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Ten things I've learned about herbs -- and a compound-butter bonus

Dill is an unassuming herb -- and often underrated.
Dill is an unassuming herb -- and often underrated.

I picked up a small bunch of dill from Far Out Gardens at Saturday's Boulder Farmers' Market. Dill is such an ordinary, unassuming herb. You see basil, cilantro and rosemary -- with their connotations of full-flavored summery warmth -- all over the place these days, but we associate dill with homey, cold-country foods like pickles and herring. Later in summer, there'll be big woody branches at the market for pickling, clusters of brown dill seeds at their ends, but right now there's the delicately ferny dillweed itself with its fresh, country scent.

I also found mint, tarragon, chives and cilantro on the farmers' stands, and bought them all. Herbs really do taste particularly bright at this time of year. And it goes without saying that the herbs you buy at the market taste a thousand times better than even the fresh herbs in the supermarket. So this is a good time to think about cooking with herbs, and the way they perk up any dish, adding vibrance and immediacy, pricking through anything stodgy or doughy to wake up your palate.

Here are ten things I've learned over the years about cooking with herbs. See also:Seven things not to do with strawberries

Mint, just begging to be paired with chocolate.
Mint, just begging to be paired with chocolate.

10) Most dried herbs are close to useless Dried chives, parsley or basil taste like ancient hay or fingernail clippings. Don't buy them. The only dried herbs worth having on hand for emergencies -- because they actually do add a bit of flavor -- are oregano, tarragon and thyme. Also dill weed, which holds its taste surprisingly well.

9) There are robust herbs and tender, and you use them differently Thyme, rosemary, sage and oregano stand up to heat, so you can scatter thyme on a pan of vegetables for roasting, throw oregano or rosemary into a sauce you're planning to cook long and slow. Parsley stems do great in stews and stocks, too, providing base flavor, while the chopped leaves are brilliant for scattering over dishes at the end. You can stick a dried bay leaf into almost anything hot and long-simmering. I once had a nice little potted bay laurel bush and found the fresh-picked leaves were just as sturdy and had a slightly different flavor.

Tender herbs are a different story. Try boiling jam with mint leaves and you won't end up with much mint flavor; throw basil leaves into hot liquid and they'll give up the ghost fast. Save these, along with cilantro, chervil, chives to scatter over dishes at the end, finish a sauce or to fold into thicker, creamier things like souffles before baking. Tarragon's a little tougher; you can sometimes use it both ways.

8) How do you know what herbs go best with what ingredients, and which work well together? There are some time-honored combinations Basil is delicious with tomatoes, and eggs, cream and butter love tarragon. As do mushrooms. And we tend to connect certain herbs with specific regions. Go for Greek, and you're often talking oregano. Pull out soy sauce, sesame oil and ginger for an Asian-inflected dish and you're likely to reach for cilantro. Unless you're thinking Mexican and salsa. Well-known herb combinations include fines herbs -- that is, parsley, tarragon, chives and chervil and herbes de Provence, which varies but generally includes savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, fennel seeds and oregano. Also often lavender, which is one of those ingredients you appreciate more with your nose than your tongue and should use sparingly. A bouquet garni, essential for soups, stews and braises, is thyme, parsley (a good use for those stems) and a bay leaf, along with a couple of peppercorns. Beyond these classics, you can figure out good matches by tasting, experimenting and reading recipes.

7) And speaking of tasting, here's a trick This took me much longer than it should have to figure out, and that also works for other ingredients besides herbs. If you're wondering what will happen if you mix such distinctive flavors as basil and rosemary in a single dish, scoop out a little of what you're cooking, add a sprinkle of both, stir and taste. If you like the result, great. If not, nothing's lost.

6) Cilantro likes mint and mint likes cilantro: I'm giving this combination its own listing because it really is so delicious.

5) Some herbs are so good-natured and agreeable that you can add them to just about anything for a little extra zizz. Parsley and chives, for example. And though everyone always tells you flat-leaf Italian parsley is best, curly parsley has its own weedy pleasures.

4) Be fearless. Mix things up Different spices can clash horribly, but herbs are much more collegial. For a nice salmon dish, chop together any herbs you've got around, including any bunches hanging around the fridge that you want to use up. Put the herbs in a bowl and add a little olive oil, salt and pepper, lemon juice, lemon zest and minced garlic. Place your salmon filet into an oiled baking dish skin-side down, brush with oil, season and create a thick herb blanket on top, pressing the mixture gently onto the fish. Cover the entire dish with aluminum foil and bake in a 350 degree oven. The time will depend on the thickness of the filet; I'd start testing for doneness at around twenty minutes.

3) But not too fearless about amounts Be a little careful when dealing with cilantro, which some people loathe, or tarragon, which some find tastes medicinal. Also, be sparing with rosemary -- a little piques the taste buds; a lot can ruin a dish.

2) Think about sweet applications Mint is the obvious contender (is there any better combination than mint and chocolate?), but strawberries are good with tarragon, lavender with meringue, and I recently bought a jar of cherry jam with fennel that's an absolute killer.

1) Jerry Traunfeld's The Herbfarm Cookbook is a terrific resource It's a go-to source for all things herbal: how to grow herbs, store them, cook with and combine them.

Keep reading to find out what I did with these herbs.

 

Hazel Dell mushrooms, perfect with steak.
Hazel Dell mushrooms, perfect with steak.

As for the herbs I bought at Saturday's market, they sat on the kitchen counter Saturday evening while I contemplated a large steak from Homestead Beef. I was thinking vaguely about a pan sauce, something to do with red wine and rosemary, perhaps cream, perhaps the creminis from Hazel Dell Mushrooms. But I was feeling lazy and wanting a whole lot of flavor without a whole lot of work. And then it came to me -- a technique I'd known for years but hadn't used in forever. Compound butter. It's the easiest thing in the world to prepare and one of the most flavorful. And it was also a perfect way to use those herbs.

Compound butter is just butter mashed up with something else, like mustard, anchovy paste, garlic, herbs or spices, bleu cheese. Keep the butter cold, then put a generous pat on top of a warm, cooked piece of meat and as it melts, it will make a delicious sauce.

For our dinner, I took a stick of unsalted butter and cut it into pieces to help it soften, then mashed the pieces a little with a fork. I then added minced garlic, a fair amount of fine-chopped chives, parsley and dill and some salt and pepper. Some cooks prepare this with the paddle of a food processor (helpful if you're making a lot of compound butter at a time, but don't over-process) or you can just keep wielding that fork. I smooshed the lot together with my fingers, then put it in the fridge to cool.

That's it.

You can put your slightly softened compound butter on a piece of clingwrap, parchment or wax paper and push it into a log with your hands and/or the help of something straight-edged like a ruler or dough scraper. Cool the log in the fridge and when it's firm, cut it into coins, each about the size of a generous pat of butter. You can freeze these for about a month, and pull out a couple any time you need an easy sauce or a little extra flavor. Compound butter works well for meat and fish, on vegetables or mashed potatoes. You can rub some under the skin of a chicken you're about to roast or just eat it on toast. There are as many combinations of flavors as you can think up: Butter with garlic, dill, lemon zest and a little lemon juice is great on fish and we all know how well lime flavors and butter marry on an ear of corn. You've heard the phrase monter au beurre? It's a way to enrich a sauce and make it glossy by just whisking in a knob of cold butter at the end. Compound butter works well for this, too. And there are all kinds of sweet applications.

Those Homestead steaks would have been delicious all by themselves, but served with coins of slowly-melting, herb-flavored butter, they were sheer heaven.



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