Tiny green leaves hold a secret: Although wrapped in a quiet, unassuming disguise, herbs offer a flavor surprise.
Herb seasonings create memorable meals. A pinch of this, a touch of that and a food creation explodes the taste buds.Grandma's favorites, time-remembered recipes, were blended with perfect, garden-grown seasonings. The unwritten recipes of the past can be duplicated only inthe imagination. Grandma possessed the seasoning secret in her head and in her taste.
But sharing the secret of herbs unlocks a whole new world of flavor sensations. Choice of seasonings can make interesting recipe alterations that enhance the basic taste of food.
Herbs and spices have their own individual aromas; they have the power to effect substantial, pleasing changes in foods. Properly used, herbs become a cook's best friend, brightening and adding flavor, encouraging experimentation and opening new avenues of sensory experience.
If Grandma's recipes contain too little information to replicate, today's sources bulge with facts. For example, Grandma frequently used basil; today there are more than 150 identified varieties of basil.
We have access to so many herbs, fresh or dried, bottled or bulk, ground or whole, in sticks or seeds, plus a range of colorful, edible flowers.
The mass of information overwhelms, and we fall back to familiar recipes, bypassing the sensory experimentation of unfamiliar seasonings.
The available information is vast, but basic guidelines will provide a fingertip map to new seasoning adventures.
Beyond myriad seasoning bottles on grocery shelves, fresh herbs can be purchased in produce cases.
Spring is the season, too, to consider cultivating herb pots or garden plots of your own.
-To use fresh herbs, place the leaves in a measuring cup and snip with kitchen shears. If three or more tablespoons are required, use a food processor.
-A mortar and pestle is a wise investment for using either fresh or dried herbs. Grinding the herbs with a pestle helps release their full-est flavor.
-When using fresh herbs that have been dried, remember that one tablespoon of fresh herbs is equivalent to one teaspoon of dried herbs.
If you plan to use fresh herbs within five to seven days, place the herb stems in a jar filled with fresh water to cover the bottom 2 inches of the stems. Cover the leaves of the herbs loosely with a plastic bag; store in a refrigerator.
To store basil or sage leaves in oil, layer the leaves in a jar and cover with olive oil or salad oil. The leaves will keep several months this way in a refrigerator, though they may discolor. The oil will pick up the flavor of the herbs and can be used as a base for salad dressing or sauteing.
Since fresh herbs may not always be available when you'd like to use them, try freezing your favorites. Wash herbs and pat them dry on paper towels. If you are freezing basil, mint, oregano, parsley or sage, remove the leaves from the stems. Freeze chervil, dill, marjoram, rosemary, savory, tarragon and thyme on their stems.
Package herbs with care in plastic freezer bags or containers to prevent crushing the herbs; do not crowd the packages. Place herb bags in the freezer on top of heavier containers, or place all herbs in their individual bags in one large plastic container to protect them. Label all packages with herb name and date. Herbs can be preserved for up to a year. The flavor remains fresh, though a softer leaf texture may result.
Fresh herbs can also be dried for later use.
-Dry herbs in a warm, dark place that is out of direct sunlight. Too much light will change the color of the herbs.
-Allow plenty of room to spread plants out in one layer to dry.
-Dry herbs in as whole a form as possible to retain their flavor.
-Dry herbs until the leaves feel crackly. If stems are not as dry, discard them.
-Store dried herbs in absolutely dry covered containers so that mold and mildew cannot form.
Choose one of the following drying methods:
Oven method: Spread herb stems on a tray in a very slow oven - no warmer than 90-100 degrees. Too hot a temperature will destroy the flavorful oils. Leaves will be dry in 24-48 hours.
Kitchen drying: Tie bunches of herbs together with string; hang upside down in the kitchen or cellar. Upside-down drying allows the oils to drain into the leaves. An alternative is to place tied stems in a paper bag, taking care that the leaves do not touch the sides of the bags. Herbs will dry in 1-2 weeks.
Drying trays: If you dry lots of herbs, consider building a drying tray. Trays resemble open orange crates, with the bottom made of wire mesh or linen to allow good air circulation. Raise the box above the floor or ground by at least 1 foot. Drying takes 1-2 weeks.
A number of informative books on the culinary uses and cultivation of herbs are available. Titles include "The Herb and Spice Book, A Seasoning Celebration," by Sheryl and Mel London; "Kitchen Herbs: The Art and Enjoyment of Growing Herbs and Cooking with Them," by Sal Gilbertie; "Cooking with Herbs and Spices," by Craig Claiborne; "The Rodale Herb Book," compiled by the Rodale Press; and "A Cook's Guide to Growing Herbs, Greens and Aromatics," by Millie Owen.
In addition, Gentler Times, 4880 Highland Circle, 277-9233, offers an ongoing class in cooking with herbs.
Cooking with herbs is a mystery - a mystery solved with exciting, memorable explanantions and experimentation. Discover a new taste, an original blend of seasoning flavors, and herbs will become familiar companions in the kitchen.
Appreciation is expressed to Jan Ashby, Sandy, and Tim Hackworth, Prime Thyme Herbs, for their assistance in preparing this article.