by Julie Van Rosendaa
Even those of us who lack gardening skills, or the back yard necessary to accommodate raised beds, are able to nurture a gratifyingly lush display of fresh herbs on our decks or window sills. If you can avoid the hail, flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, tarragon, chives, dill, sage, rosemary and thyme will grow happily in small or large containers indoors or out with minimal tending. Fresh mint is so prolific it can easily take over your yard or garden beds (which is likely what prompted the invention of mojitos), but basil must be coddled – too hot, too cold, too much water or not enough and it will pack it in, so it’s best to use it up on pizzas and in pesto before its leaves begin to curl.
Bundles of fresh herbs have largely replaced the tiny glass jars on the shelf of my childhood. Filled with dusty, Oscar-the-Grouch coloured oregano, Italian seasoning and herbes de provence, you’d have to crush the dry leaves between your fingers to coax out a faint whiff of the herb you wanted your dinner to be flavoured with. But rarely do we go for a pinch these days; fresh herbs have become major players rather than mere seasonings, added by the roughly chopped handful for maximum freshness and flavour, particularly in bold South American and Middle Eastern dishes. If you’re buying instead of growing them, store hardy herbs by laying them out on a damp paper towel and rolling them up jelly roll-style, then sliding the roll into the plastic bag they came home in to extend their fridge life. More fragile herbs, like basil and mint, can be stored upright in a glass of water, like a bouquet; some people cover them with a plastic bag in the fridge.
There are exceptions, of course – sprigs of rosemary and thyme could easily overwhelm a dish, and are often added by the small branch to flavour a pot of stew or a braise before being plucked out at serving time. (Alternatively, pull the leaves from their stem, and in the case of rosemary, chop it rough or fine.) And dried herbs are still perfectly acceptable, particularly if you dry them yourself – unless you successfully cook your way through an entire bunch (or summer harvest), you’ll need to. Fortunately, it’s easy: lay branches of rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage or other fresh herbs on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and slide it into the oven at its lowest setting for an hour or two. Turn the oven off and leave it inside to dry as it cools. Rub the herbs off their branches and store in small airtight containers to rub between your fingers into whatever you’re making that could use a little lift.
During the summer, a quick gremolata should be in heavy rotation; all you need is lemon, garlic, parsley and olive oil, and a means to mash it all together. The stuff is brilliant to have a jar of in the fridge, and once you get hooked on it, you’ll find plenty of uses for it – drizzled on anything from steak to fish, brushed on corn on the cob, tossed with potato salad, even mopped up with bread. Feel free to add other fresh herbs along with the parsley to change the flavour profile.
- finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1-2 handfuls of flat-leaf parsley,
- roughly or finely chopped
- a glug or two of good olive oil
Stir, whiz (in the bowl of a food processor) or mash everything together with a mortar and pestle, adding enough olive oil to create a loose sauce; store in a jar in the fridge for up to a week. (The gremolata will improve in flavour after a day or two.)
Molcajete Authentic Mexican in the Crossroads Market makes a brilliant spring green and perfectly smooth “salsa” out of cilantro, garlic and lime that’s one of the best things to eat in the city. I attempted to recreate it at home, but can’t seem to call it salsa – I call mine crema. It’s brilliant on grilled chicken and fish, to dip veggies or with good-quality tortilla chips. (Molcajete has those, too.)
- 1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped (stems too)
- 1/2 c. sour cream (not low fat or fat free)
- 1/4 c. mayonnaise
- 1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- juice of 2 limes
- big pinch salt
Combine everything in the bowl of a food processor and pulse, scraping down the sides of the bowl, until perfectly smooth. Taste and adjust the flavours, adding more salt, lime, mayo or sour cream if needed. Makes about 1-1/2 cups.
Alberta Trout Chả Cá Lã Vọng
This brilliant recipe comes from Jinhee Lee at Foreign Concept; it’s a traditional Vietnamese street food dish she fell in love with while traveling across the country. Trout and whitefish work well here: the turmeric-yogurt marinade is simple, and can be done ahead along with the nuoc cham sauce. With store-bought shrimp crackers, it can all be ready ahead of time, the fish quickly cooked with handfuls of fresh dill (or try swapping cilantro) whenever you’re ready for it.
- 2 lbs. Alberta rainbow trout fillets, skin on
- 1 c. yogurt
- 1 T. turmeric
- rice flour, for coating
- 3 T. vegetable oil, for frying
- 2 T. butter
- 1 T. chopped garlic
- 1 bunch fresh dill, roughly chopped
- 1 bunch green onions, cut into 2-inch pieces
Nuoc Cham Sauce (Vietnamese dipping sauce):
- 1/2 c. fish sauce
- 1 c. sugar
- 1-1/2 c. water
- 1-2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 Thai chile pepper, thinly sliced (optional)
- 2 T. lime juice
- rice vermicelli, cooked per package instructions
- shrimp crackers
- chopped peanuts (optional)
- lime wedges
Cut the trout fillets into 3-inch pieces. Stir together the yogurt and turmeric, add the trout and toss to coat. Marinate for at least an hour, or preferably overnight.
Heat a large skillet over high heat and add the oil. Dredge the fillets with rice flour and place skin side down in the pan. Cook for about 2 minutes, or until the skin is crispy and golden. Flip the fish over, add the butter, garlic, dill and green onions to the pan. Baste the fish in the butter and continue to cook for about a minute. Transfer the fish to a plate and pour the butter and herbs from the pan over the fish.
Prepare the nuoc cham sauce: bring the fish sauce, sugar, water and garlic to a simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and add the chopped chile and the lime juice. Chill before serving.
Arrange the noodles on a plate and top with the fish fillets, dill and green onions. Serve with shrimp crackers, peanuts and nuoc cham sauce. Serves 5.
I came across this kuku sabzi (Persian Frittata) on Bon Appétit (they have a great video of it) and was drawn in by its deep, lush greenness. There are just enough eggs to bind loads of fresh dill, cilantro and parsley together, and the whole thing is served in wedges. I made a smaller version, with a few different flavouring options.
- olive or canola oil, for cooking
- 1 medium onion or 4-5 green onions, finely chopped
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 t. each, baking powder, coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 t. cumin and/or cardamom (optional)
- 1/4 t. ground turmeric (optional)
- 1 c. packed, finely chopped cilantro (discard any tough stems)
- 1 c. packed, finely chopped dill (discard any tough stems)
- 1 c. packed, finely chopped parsley (discard any tough stems)
Heat a drizzle of oil in a heavy 8-inch skillet set over medium-high heat. Cook the onion for about 5 minutes, until soft but not browned. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs with the baking powder, salt, pepper, cumin, cardamom and turmeric. Stir in the onion mixture and all the fresh herbs.
Heat another drizzle of oil in the same skillet over medium heat. Pour in the egg and herb mixture, smooth the top, cover and cook for 8-10 minutes, or until the bottom is just set. Uncover and slide under the broiler, watching carefully for about a minute, until the top is set. Slide out or invert onto a plate to serve. Serves 8.
Chocolate Mint Gelato
One of my favourite things to do with fresh herbs, particularly unique ones like chocolate mint or lemon thyme, is to steep them in cream before making ice cream or panna cotta. When you have a lot of mint, chocolate-mint ice cream is a great idea.
- 3-5 sprigs fresh mint
- 1-1/2 c. water
- 1/2 c. heavy (whipping) cream
- 1 c. sugar
- 3/4 c. cocoa
- 2-4 oz dark (70% cocoa) chocolate, chopped
On a chopping board, bruise the fresh mint with the back of a knife, or squish it with your fingers to release more flavour. Put it into a medium saucepan with the water and cream, bring to a simmer, then set aside to steep for half an hour or so. Pull out the mint or strain it through a fine sieve.
In the same saucepan, stir together the sugar and cocoa, whisk in the water-cream-mint mixture and set it over medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for about 2 minutes, add the chocolate and take it off the heat. Let it sit for a minute or two, then stir until smooth. Cool completely and refrigerate until well chilled.
Pour the cold mixture into an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s directions. Makes about 1 L.