Monday, January 16, 2012

Delightful Herbs

What is paradise? But a garden, an orchard of trees and herbs, full of pleasure, and nothing there but delights.

William Lawson, 1618
I love herbs. Only within the last few years have I started growing my own in pots and have yet to venture into the more exotic offerings. But I have so enjoyed the rosemary, thyme and mint that have thrived under my not-so-watchful care. They are forgiving when briefly forgotten in the sweltering days of August and sometimes continue to grow even after Jack Frost has visited our yard. If a sunny window was available, they could thrive all through the winter inside a warm home.
As much as I enjoy growing herbs, I LOVE using them in my cooking! If you have never used fresh herbs, let me suggest that, if you try them, you will wonder why you never did it before. The flavor is so different than that given from dried herbs. And the just cannot be described sufficiently here. I love chopping up fresh herbs then, if I have walked away for some reason and returned to the kitchen, smelling the wonderful green aroma they give. Don't get me wrong, dried herbs have their place in certain recipes, but fresh can be substituted and will give wonderful results.
Here's a tip for using fresh herbs: When substituting fresh herbs for dried, use twice as much (Example: 1/2 teaspoon of dried rosemary would be substituted with 1 teaspoon.) Drying of herbs concentrates the flavors and they are much stronger than when fresh. Of course this means that when substituting dried herbs for fresh, that you would use half as much in your recipe.
Purchasing fresh herbs at the market or grocery store can really put a dent in your budget. By purchasing one or two plants in the spring, potting them up and caring for them, one can save a ton of money and enjoy fresh herbs almost year-round.
Here's another tip: When frost threatens, herbs can be taken in for use all winter long. Just cut the stems of the herbs and rinse, leaving the leaves on the stems. Once dry, put them in zippered freezer storage bags. When they are frozen, rub the storage bag so the leaves fall from the stems. The leaves can then be collected and stored in glass jars or similar containers in the freezer. I also keep the stems that have not given up their leaves and use them whole for baking chicken, fish, etc. Although the herbs don't appear as brightly colored as when collected, their flavor and aroma is as close to fresh as you can get. Measure as for fresh herbs when using in recipes. (Although I have not tried, this method may work if store-bought herbs are leftover and would otherwise go to waste. I can't say how it would work for leaves such as basil. But would be worth a try to keep from wasting good, expensive herbs.)
There are some herbs that I routinely purchase at the market and are relatively inexpensive. Parsley and cilantro are almost staples in my kitchen. I attempted to grow cilantro years ago and had terrible luck so have not tried since. I admit I have not tried to grow parsley, but that may just be something I add this spring. I always have leftovers when using either or both and have found a wonderful way to keep them from going to waste.
Tip: Finely chop the parsley and/or cilantro and keep them in a container in the fridge (with a dry paper towel to absorb moisture so they don't go soggy too quickly). I add them to my salad greens and they give an earthy and different flavor to my salads. A little variety goes a long way when green salads are a big part of your diet.
What are your favorite herbs and how do love using them? I would love to read some new ideas!
Here is a very simple, yet delicious method I use and am glad to share with my friends and readers:
Herbed Chicken
Preheat gas oven to 350 degrees (electric, 325 degrees).
Place several sprigs of rosemary and thyme in the bottom of a baking dish. Lay boneless, skinless chicken breasts on top of the herbs. Drizzle chicken lightly with good olive oil, salt and pepper. Bake, uncovered for 30 minutes or until juices run clear. When removing from dish, remove the sprigs.

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