Good For You
IF you've ever enjoyed a pasta sauce made with fresh basil or salmon with fresh dill, you already know fresh herbs can tingle the taste buds and transform a ho-hum dish into something extraordinary. Dried herbs simply cannot equal the flavor burst provided by fresh herbs.
Fresh herbs add zest
"The Herbfarm Cookbook" by Chef Jerry Traunfeld (Scribner, 2000, $40) offers 200 easy-to-follow, herb-inspired recipes. In addition, everything you need to know about growing, purchasing, storing and cooking with fresh herbs is carefully explained by Traunfeld, one of this year's James Beard Foundation best chef award nominees.
When purchasing fresh herbs at the supermarket, look for those that have robust green leaves growing densely from the stems. Avoid herbs with pale leaves or thin stems, warns Traunfeld. This can be a sign that the herbs were grown with too much fertilizer and not enough sun, resulting in an inferior flavor. Opt for fresh herbs sold in sealed plastic bags or plastic containers, whenever possible. Herbs sold in open bunches are misted with water to keep them from wilting. As water collects on the leaves and near the base of the stems, the herbs will begin to deteriorate.
Leaves of fresh herbs are easier to handle and chop when they are dry, suggests Traunfeld. If you grow your own herbs without pesticides or other contaminants, they do not need washing unless they you see that they contain bugs or dirt. All supermarket herbs should be washed, however. If you have just a few sprigs, hold them under the tap for a quick rinse, shake them off and dry between paper towels. For larger bunches, submerge the herbs in water as you would salad greens, swish to release any impurities, then dry in a salad spinner or between paper towels.
To retain maximum flavor, place unwashed fresh herbs in a resealable plastic freezer bag. Pack the herbs loosely and store in the refrigerator's crisper. Placing herbs between damp towels before refrigerating is not recommended. Some herbs, like basil, will turn black if stored at too cool a temperature.
WHETHER you chop, tear or mince herbs depends upon the dish you are preparing. Some recipes call for robust herb flavors, others for more subtle tones. Finely minced herbs blend into foods more easily, but also dissipate more quickly as the dish cooks. Coarsely chopped herbs hold up better during the cooking process.
Use a sharp utensil when chopping herbs. If your utensil is dull, you'll end up smashing and bruising the leaves, they will discolor, and the flavor will suffer. Always chop, cut, snip or tear herbs just before using them and prepare only what you will use, Traunfeld recommends.
The following chutney recipe has the consistency of a light-bodied pesto and a fiery, tangy flavor bursting with fresh mint. Serve it freshly made as an accompaniment to grilled steak, lamb or fish.
FRESH MINT CHUTNEY"The Herbfarm Cookbook"
2 cups fresh spearmint leaves
2 green onions, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh ginger
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1-1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 to 3 tsp. seeded and coarsely chopped jalapeno pepper, to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons cold water
Process all the ingredients except the water in a food processor until finely chopped. Add 3 Tbsp. water and puree until smooth, adding water if needed for desired consistency. Taste and add salt, jalapeno and/or sugar if needed. Makes 1 cup.
Approximate nutrition information per serving (2 tablespoons): 16 calories, no fat, no cholesterol, 150 mg sodium*
Barbara Burke is a Hawaii-Pacific University instructor
who has been teaching and writing about food
and nutrition since 1975.