Herbs are heavywights of cooking

Published 10:57 pm Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Herbs, next to salt and pepper, are the heavyweights in your kitchen. They can transform a good dish to a great dish. Given the weather that we have here in Natchez you can easily grow your own. And many of them come back year after year.

Let’s start with parsley. Flat leaf is often better than curly. It is prettier, easier to work with and has a better taste. Parsley is one of the common herbs that we tend to ignore. It’s not just for garnish and it can add a lot to your dish. Parsely is a biennial which means it lasts for two years. It quickly reseeds itself so once you get a good clump growing you won’t have to plant anymore. Another nice thing about parsley is than you can cut the clump straight across when you are ready to dry your herbs and more will grow back rather quickly.

Next on the list of must haves is cilantro. Cilantro is what gives fresh salsa its flavor. You will instantly recognize it if you rub one of the leaves between your fingers. Cilantro looks a lot like flat leaf parsley so plant them away from each other. When your cilantro goes to seed those seeds are called coriander (that’s another story.)

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Fresh Salsa

3 large tomatoes, peeled, cored and chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

4 green onions, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons diced white or red onion

2 to 3 jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely chopped (use gloves when handling these, do not touch your eyes)

One large bunch fresh cilantro (leaves only, no stems)

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons lime juice

Combine all ingredients and stir well. Store in refrigerator for use within a day or two, after that it is watery and the cilantro turns brown. Serve with grilled chicken or fish, or along with burritos, tacos, or other Mexican style meals.

On the top tier of my new herb bed I am putting a few heirloom tomato plants I got from Ricky Smith, and right in front of them — because they go together like peanut butter and jelly — will be my basil plants.

Basil comes in many varieties. There is a large leaf purple basil, a cinnamon basil that is very pungent and a small compact variety with little leaves called globe basil. My favorite is the common sweet basil. It is a bright green with large leaves on a tall stem. It dries well, makes great pesto and again with tomatoes is perfection.

Summer salad

Take two large ripe tomatoes, peel them and slice into thick slices. If you can get it, slice some rounds of fresh mozzarella and layer with the tomato in a fan shape on your salad plate. Drizzle a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the slices, sprinkle with kosher salt and fresh black pepper. Then take several leaves of basil, roll them up together longways and slice into ribbon-like pieces. This is known as chiffonade, sprinkle this over your tomatoes. This is the just the perfect summer salad.

Last year I dried a lot of basil but I had trouble with it getting darker than I wanted. So I tried a new way someone had told me about. I pureed basil leaves with a little bit of olive oil and placed them in the sections of an ice cube tray. Then I poured a little olive oil over the top and placed them in the freezer. Once they were frozen I popped them out and placed them in a plastic bag and kept them in the freezer. They were perfect for spagehetti or just over pasta with a little sautéed chicken.

This cheese ball is different in that it doesn’t contain any cream cheese. Instead it uses mascarpone which is type of soft Italian cheese. The lemon really helps highlight the basil.

Lemon-basil cheese ball

8 ounces carton of mascarpone

1 cup of shredded Gruyere cheese

3 tablespoons of finely chopped pistachios

2 tablespoons of finely snipped fresh basil

4 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel

A little fresh ground pepper

In a mixing bowl beat the mascarpone with an electric mixer on medium for 30 seconds, then mix in the Gruyere. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Place the mixture on plastic wrap and using the plastic form it into a ball. Store in the refrigerator. When ready to serve remove from wrap, garnish with a sprig of basil and serve with light crackers.

Two more of my favorite herbs that I have to have are oregano and thyme. They both are small leaved and low growing so plant them close to the edge of your bed so you can reach them easily. Oregano is wonderful in just about any Italian dish and dries vary easily. Just pull the leaves off, layer on paper towels and when dry store in glass jars or plastic bags. Thyme is a very versatile herb and comes in several varieties. I prefer the plain English thyme, but the variegated and lemon are nice. I use thyme much more now than I use to and it is one of those herbs you need to experiment with.

This seasoning recipe is from Emeril Legasse. Mix up a batch and keep it on hand for adding a lot of flavor to your food. You can keep it for about 3 months.

All- purpose creole seasoning

2 1/2 tablespoon paprika

2 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon cayenne

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried thyme

Mix all together and store in an airtight container away from light.

When you are out shopping for your herbs you will be drawn to the many varieties of mint. You can find pineapple, lemon, chocolate, spearmint, peppermint and more. Just keep in mind that mint is very, very invasive. I have mine growing in a pot that sits on a tray, because it will sneak out of the bottom drainage hole and take off in your yard. But a leaf or two in a glass of fresh tea is heavenly.

Plant some chives in one corner of your bed where you can see the pretty little lavender colored blossoms and you can snip the stalks to go on your baked potatoes or in your mashed ones. Plant upright rosemary in another corner or in the middle and remember it will get big. When your Rosemary is big use the thicker stalks for skewers for grilling chicken and strip off the leaves to sprinkle over your grilled meats. I love to use rosemary when I roast a whole chicken.

Simple Roasted Chicken

Just rinse your whole chicken, place a few slices of lemon and stalks of rosemary in the cavity. Rub olive oil on the outside, sprinkle with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. Place the chicken on a V-shaped roasting rack, this will let the hot air circulate around the bird and ensure crisp skin all over. Preheat your oven to 450°F. Cook the chicken for 15 to 20 minutes at this temperature. After this, reduce the temperature to 375°F for the rest of the roasting time. A 2 pound bird takes about 45 to 50 minutes and a 3 pound birds takes 65 to 75 minutes

The best way to check the chicken’s doneness is to poke the thigh of the chicken with a fork and see if the juices run clear without a pink tint. Next, use a meat thermometer. Place the thermometer in the middle of the chicken thigh without scraping the bone and deep enough that the thermometer is not close to the skin. The meat thermometer will take a few moments to register, but it will read 170°F when the chicken is fully cooked.

Most importantly after the chicken is done roasting, let it sit for 10-15 minutes. This lets the juices redistribute through the chicken.