are strongly flavored herbs and go well with roasts and root vegetables. Basil, chives and cilantro go better with lighter foods. Also, remember,” he adds, “that herbs should be the last thing that happens in a dish. Add them toward the end of cooking. Let the dish cook. Taste it and add more herbs if necessary. If you hate chopping herbs, tie the whole stalks in cheesecloth and add to the pot that way.”
BUYING AND STORING HERBS
Fresh is best when it comes to herbs. Evans only uses dried herbs as a last resort, and then usually herbs he’s dried himself. “If the herbs in your garden are starting to look a little wilted, pick them and dry them in the microwave,” he says. “Set the timer for three minute intervals and dry them until they’re crisp, but still brightly colored.”
When buying fresh herbs, avoid those that look wilted or have stem rot or soft spots. “Those little packages are a rip-off,” Evans says. “It’s better to buy them in bunches. They’re usually fresher.”
Do not wash herbs before storing. “The little bit of dirt on them will help them stay fresh longer.” Most herbs should be stored in the refrigerator in plastic bags. Basil rots quickly in plastic and should be stored in a barely damp paper towel and used promptly.
The best fresh herbs come from your own garden. Even in winter, you can grow them inside in a sunny window. “We have no natural light in our kitchen, so we can’t grow herbs. But, I do grow micro-greens, like sprouts, mustard greens, cress and others. They’ll grow under florescent lights and can be used for garnishing in the same way you use herbs.”
Hugo’s, at 88 Middle Street in Portland, Maine, is open for dinner Tuesday thru Saturday. For reservations and information about Rob Evans’ nightly prix fixe menu, tasting menus and bar menu, call (207)774-8538.
RECIPES FROM ROB EVANS OF HUGO’S
Cucumber Panna Cotta with Maine Peekytoe Crab and Fines Herbes Salad
Peekytoe crab is an Atlantic rock or sand crab favored by chefs for its pink meat and sweet, delicate flavor. Fresh, unpasteurized Maine crab, stone crab or Dungeness crab may be substituted. Salmon roe may be substituted for trout roe.
4 medium cucumbers (to make 13/4 cup cucumber juice )
3 sheets gelatin, bloomed
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
11/4 cup crème fraîche
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
1/2 cup Peekytoe crab
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon lime juice
1/8 cup trout roe
Fresh tarragon, chervil, parsley and chive blossoms
Thoroughly wash cucumbers to remove waxy residue, or peel. Chop
cucumbers and liquefy in juicer, blender or food processor. Strain
and measure out 13/4 cups.
To bloom gelatin sheets, soak in cold water for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove and gently squeeze out excess water.
Gently warm cucumber juice in a saucepan. Add rice wine vinegar, crème fraîche, sugar, cayenne pepper, salt and gelatin to cucumber juice. Strain well.
Pour mixture into four rame-kins or glasses and chill until set.
Season crab with lemon and lime juice, salt and pepper.
To serve: Divide crab among the four ramekins. Sprinkle with roe and garnish with herbs.
Seared Halibut with Ramps and Chives
Evans prepares his own chive oil for this recipe. It should be made the day before and refrigerated overnight.
1 bunch chives, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup canola oil
2 ramps or scallions
Four 3-ounce portions halibut
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 lemon, quartered
Prepare chive oil by placing chives in blender with oil and
processing on high speed until oil feels hot. Place oil in plastic
container and store in refrigerator overnight. Strain oil before
Blanch ramps in salted boiling water until tender. Drain and set aside.
Heat a little canola oil in sauté pan on high heat. Season halibut with salt and pepper. Sauté, turning once, until golden brown on both sides.
Serve with ramps and lemon quarters. Drizzle with chive oil.
Puffed Potato Chips with Rosemary Salt
These chips, seasoned with herb salt, are a house specialty at Hugo’s.
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 pound Russet potatoes (medium to large size)
1 bunch rosemary
1 quart canola oil for frying
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter parchment paper. Cut potato
as thin as possible on a mandolin slicer or with a vegetable
slicer. Lay chips on parchment and cover with a second sheet and
bake until evenly browned, about 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove chips from parchment paper and let dry on cooling rack until crisp.
Place rosemary on a plate lined with a paper towel and microwave at one-minute intervals until dry. Grind with a spice grinder and mix with equal amounts of salt.
Heat canola oil to 350 degrees and fry dried chips for 5 seconds. Season with rosemary salt.
Parchment Baked Maine Cod
Although this recipe is long and seems complicated, it can be made in stages. The salt cod must be prepared a day ahead. You also can make the potato broth in advance. Be sure you have parchment paper (waxed paper may be substituted) and butcher’s twine on hand.
Also called the “captain’s cut,” cod loin is the thickest part of a boneless, skinless fillet.
4 ounces salt cod, cut into 1/2- inch dice
8 thinly sliced applewood-smoked bacon strips
1 leek, cut into 1/2- inch dice
1 garlic bulb, peeled and sliced thin
2 shallots, peeled and sliced thin
2 bay leaves
1 cup white wine
1 teaspoon champagne vinegar
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 medium-size russet potato, peeled
6 whole thyme sprigs
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
4 medium size sunchokes, peeled, steamed and coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper
1 pound center-cut skinless cod loin
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves for garnish
To prepare the salt cod: Rinse for 30 minutes under cold water. Cover with cold water and store in refrigerator overnight. Rinse again and set aside to drain.
To prepare applewood smoked bacon chips: Place bacon on parchment-lined sheet pan. Top with additional piece of parchment and weight with additional sheet pan. Bake at 325 degrees until golden brown. Carefully transfer onto paper towel to drain. Save rendered bacon fat and set aside. To make potato broth: Put leeks, 1 teaspoon bacon fat, garlic, shallots, bay leaf, white wine, vinegar and crushed red pepper in a 2-quart sauce pot. Simmer on low until almost dry. Add 4 cups of water and turn heat up to a boil. Simmer for 30 minutes; strain. Return strained liquid to pan. Recipe may be made ahead to this point. Cover and refrigerate broth.
When ready to prepare dish, heat broth to simmering and add salt cod. Simmer for 30 minutes. Pull salt cod out with slotted spoon and set aside. Grate raw potato with a cheese grater into the broth. Add thyme sprigs and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain potato broth and return to a clean pan. Add crème fraîche, salt cod, sunchokes, salt and pepper to taste. Set aside in pan to warm later.
To prepare cod loin: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lay out parchment paper and lightly brush with olive oil. Sprinkle cod with lemon zest, salt and white pepper. Place cod loin on lower middle half of parchment paper and roll up tight. Tie loin every 2 inches with butcher’s twine to secure. Score paper and slice into 4 portions, keeping 2 ties per portion. Place cod portions cut side up in a 9- x 12-inch baking tray. Top each piece with a tablespoon of butter, salt and pepper. Add 1/2 cup of water to the bottom of the tray and bake for approximately 20 minutes until firm. Cut strings and remove paper.
To serve: Spoon 4 ounces of potato broth into 4 bowls. Drizzle with olive oil and thyme leaves. Place cod loin on the plate and top with a crispy bacon chip.
An enthusiastic cook, freelance writer Suzanne Hall keeps her kitchen stocked with fresh and dried herbs.