Adding Flavor to Recipes with Herbs
For thousands of years, herbs have been used in every part of life—medicinal, therapeutic, decorative, and culinary. Nowhere, however, are they more prominent than in cooking. Herbs are used in delicious pesto, stuffings, fillings, spreads, dressings, sauces, marinades, and gravies They infuse liquids, add flavor and color to breads, pastries and pastas, and they also freeze well.
Keep notes on the amounts of ingredients used. Generally, three times the amount of fresh is used in place of dried herbs, but it is always best to start with a smaller amount of herbs, and let flavors meld before tasting. More herbs can be added to intensify the flavor.
Fresh is almost always preferable to dried, but an aromatic dry variety can truly enhance a recipe in a dramatic way. If they’re stale and don’t have much of a scent anymore, it’s time to toss the dried stuff and grab a fresh, new jar.
An easy way to flavor a meal is with herb spreads. A stick or two of softened butter or a container of butter spread can be mixed with just one single herb or you can use an assortment of chopped herbs. Any herb blend can work—basil and garlic, thyme and tarragon, parsley and savory, and basil and oregano are a few popular blends. Place the softened butter in a bowl, and stir in the washed, dried, and chopped herbs. Refrigerate several hours and bring to room temperature before serving or using to cook.
Flavored butters can be added to sauces, used to deglaze pans, melted as a dip for seafood, mixed into rice and potatoes, and used for cooking eggs.
Herb butters freeze well. Shape into a log, wrap tightly with wax paper and place in a food storage bag. Slice off a piece as needed.
Blending herbs into softened cheese is another way to flavor food. Mix fresh chopped herbs with softened cream cheese, goat cheese (chèvre), or yogurt cheese. The herbed cheese can be used as a spread or as an ingredient mixed into beaten eggs, added to vegetable casseroles, stirred into pasta, combined with rice, and mixed with potatoes. The herb-flavored cheese can also be blended with milk, wine, broth, or other liquids to make creamy sauces.
Fresh herb dressings can season all types of salads—greens, vegetable, pasta, potato. A homemade salad dressing is free of preservatives, less expensive that store bought (when comparing the same quality ingredients), and customized to specific tastes.
To make herb dressings, use an extra virgin olive oil for a rich, fruity flavor; or for a mellow dressing use grapeseed or safflower oil. Add vinegar—regular or flavored balsamic, apple cider, wine, sherry, or champagne—to taste, a splash of fresh lemon juice, a clove or two of crushed garlic (if desired), freshly ground black pepper, and the chopped herbs of choice.
Dressing can be sweetened by adding a small amount of fruit syrup or jam (mixed with vinegar) to the oil. Blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, peach, pomegranate, and mango are a few flavor ideas to add to dressings. For creamy dressings, use light mayonnaise or yogurt thinned with lemon juice, flavored vinegar, and/or flavored syrup, adding herbs as desired. Let the dressing sit for a few hours so the flavors will blend, and stir or shake well before using.
Herbal Gift Ideas
For a special gift, spoon a softened herb butter or cheese mixture into an attractive crock or container (even a plain glass jar) and seal. Keep refrigerated until ready to give, and then place in a gift bag or basket with crackers, artisan bread, muffins, or bagels. Enclose a decorative card with the name of the herb mixture, serving suggestions, and directions to “Bring to room temperature before serving.”
You can also make herbed oils or vinegars and place them in an attractive glass jar with a cute gift tag attached, or even salad dressings.
When you want to elevate your recipes, be sure to think of using herbs to take it to the next level. Whether using dried or fresh, herbs can be an inexpensive and pretty way to make your dishes into something really special.
Play with unique blends, or stick to the classics for a sure winner.