It doesn’t take much to add color, flavor and dimension to everyday meals using fresh herbs. Fresh herbs are the tender leaves of aromatic plants and they can transform any dish from simple to spectacular.
How to pick them. Use your senses to select fresh herbs at their seasonal peak. Look for bunches with green, healthy leaves and stems. Avoid herbs that are browned, wilted, or have slime on their leaves or stems. In addition to looking clean and fresh, herbs should smell clean and fresh. Yes, smell them! Choose herbs that have a nice, fragrant aroma.
How to store them. To store basil, parsley, mint or cilantro, clip off the ends and set them upright, in the refrigerator, in a glass filled with 1 inch of water. To store chives, thyme or rosemary, wrap them in a damp paper towel and put them in a re-sealable bag in a drawer of the refrigerator. Herbs will last a couple of days stored correctly, but they deteriorate pretty rapidly, so use them as soon as possible.
How to wash them. Fill a container, bowl or dishpan with cold water. Submerge the herbs in the cold water and swish them around a bit, then let them rest for a moment. Dirt and grit will fall to the bottom of the bowl. Lift them gently out of the water and repeat this process until the water in the bowl remains clear. The best way to dry herbs is to spin them in a salad spinner.
How to chop them. To chop fresh herbs, bunch them up in a mound and use a sharp knife on a clean surface, or do like my mother-in-law does, and use kitchen scissors. A food processor also works well for large batches; just be sure not to turn your herbs it into a purée (unless you want to!).
How to use them. There are so many ways. The herbs I use most include basil, rosemary, cilantro, dill, mint, tarragon and parsley. Add fresh herbs to mixed green salads for added interest and dimension. Add chopped fresh herbs to vinaigrettes and marinades for meat, poultry, fish and vegetables. Make herb butters for use on steak, potatoes, rolls and toast. Simply bring a stick of salted butter to room temperature and add 1 teaspoon each fresh chopped thyme, tarragon and parsley. You can re-chill your butter or even freeze it for future use. Use this same trick with a small log of goat cheese. Bring it to room temperature and mix it with 1 tablespoon of your favorite fresh chopped herbs for a lovely spread.
Whenever I use rosemary in a recipe, I save the woody stems. If you soak them in water, you can use them as skewers for grilled shrimp and vegetables. Delicious and fragrant!
Fresh herbs go great with whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, or couscous. Prepare your whole grains according to package directions. For a light pilaf, simply mix your warm grains with a bit of olive oil, lemon juice, fresh chopped herbs, salt and pepper.
Fresh herbs are key to adding flavor and depth to stocks, soups and stews. Make a bouquet garni using hardy herbs such as parsley stems, bay leaves and thyme sprigs wrapped in a sachet or coffee filter and tied with kitchen string. Add this tasty bundle to your soup or stew while simmering and remove it before serving. For freshness and color, finish soups and stews by stirring in a flourish of add fresh chopped cilantro, parsley or chives.
I also use a variety of herbs and other greens to make fresh pesto. Traditional pesto is made with basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano, olive oil, salt and pepper. I also make pesto using parsley (instead of basil) and walnuts (instead of pine nuts). Use pesto to dress up whole-wheat pasta, stir it into rice, or add it to plain yogurt for a nice dip. Freeze extra pesto in ice cube trays for future use.
Herbs are also a nice addition to tea and water. Add a fresh mint leaf to freshly brewed tea. Add basil and lemon verbena to cold sparkling water for a refreshing spritzer.
Of course, you can sprinkle fresh chopped herbs on anything for color and freshness – including dessert! Sprinkle chopped basil or mint over seasonal fruit and yogurt, or my favorite, mango sorbet. You can also use fresh herbs to infuse your baked goods with the essence of lavender, basil and rosemary. I find them especially delicious as additions to shortbread, muffins and quick breads.