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The Secrets to Working with Herbs

Martha Stewart Living, March 2006
Learn how to get the most from these versatile cook's essentials.

Fresh herbs stimulate the senses. There's nothing quite like the aroma of freshly torn basil to mark summer's arrival or sage's velvety soft leaves to recall Thanksgivings past.

Sampling Woody Herbs
+ Bay Leaf Fresh ones are astringent, aromatic. Use in bouquet garnis, marinades.
+ Rosemary Strong, slight camphor taste. Strip leaves; chop. Perfect match for rich flavors such as lamb, roasted potatoes.
+ Sage Earthy, pungent, soft. Snip leaves off stem; chop. Great for bread stuffing. Fry in brown butter, and toss with pasta.
+ Savory Spicy sweet, grassy. Use in soups and with red meat or poultry.
+ Thyme Subtle, earthy, versatile. Strip leaves; chop. Ideal with fish or chicken.
 
Sampling Leafy Herbs
+ Basil Fragrant, sweet. Tear by hand, or slice. Great in sauces or salads.
+ Chervil Similar to parsley, with hints of licorice. Delicious with eggs or fish.
+ Cilantro Clean flavor. Use as bright note in spicy dishes or with pork or shellfish.
+ Dill Green taste is fresh in salads; traditional with salmon in gravlax.
+ Mint Vibrant, refreshing. Traditionally paired with lamb; delicious in tea, cocktails.
+ Parsley Bright, grassy flavor. Chop; add to stews, sauces; key in tabbouleh.


An integral part of most cuisines year-round, culinary herbs enliven a dish. Just picked and scattered onto homemade pizza or rubbed over roast chicken, they transform the familiar into the wonderful. With herbs, as with most produce, the fresher the better. Pick fresh, soft leafy or woody ones from a container on your windowsill (or from the market) and put them to use.

Select vibrant, strong-scented herbs. Most can be refrigerated in resealable plastic bags (though basil smells sublime kept in water on the counter). But for the best flavor, harvest herbs as you need them, from tender plants outdoors early in the day, when the oils are strongest (from a windowsill pot, snip them just before using). Rinse and dry gently; crushed leaves lose flavor. Strip woody herbs of leaves and pick over the pile to ensure no tough stems have sneaked in. When chopping soft herbs, use a sharp knife; make several cuts in one direction over them and then in the opposite direction. Being methodical prevents bruising the herbs and losing their essence to the cutting board.

Note an herb's character—some, like tarragon, are assertive; others, like chervil, are more mild. Go heavy on the rosemary and all will taste medicinal; too little thyme and its flavor will underwhelm. Experiment, and you'll learn how much is right. Embrace an herb on its own, layer several for complexity, or add as a flourish at the end of a recipe to please the palate and the eye.

Try planting an herb plot in the garden or a handful of pots on a terrace—many will grow well on a south-facing windowsill throughout the year. Soon you'll be tossing chopped tarragon into a morning omelet. And before you know it, on those sultry summer nights, mojito in hand, you'll be grateful for your own bumper crop of mint.



Herb-Roasted Chicken
Green Goddess Dressing
Rosemary and Olive Oil Flatbread

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