From the Garden: Must-Have Fresh Herbs for the Holidays
I was sitting in my kitchen earlier today, putting together menus for the upcoming holidays. I try to create meals that combine some of my family’s classic recipes, like Rev. Smith’s Holy Duck Gumbo and Aunt Jamie’s Cookies, along with new dishes that hopefully will dazzle the crowds.
One thing most of my holiday menus have in common is the use of fresh herbs. You can’t beat the enhanced flavor and improved presentation you get when you ‘cook fresh.’ Normally you can find fresh herbs at the grocery store, but if you’re really lucky, you have your own herb garden on a windowsill or bright corner of the kitchen. There’s something special about being able to say, “I grew it myself.” (This reminds me of an occasion when I served fresh lemon squares to friends and told them that, in addition to baking the dessert, I grew the lemons myself—a boast I was thrilled to make!)
There are several herbs I try to keep on hand this time of year because so many recipes call for them, not just main dishes but also appetizers, desserts, and even cocktails. In addition, herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage look good on the kitchen counter or dinner table as part of a bouquet. Here are a few of my favorites, along with ideas on working them into your dinner and dessert repertoire.
This is an especially versatile herb you can use to season fruit salad, lamb, chicken, pork, stews, soups and sauces. Because it has such a strong flavor, most cooks add it to dishes sparingly, then build up the taste as needed. I have a favorite cookie recipe that uses a butter cookie as its base, combined with two small-but-mighty teaspoons of chopped fresh rosemary. Serve them to guests with hot tea or coffee and be a hero.
Fresh thyme can enhance nearly any meat or vegetable. It’s a true utility player. Sauté cubed butternut squash in a pan with some butter and chopped thyme—the clean simplicity of this dish is elegant and filling.
I hardly need to say it, but parsley is the cornerstone of the herbal kitchen. Flat-leaf or Italian parsley is what you’ll find listed most in recipes, with its curly-leafed sibling usually playing the role of garnish. But this herb can be so much more than just a dash of color. Its light, fresh, peppery anise flavor complements many dishes. I recommend chopping up a cup or two and adding it to any salad for a boost of vitamin A and folic acid.
This is the herb most often associated with the holidays because it’s a matchmaker’s dream with turkey and dressing. It also works well with roasts, stews, and many other meat and dairy dishes. It can be a surprise ingredient in a before- or after-dinner cocktail, like the delightfully named Sage Bee’s Knees, which includes honey, gin, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and fresh sage leaves. I’d try it based on the name alone. Just thinking about these leafy ingredients has inspired me to up my game in the kitchen this holiday season. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a meal where every course, including cocktails, features fresh herbs? I’m going to add that idea to my entertaining list, and I hope you do, too.
From P. Allen Smith’s Seasonal Recipes from the Garden cookbook:
rosemary cannellini soup
4 15-ounce cans of cannellini beans
4 green onions, white and green parts, chopped
2 t finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
2 t finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 t finely chopped fresh oregano leaves
1 fresh sage leaf, finely chopped
1/2 t salt
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
1/3 c extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 c vegetable broth or water
>> Drain the beans. Combine half of them with the green onions, herbs, salt, pepper, and olive oil in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, and puree. Transfer the puree to a large, heavy saucepan and pour in the vegetable broth.
>> Mix well and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.
>> Stir in the remaining whole beans and simmer for 10 minutes more. Drizzle with a little olive oil and serve hot.
P. Allen Smith is an author, conservationist and TV host of Garden Home on PBS and Garden Style (check your local listings). He uses his Arkansas home, Moss Mountain Farm, to promote the local-food movement, organic gardening and the preservation of heritage poultry. For tours of the farm, visit pallensmith.com/tours.
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