by Elena Gustavson, RAFFL's Everyday Chef. Cooking with herbs lends a bright, fresh note to food and whether used sparingly or with gusto, can completely transform a dish.
Easy to grow (many tend to benefit from benign neglect), herbs can live on a sunny windowsill or outside in a garden, making it fairly easy for most cooks to keep on hand. Read on for five different ways to use fresh herbs in your everyday cooking.
Salad Dressings and Marinades
Herbs like parsley, thyme and cilantro, can play a starring role when it comes to salad dressing and marinade. Combine vinegar or lemon juice, a heart healthy oil like olive, safflower or canola oil, salt and pepper with your favorite, readily available herbs. Don't be afraid to really pack in the green! Stem woody herbs like thyme or oregano, and roughly chop the stems and leaves of softer herbs like basil, parsley, cilantro and chives. If you decide to stem all of your herbs, throw the stems into a favorite oil to infuse overnight or bring a pot of vinegar to a simmer, add the herbal discards, cover and let steep for an hour or two. Strain out the solids, bottle and use on anything you like!
Herb Pastes: Pesto, Pistou & Sofrito
Combining fresh herbs with olive oil and garlic is used throughout many regions in the world. Many of us are familiar with pesto - a sauce made by processing basil with olive oil and garlic, along with pine nuts (or pignolas) and parmesan cheese - but there are variations of this sauce throughout the world. Pistou, originating in the Provencal region of France, processes basil with sea salt, olive oil and garlic - no cheese or nuts. Sofrito uses cilantro, garlic and olive oil, adding peppers and paprika to the mix.
My favorite is a very basic paste of herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro or a combination thereof), garlic, olive oil and a pinch of kosher or sea salt, frozen in 1 1/2 inch logs wrapped in parchment, wax or freezer paper. I then pop the logs in a plastic bag and freeze. Whenever I need a bit of fresh herb flavor for sauces, butters, marinades, etc, I take a sharp knife and slice off what I need - no thawing necessary - and pop everything right back in the freezer for next time.
Nothing says summer than a fresh herb salad. Mix mints with basil, lemon balm with oregeno, cilantro with garlic chives or any other combination you can think of. For a quick salad, mix your favorite herbs with shredded greens like chard or spinach. Sprinkle with sea salt, ground black pepper, minced garlic, a sprinkle of your favorite vinegar or squeeze of something citrus and a heart healthy oil like olive or safflower. If you had a few edible flowers to include like nasturiums, borage, or violets, all the better.
When you have more herbs than you know what to do with, make tea! Mint, an easy to grow herb, can be used fresh by either pouring boiling water over leaves or allowing them to soak for a couple of hours in cold water. Also try basil or parsley with lemon, chamomile and thyme with a slice of cucumber. You can also gather herbs and dry on paper towels or by hanging in a dry, breezy spot, out of direct sun. Store in an airtight container and enjoy all winter long.
Preserving Summer Herbs
Most of us know that herbs can be preserved by drying or by processing into oil (like the herb pastes above) and freezing, but you can also preserve herbs in butter and vinegar.
For butter, add one part minced herbs to two parts softened butter and mix. Shape into a 1 1/2 inch log, wrap in paper and freeze. Slice what you need when you need it, straight out of the freezer!
For vinegars, you will need glass bottles with cork stoppers or plastic lids (vinegar eats away at metal). Fill the bottle(s) with cider vinegar for more robust herbs like rosemary or white wine vinegar for more delicate tasting herbs like lemon balm or thyme. Add fresh or dried herbs, pushing into the bottles with a chopstick or wooden skewer, and close the bottle tightly. Use 1/2 cup of herbs to 2 cups of vinegar, but feel free to experiment with ratios. Store in a cool, dry place.