Herbology 101
By: Sierra Hansen
6-30-09

Fresh herbs are an easy way to make the same old thing exciting again.  The flavor trade off when you use dry herbs is like substituting powdered cheese for the real thing: it’s just not the same.  Of course, those bottled savories still have a place, but why settle for second best when it’s the middle of the summer, and you can get fresh herbs so easily? 

There are some things to understand about fresh herbs that make the switch easier.  First, you need to determine if the herb is woody or soft: A simple touch test will do the trick. The woody herbs, like thyme and rosemary that come on a thick stem, can handle roasting in a chicken or boiling away in a soup, although they don’t need cooking and taste just as strong added at the end.  Softer herbs, on the other hand, don’t stand up to cooking at all and wilt if you apply too much heat.

If the herb is woody, you simply slide two fingers down the stem to remove the leaves.  If needed, you can chop the leaves into smaller pieces.  Thyme and rosemary are both excellent stuffed in the cavity of a bird before roasting as well as in soups and broths.  The flavors are rich and full when you add these fresh herbs, and you’d never guess it was the same old turkey or chicken noodle you’ve made before.

Other herbs are soft and fragrant, so you can eat them uncooked, like oregano.  Basil, another soft herb, is one of the most versatile I know. I like cutting basil into ribbons and adding it as a garnish.  It’s great in tomato sauce, salads, bruschetta, and soup.  You can even lay a couple of whole leaves inside a panini to create a great sandwich.  My favorite is tomato, mozzarella, and basil grilled on some artisan bread with a little garlic.  And of course, the all time classic for basil is pesto.  I dream about fresh pesto tossed with pasta all winter long because it’s that good.

As a side note, if you are using a dried herb, you need to unlock the flavor that is stored there.  In a soup or sauce that simmers for over half an hour or more, there isn’t much of a problem, although it will still taste better the next day.  On the other hand, sometimes there just isn’t time.  In that case, make sure to sauté the herbs in some oil for a few minutes.  Usually, I just add the herbs while I’m cooking the onion if the recipe calls for one.  The heat and the oil allow the flavors to unlock, and your recipe will be much more fragrant.

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