I probably get more questions about cooking with herbs and spices than all other topics combined. There’s no magic answer to your kitchen problems, but there are some tips that I think might help.
So, this week is about herbs — we’ll save spices for next time.
First, why do recipes call for Italian flat-leaf parsley instead of curly?
That’s easy. Italian parsley, which looks more like cilantro than its cousin with the tightly-curled leaves in thick bunches, has more flavour and generally better texture.
Those big bunches of curly parsley are cheaper than the small plastic boxes of Italian, and I use them all the time as a bed for meat or to create a tasty braising liquid.
But if I’m adding the parsley at the end for a burst of flavour, it’s always Italian.
That brings me to the next most common herb problem, which is when to add.
The basic principle is dried herbs go in at the start and fresh at the end.
There are lots of exceptions, of course. Fresh thyme stalks are wonderful in a slow-cooked stew, and easy to fish out at the end; likewise fresh bay leaves. Fresh tarragon and rosemary, on the other hand, are much better cooked for a shorter time.
Oregano is one dried herb that I add towards the end of the cooking time, even if there’s some gone into the dish earlier.
And how would we dress a turkey without dried savoury?
Of course, substitutions are OK. There are times when you can’t get a fresh herb here to save your soul.
As a rule, go with a three-to-one ratio, that’s one-third the amount of fresh herbs as compared to dried.
Bay leaves throw that right out the window, because fresh have about twice the power of dried.
Let’s talk pairings for a minute.
Rosemary is a natural with lamb, beef, pork and potatoes, but it’s versatile. It’s also pungent, so be cautious before throwing in a big handful.
One of my favourite ways to use rosemary is finely minced and mixed with spices, salt, pepper and olive oil and rubbed briskly into a roast or steak.
Thyme and bay go well with rosemary but more delicate herbs such as basil don’t always hold up.
Bay leaves should be your go-to for just about any long cooking method. The flavour starts slowly then builds, peaking after a couple of hours.
Dried bay leaves are a great standby when you can’t get your hands on fresh.
Sometimes pairing herbs is about where the food comes from. If you have dried oregano and fresh cilantro on hand, you can turn any ingredients in your house into a Mexican meal.
Cilantro is the most common herb in the world, and apart from Latin cuisine it also supports Far East cooking — you simply can’t achieve Thai flavours without it.
If it’s Italian you’re going for, think basil. Nothing finishes a fresh tomato sauce like a handful of basil torn into pieces and stirred in at the last minute.
Sage is another herb common in Italian cooking, but its flavour overpowers everything so use it judiciously.
Try this first recipe as a primer for nailing that Italian kitchen vibe.
Sausage and bean minestrone
This hearty cold-weather dish makes the absolute best use of dried and fresh herbs.
When you grate all the good bits off a wedge of fresh Parmesan, throw the rinds in the freezer and save them for a pot of soup like this one — you won’t believe the incredible flavour boost.
Scrape the waxy part off the rind before using, though.
This amount serves a crowd but freezes perfectly.
6 hot Italian sausages (or mild if you must)
2 medium stalks celery, thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, diced
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. dried Italian seasoning
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes
6 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
2 19-oz. cans white kidney beans, rinsed and well drained (or other beans you like)
4 or 5 stalks fresh thyme
3 fresh or 6 dried bay leaves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
1 large bunch fresh kale, coarsely chopped (or other greens you like)
1 cup orzo or other small pasta
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup torn or chopped fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese
Fry sausages in a Dutch oven until brown and cooked through. Start on low heat so they release a bit of fat. Remove and set aside.
If there’s more than about 2 tsp. of fat in the pot, discard it.
Add celery, carrots and onion and cook until starting to soften and brown.
Add garlic and Italian seasoning and cook until fragrant, about a minute.
Add tomatoes, broth, kidney beans, thyme and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes.
Slice cooked sausages into bite-sized pieces and add to soup along with nutmeg, kale, orzo, and dried oregano.
Simmer another 10 minutes. Discard thyme stalks and bay leaves.
Stir in parsley and basil and serve with cheese on the side for people to sprinkle on top.
Herb-baked halibut with lemon caper sauce
For fish, I gravitate towards thyme, parsley, tarragon and dill, but herbs can easily smother delicate seafood so a light hand is called for.
Use this mixture for any seafood you like, although it goes particularly well with white fish like halibut or cod.
4 serving-sized pieces halibut (5 to 6 oz. each)
1 small shallot, minced (or 1 tbsp. minced onion)
1/2 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves, minced
2 tbsp. soft butter or margarine (Butter is better)
1 lemon, zest and juice
2 tbsp. capers, rinsed, drained and coarsely chopped (the bigger the better)
2 tbsp. chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon leaves
1 tsp. fresh dill, finely chopped
1/4 tsp. each salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Dry fish with paper towels. Stir shallot, garlic and thyme into butter and rub all over fish.
Place in a greased baking dish. Cover and bake at 450 F for 15 minutes or just until fish flakes.
Halibut dries out fast so be careful.
For the sauce, combine lemon zest and juice, capers, parsley, tarragon, dill, salt and pepper.
Whisk olive oil in briskly and pour over halibut just before serving.
Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John’s. Questions may be sent to her c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John’s, NL, A1E 4N1.