Part II of the Good Food Series. If you missed the beginning, start here.
These are the sneaky ingredients which give dishes a signature flavor. Whether it is a certain nationality flavor you are after or just the best compliment to your dish, fresh herbs are the best. It does not cost a fortune if you grow them yourself.
Rip off the leaves and toss ’em in?
To get the most that herbs have to offer, you must get them to release their oils. Chopping herbs creates the most surfaces from which the oils can be released.
Where’s me axe?
The best herb-chopping tool is a crinkle cutter. The cutter makes more edges for the oils to escape than a knife does with the same number of cuts.
No crinkle cutter? Use the sharpest blade in your butcher’s block. Always sharpen your knife first. A sharp edge ensures you are not crushing the herbs and wasting all the oil on your cutting board. (That does mean not to cut them on the counter top.)
Although food choppers are touted as a end-all-be-all answer to prep-cooking, do not use a chopper to chop either dried or fresh herbs. Fresh herbs are crushed (remember the oil on the cutting board?), and dry herbs are crumbled into wasteful dust.
Roll ’em up.
Roll your herbs before cutting, if the leaves are large enough. (Insert warning about crushing again.) Chop on the diagonal across the stems and leaf veins. Diagonal cuts create a larger opening in the stems and the veins to release oil.
I will just shake the bottle.
Dried herbs have the water, but not the oils, removed. To release the oils, rub them gently between either your fingers or the palms of your hands. (What am I going to warn you?)
The friction will warm the oil, making it release from the herbs more quickly than cooking will alone. This infuses your dish with the full flavor of the herbs throughout the cooking process.
Fry ’em or boil ’em?
If you are sauteing, the oil in your pan is be sufficient to draw out the essential herb oils. If boiling, add a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil for each quart of water in your pot. The olive oil will attract out, and mix with, the essential herb oils. Extra virgin olive oil will not temper the flavor of the herb or dish itself, but will act as a vehicle for thorough distribution.
When braising, grilling or roasting, mix your chopped herbs with a light oil, like safflower. Let the chopped herbs rest in the oil for at least four hours before applying them to meat or vegetables. You can prepare extra and store this in an empty sauce bottle to save time and money.
Minced or shredded?
Adjust the fineness of your chop to your cooking time. The shorter the cooking time, the finer the chop. There is only a little time for the herb’s essential oils to reach release temperature. For long cooking times, such as a slow cooker or simmering stock pot, roughly chop herbs or wait to put them into the dish until the half-way point.
Plate Like a Pro
Loosely torn, fresh herbs can be used as garnish on top of dishes and sauces to add the most fragrance and a multi-layered flavor. Like a gourmet’s, your dish showcases the herbs in different stages: cooked and fresh.
NEXT: Why does good cheese stink?
What is your favorite herb?
(c) Ann Marie Dwyer 2011
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