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Start Going Green

I wanted to talk about a category of food that can really elevate your food and help you take advantage of the nicer weather that's on the way; Herbs! Herbs are also one of the things that I get asked about very often because many people aren't comfortable using them without specific instructions. Hopefully we can change that today! And while I certainly won't be able to impart everything there is to know about herbs in an email, hopefully, I can at least give you a starting point to begin utilizing these flavor bombs to make your food even tastier!

Flavor Bombs

Herbs (and Spices - but I'll save that for another blog post) are one of the biggest things that when added to almost whatever you are cooking, can drastically increase the overall flavor, complexity and ultimately, enjoyment of your food. And because they are so powerful in flavor, it doesn't take much to make a marked improvement with very little effort in addition to what you are already cooking. A little investment in herbs while cooking leads to a fantastic and flavorful return on your plate! Don't skip the herbs, it'll be worth it!

Dry vs. Fresh

The first thing to remember when cooking with herbs is : Dry at the Beginning, Fresh at the End! Dried herbs are, well, dried, and because of this it takes longer to bring out their flavors into a dish. So they are best added to food at the beginning of cooking so they have time to release their flavor during the cooking process. Also because they are dried leaves and you add them in the beginning of the cooking process, it is important to control the temperature when cooking with oil (dry heat cooking -> sauteing, pan-frying, roasting, grilling) so you don't accidentally fry them, which can make them bitter. When cooking with any moist heat cooking method (sweating, steaming, simmering, poaching, boiling, braising) there's no concern of burning them because the moisture will keep the temp at or below 212 F degrees, which won't ever get to frying temps (325-375+ F).

So Fresh and So Clean, Clean

Fresh herbs, on the other hand, should be added only at the end of cooking. This is because they are much more delicate and the longer you cook them the less pronounced their flavor will be. Plus, cooking any delicate leaves (including the majority of herbs) for a length of time longer than 5-10 minutes, can bring out the bitterness in the leaves which is usually not what most cooks go for in their food. But if all you have are fresh herbs on hand, you can use the stems (without the leaves) to flavor longer cooking items (stocks/soups/stews/braises) during the cooking process to still impart flavor during cooking. Then you can further reinforce that flavor by adding the fresh leaves at the end. That way you can hit your food with flavor bombs on both sides to really level up your food!

Size Does Matter

Because of the pungency of herbs, be sure to think about how it will be eaten to make sure you don't overpower a dish inadvertently. I can't tell you how many times I've been to a "nice" restaurant and get a dish that has a bunch of beautifully placed whole herbs on it as a garnish. I usually immediately move them all to the side before eating because I know if I ate the 4-6 large sprigs of dill, rosemary, thyme or tarragon that garnished the plate, I wouldn't taste anything else on the dish. No one wants a pretty dish that tastes like eating a christmas tree! While each dish, personal preference, and herb strength will vary, generally, when cooking at home (for 1-4 people), 1-2 teaspoons (for stronger herbs - dill, tarragon, rosemary, oregano, thyme) to 1-2 Tablespoons (for more delicate herbs - parsley, basil, cilantro, chives) of chopped herbs is plenty to give a boost without overdoing it. And if you are using whole leaves, 2-6 leaves (again depending on size of leaf/strength of flavor/type of dish) is plenty because they will pack an even bigger punch whenever you get a bite of them and spacing those punches out makes for a more balanced dish. And for the love of all things holy, don't put giant sprigs of herbs that were never intended to be eaten on the plate as a garnish! Steakhouses of the 80's can keep the nonfunctional, "pretty" garnishes... IMHO... ;)

Go With What You Know... Then Get Funky!

Beyond knowing how much and when to use herbs, knowing which herbs to use for each dish is one of the things that holds people back from using herbs. Like many things in cooking, you know a lot more than you realize and ultimately, if you like it, go with it! What's the first herb you think of when I say Tomatoes and Mozzarella? I'm guessing basil, maybe oregano or parsley. What about Chicken? Rosemary, sage, thyme, parsley, or chives are all go to's that work great with chicken. What about Tacos or Guacamole? I'll bet cilantro came to mind... When you begin paying attention to herbs in food you buy, you'll start noticing all the classic combinations in the different foods you already love and that's a great place to start when adding herbs into your own food! After you get used to cooking with herbs and food combinations you love, try experimenting with new combinations to keep your cooking fresh and interesting! If you're not sure if an herb will go with a certain ingredient or food, taste a little of the herb with what you want to pair it with and see how it tastes. Or just google the two things together and see if anyone else has ever made that combo before. That's one of the great things about having the internet at our disposal; use other's experience to learn from! And it really only takes 5 seconds to have a little Google and see if anyone has ever put thyme and tomatoes together... You might just find your new favorite combo!

Strive for Outside Investment!

One of the other things that keeps people from using herbs is buying them only to have them go bad in the fridge before they can be used. An easy way to avoid this is to Grow Your Own! Herbs are relatively easy to grow (even for me who can cook up a storm but can kill plants like it's my job) and only require a little soil, moderate sun and weekly, light watering. And usually a plant costs as much (or less) as a box or bunch of cut herbs. And with a little care, that can possibly be the last time you buy that herb. I just keep mine outside my kitchen window and only water them when it's been really dry for a while (and they'll let you know when they are dry by shriveling then bounce back with a nice drink). And I've found that by investing a little time in growing your own herbs, you have them on your mind and are more excited to use them in your cooking! This in turn makes your food better and gets you more excited about your herbs! What a great cycle to start! And one other little benefit from that cycle is that because herbs are so strong (especially if they are freshly picked), you only need to prune off the top sprouts each time you need some. This also helps them to grow more bush-like instead of a single stem, like a tree. This eventually gives you lots more herbs growing! And if you accidentally kill them, you can always start over for the cost of 1 bunch of cut ones. A farmer friend of mine gave me some good advice, "if they are dying, just start over. It's ok, they're not children..."

Happy Cooking Everyone!!

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