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Get comfortable cooking with herbs

(article, Deborah Madison)

I suspect that more than a few people are timid in their use of herbs, excepting maybe the familiar parsley, chives, and basil. 

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We have reason to approach them with extreme caution — they’re not simple vegetables, after all. 

Herbs are, essentially, flavors, even personalities. 

I find dill to be always friendly and accommodating, but sometimes herbs are strong, if not abrasive. A mass of cilantro definitely has impact. It’s easy to have too much rosemary. But lemon verbena sings. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Don't skip the breadcrumbs on this pasta; cheese, however, is optional."] 

Basil intoxicates; anise hyssop is complex, earthy, strong, and possibly overpowering. Tarragon’s got that licorice element, which some find intriguing, but many shy away from. Marjoram has a sunny way about it. 

Salad burnet is extremely pretty, but does it really have that much flavor? True, it has the faint taste of cucumber, but maybe it’s best left for garnishes. (I would never give it up, though!) 
 
Chives, by August, just might be making enough flowers to use as a garnish. The thymes are all at full throttle and so is summer savory (not an appealing herb, in my book.)

In any case, summer is the season for herbs, lots of herbs in the garden and at the farmers' market. Maybe there are bunches in your CSA box, too. 

What to do with them?

First, if they are unfamiliar, get to know them. Start by crumbling a leaf and inhaling the aroma. That’s going to tell you a lot. Assess it. Is it warm? Abrasive? Inviting? Repulsive, even? (Epazote might be.) 

Take a bite, chew, swallow, and come to your own conclusions about likes and dislikes. Don’t worry too much about textures, because you’re not going to end up eating them all by themselves. 

Next, try tasting a few together, and see what they do in concert.

After you’ve tasted the herbs by themselves, spread a cracker or crostini with delicate ricotta, the freshest and closest to homemade you can find. Mince a little herb and sprinkle it over the cheese. Add a pinch of salt, a tiny bit of pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil, if you like. Taste. 

This way, you’re experiencing the herb more as a food, or at least as a seasoning, the way you’d experience it in a dish. 

Again, try herbs in combination. Dill, basil, parsley, and cilantro are incredibly exciting together, making a flavor that’s far bigger than any one alone. Similarly, there’s a reason tarragon, chives, parsley, and chervil are brought together to make fines herbes. So there’s no chervil when it’s hot — try it without the chervil, or maybe add a little anise hyssop in its place. In any case, experiment. (It’s easier to do this with a few friends.)

Finally, know that heat augments the power of herbs enormously. I don’t mean cooking with them, for summer herbs generally are so volatile that their perfumes dissipate when cooked, say, in a soup. But add herbs to a bowl of hot spaghetti and you’ll see what I mean. Handfuls of herbs, at least a couple from fairly small hands, are what it takes. Rather than pounding them into a paste or pesto, simply tear or chop them. 

When you take a bite of this dish, there will be many explosions of different tastes. Your tongue will be continually surprised by the celery-like lovage leaves (or celery leaves, for that matter), the familiar parsley, the lemony bite of the sorrel, the summery joy of marjoram. You'll need about a cup of chopped leaves in all. This recipe has some suggestions, but you can vary the amounts according to your tastes and, of course, what's available, which might be an entirely different set of herbs.

Crisp, golden breadcrumbs give this aromatic pasta dish color and texture, so don’t skip them. Adding cheese, however, is entirely optional.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.


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