Call me a sap but I believe fresh herbs are just about the most romantic things you can cook with in the kitchen. I’m no critic of dried herbs, mind you – I have a shelf full of tiny bottles of indeterminate age that are fine in a pinch (pun intended), but nothing makes a meal or engages the senses quite like the look, feel, taste and, certainly, the smell of fresh herbs.
I have a cutting board and special knife exclusively dedicated to chopping herbs. The board is wooden and bowl-shaped in the center and the knife is like a hand held pendulum that chops the herbs through a gentle rocking motion I now associate with warmth and comfort. I’ve tried new technologies over the years, including the loud, bone-jarring choppers that made my palm (and head) hurt and the overly elaborate electric food processor that felt like a messy and unnecessary escalation. In the end, I always return to my bowl and pendulum — back and forth, the fragrance of the herb increasing with each pass of the blade.
There is also an odd comfort in the various techniques I use to remove the leaf of the herb from the stem. For parsley and cilantro, I use scissors to clip the ends off of the stems, for rosemary and thyme I hold onto the top and use my other hand to strip the leaves (saving the rosemary stems to use as skewers). What used to be a maddening painstaking chore when I was younger is now something of a Zen cooking moment — the range of leaf size, shape and texture alone makes the process interesting and worthwhile.
But it is fragrance that truly makes an herb’s contribution to any meal – a contribution that starts with the purchase (or harvest if you are lucky enough have an herb garden) and continues through the meal’s preparation and all the way to the dinner table. Crushing a fresh bay leaf into a pot of Chicken Cacciatore combines with chopped rosemary and sage to create a uniquely complex fragrance that changes as the meal cooks. Fresh oregano sprinkled on top of roasting mushrooms adds an element of anticipation that starts long before the meal is served and consumed. An herb’s power to remake or define a meal is real – fresh herbs redefine in a way that can defy description.
I have lots of favorite uses for fresh herbs — a few I’ve shared in prior posts. Basically I believe whatever calls for dried herbs is better with fresh – as a general rule I double the amount to account for moisture in the plant. My favorites in the winter are thyme and rosemary but my tastes change with the seasons along with my diet. What’s your favorite herb and recipe?