What is green and grows all over? The answer, as even the most black-thumbed gardener knows, is herbs. This time of year, the height of the summer harvest, even if your lettuce wilted in a heat wave and your cabbage was left looking like Swiss cheese by some unseen pest (as mine did), herbs have somehow survived. If a few twigs of thyme and a hardy bush of rosemary are all you have left of the so-called garden that is far from something to be ashamed of, rather it is a feat worth celebrating.
After being on the road for days at a time, coming home to find an empty refrigerator and a thirsty garden is not an uncommon occurrence. After a recent trip home and a flight delay I did not reach my front door until 11pm, having missed what most normal people would call dinner hour. Averse to the idea of hopping in my car to search out a still-open fast food restaurant I scavenged the house for something quick and satisfying to eat. God bless the shelf life of eggs because a half dozen on the top shelf seemed to be begging for transformation into an omelet. No produce had survived my days away but a shallot on the counter still seemed plump enough for cooking. And then there were herbs in my garden. The tomatoes all but dead, marigolds shriveled, but the thyme, oregano, and rosemary interspersed between looked to be just fine. And so I cooked myself the most satisfying dinner I’d had in days: an omelet, made that much better with a fried shallot and a sprinkling of the best my garden had to offer at that time, a few herbs still thriving despite the odds.
Even if you do not have a kitchen garden (and I highly recommend trying herbs because it is both cost-effective and nearly fool-proof), it is not uncommon to buy herbs at the market for a recipe and then find oneself with a package of dill, basil, rosemary, etc that you don’t know what to do with. Rather than be locked into a recipe, it is worth looking at leftover herbs, or the bounty of the garden, as inspiration for a next meal. In addition to flavor, herbs offer color, aroma, and decoration to any variety of dishes from appetizers to desserts.
Rosemary truly reached its pinnacle of popularity in the mid '90s. At that time it seemed you couldn’t eat at a hot restaurant without your food coming stacked and skewered with a spring of rosemary, more for decoration than its edible appeal. It is easy to understand why rosemary had such widespread restaurant fame during that decade and why it still deserves our attention today. Rosemary is visually appealing, yes, but it also lends a pungent piney flavor and aroma and its hardiness means availability is year round. Making use of both the visual and flavor properties, I like removing the leaves off all but the last inch or two of a sturdy sprig. At that point I use the rosemary by itself or threaded alongside a skewer to create kabobs of vegetables and meat. The removed leaves are then chopped and sprinkled on the assembled kabobs along with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper for a quick marinade before hitting the grill.
Pesto might be the grand old dame of herb spreads but the blending of herbs need not be limited to that basil, pine nut, olive oil, and parmesan concoction. On a recent evening when my brother was faced with the prospect of dressing up a store-bought par-cooked pizza crust, he took a stroll through the herb garden looking for inspiration. What he came back in with--marjoram, oregano, thyme, parsley--was transformed into a vibrant green paste that he mixed with chopped garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper for a spread that took the place of sauce on his mostly homemade pizza that evening.
Herbs can also play a key role for a different take on dessert. Rosemary, thyme, and basil, all make for lovely accompaniments to most berries. If you can make your own ice cream, nothing tastes quite like the licorice bite of a basil ice cream. If you are baking a pie, add chopped rosemary in with strawberries or blackberries. Try thyme with apples in a pie or braised plums over ice cream.
And to wash it all down, how about a cocktail with herbs? After all, a mint julep would not be much more than bourbon in a glass without its namesake ingredient. I absolutely love the combination of mint, basil, cucumber and vodka for a martini that tastes so much like going to the spa that it almost feels good for you. Or try a little dill and cilantro muddled in with spicy tomato juice for an herby take on the Bloody Mary.
If herbs are running rampant in your yard or sitting around collecting condensation in the refrigerator the best solution is to use them. As simple as an herbed omelet or as complex as a multi-herb paste for a pizza, herbs can give dimension to an otherwise bland dish. Next time you are looking for kitchen inspiration, rather than letting them wither away, break out the kitchen shears, snip off a few sprigs and you might just find yourself reinventing the strawberry pie with a spring of thyme or bringing new life to the glass with a muddled basil martini.
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