The sight of fresh-cut herbs at produce markets and grocery stores is more familiar today than it has been for years. Herb growing has become very popular. With the increased use of herbs in cooking, potted culinary herbs can be found at many greenhouses and plant stores where they were almost never available a few years back. Herbs you grow and dry yourself will be fresher, more flavorful, and give you greater satisfaction than store-bought ones. Even if you live in town and have no space for an outdoor garden, you can grow your own herb garden right in the kitchen. Many herbs make practical as well as beautiful houseplants which require less attention than tropical plants which are merely ornamental. Just provide your potted herbs with well-drained soil and plenty of sunshine, water them whenever the soil feels dry, and they will flourish. If you do buy dried herbs, stay away from those that are powdered; whole or chopped leaves hold their freshness much longer. Bring out their flavor by crushing them just before use.
What the French call les fines herbes, equal parts chervil, tarragon, chives, and parsley, lend a delicate flavor to herb butters as well as savory sauces, soups, and cheese or egg dishes. Chosen for their distinctive aroma and taste, les fines herbes have a charming ability to stand on their own, or to mingle pleasantly, like party goers. Basil, French or garden thyme, and rosemary are sometimes included in les fines herbes category, but were not among the originals.
Parsley is probably the most commonly used fresh herb, and if a market sells fresh-cut herbs, parsley will surely be found there. It is a hardy biennial, which weathers the winter and lives for two years. It likes a sandy soil and plenty of water. The more its leaves are picked, the faster will it produce. Fresh green parsley is high in vitamin C and helps build strong blood. Use it as a garnish or to flavor almost any nonsweet dish.
Chives make an excellent house plant and their beautiful purple blooms add color to salads. They are a hardy perennial (a plant which comes back yearly). They should be cut with scissors rather than chopped, since their slender stalks bruise easily. These onion family members grow best when they are cut often. Use them whenever their bright green color and subtle onion flavor is needed.
Two other onion family members which can be grown in the garden and are frequently used in combination with les fines herbes are shallots and garlic. Shallots are used in many herb butters and sauces. Their flavor has more bite or pungency than onion, though it is more delicate than garlic. Once hard to find in stores, shallots are now sold in the better produce sections of supermarkets.
Garlic is the strongest tasting member of the onion clan, its pungent aroma can be detected in any Italian kitchen. Fresh cloves of garlic should be used, not garlic powder or salt, which lack the freshness and quality of whole garlic. When buying garlic, check to see that the cloves are firm and the skins are tight. Old garlic is useless. Garlic is easily grown in gardens, multiplies year after year, and has the extra added bonus of keeping pests from the garden. Plant it in borders.
Fresh tarragon is not easily found, nor are the plants abundant even where herbs are grown commercially on a wide scale. French tarragon, the choicest of tarragons, is propagated by root cutting, so if you have a kind friend who has some, you might ask for a cutting. Otherwise, be sharp in the early spring and buy a plant before they are sold out. It’s scarce because it is harder to grow than the average herb. French tarragon requires tender, loving care, lots of water, and plenty of sun. Once established in the garden, though, tarragon will live for years. It loses its potency after a few years and should be replaced periodically. Fresh tarragon is as prized in cooking as it is hard to find. Luckily, the dried herb is fine to use, and can be bought at most grocery stores. It is a favorite on chicken, eggs, and fish.
Chervil is also rarely found fresh. A relative of parsley, chervil is also a biennial, but it is grown as an annual, which is replanted every year. The young leaves lend an anise-like flavor to soups, salads, and especially potato salad. Chervil butter is divine on string beans.
Basil, whose perfect mate is the tomato, is an annual which is easily grown from seed. Several plantings can be made throughout the growing season, so that you can have fresh basil all summer long. The flowers must be pinched off or this fast grower will go to seed. Basil makes an excellent window sill plant and can be kept inside all winter. Basil’s pungent, aromatic qualities are much stronger when it is fresh.
Thyme, a hardy perennial, is easily grown indoors or out. There are many varieties of thyme, but the French and English, or garden, thymes are preferred for cooking, I use a sprinkling of thyme in almost anything that requires a savory touch.
Rosemary, a tender perennial, should be taken in from gardens which are not protected from the icy winds of winter. It makes a lovely, ornamental, and fragrant indoor plant. Equally good dried as it is fresh, rosemary’s sweet and bitter flavor is excellent on chicken.
Cooks who need only step out of the kitchen door to pick a handful of basil, thyme, or chives as well as those whose only source of culinary herbs is the grocery store, can incorporate herbs into their meals by using herb butter. Simple yet delicious, herb butter gives a special flare to any dish. It adds intrigue to string beans, tomatoes, and squash, whose rate of production in the garden puts a strain on the mental health of many a cook trying to think of new ways to serve them.
It saves time and energy when you make up a large batch of herb butter, and freeze individual portions for later use. My Aunt Rosemary taught me to roll tablespoon sized balls of herb butter, wrap them, label, and freeze them. You don’t even need to thaw them because they are so small that they melt in no time once out of the freezer. Any time you want to spice up a dish, you can reach in and pull out a ready made dollop of herb butter and drop it on top of the dish just before serving.
I use Leonie’s herb butter as my standard recipe; the amount of herb I use varies depending on its strength, and how much I want its flavor to dominate. It is a simple recipe which allows me to improvise. I love to experiment with recipes, and often the improvisations are as good or even better than the original ingredient.
Leonie’s Herb Butter
⅛ lb. or ½ stick sweet butter 1 Tbl. finely cut or chopped fresh herbs ½ Tsp. if dried herbs are used
Cream the butter and herbs until thoroughly blended. Add a few drops of lemon juice. If you are using dried herbs, add some fresh chopped parsley or cut chives, or other fresh herbs you have on hand just before serving. It will improve the looks and flavor of the herb butter immensely. Never broil herb butter. Instead, garnish the dish with a dollop of it at the last minute so that the essential oils of the herbs are not cooked away. It is in these oils that the delicate flavors and aromas lie.
Sweet butter is used in making herb butters because of its ability to absorb the flavors and fragrances of the herbs. Salted butter can be substituted, but is not recommended since the salt interferes with the mingling of the herb and butter flavors. Margarine, for those who prefer to keep their saturated fat at a minimum, can also be used.
Garlic and Herb Butter
1 stick, or ¼ lb. butter ½ cup chopped fresh parsley ½ cup finely cut chives 1 clove grated garlic 2 Tbls. fresh basil (Optional)
Cream butter and herbs until blended. Spread on French bread between partially cut slices. Place the bread on a baking sheet and put in a 350 oven for 15 minutes.
1½ sticks or ¾ cups butter 2 Tbls. minced shallots 2 grated garlic cloves 2 Tbls. finely chopped celery 1 Tbl. chopped fresh parsley
This butter is used to stuff snail shells, but since I don’t make a habit of it, I use this delicious butter on cooked vegetables and fish. Cream the butter and herbs, add celery. Salt and pepper to taste.
Broiled Tomatoes with Basil Butter
Slice tomatoes in half, place on greased cookie sheet flat side up. Cover them with grated garlic and bread crumbs. Put just a dab of butter on each one. Bake for 15 minutes at 325, then brown their tops under the broiler. When you take them from the oven, spread basil butter made from Leonie’s Herb Butter recipe. Salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Here it is, upon special request. The strength of this butter depends on the quality of the herb used. It is the most subtle of herb butters.
2 or more cups of stems and seeds 2 quarts of water 1 lb. butter
Boil the water and add the butter and herbs. Bring to a boil and simmer covered for six hours. Check the brew occasionally and add water whenever it gets low. Do not allow the water to boil out completely. Pour the mixture through cheese cloth, and squeeze out all the liquid. Infuse the herbs in one cup of boiling water and strain it again. Throw the pulp or herbs away, saving all the liquid. Refrigerate the liquid overnight. The butter will have solidified by the next day. Pour off the liquid and you will be left with Ghee butter. In Morocco, marijuana is the herb used to make Ghee butter, a principal ingredient in the famed white cookie of Marakkesh.