Want to take your dinner from glum to glam? Add fresh herbs. There is nothing like a tablespoon or two of fragrant greenery to brighten any dish. But what’s a cook to do with the rest of the bunch? And what about those stems? Should you chop or toss? This “Taste it, Don’t Waste it!” post will help you enjoy every last bite of your transformative herbs.
Finding Fresh Herbs
Gone are the days when the only fresh herb on American plates was the ubiquitous curly parsley garnish. These days, it can be quite easy to find bunches and boxes of all kinds of wonderful herbs—flat parsley, cilantro, thyme, basil and tarragon to name a few—in grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Even better, they are easy to grow on a sunny windowsill or backyard plot.
Keeping Herbs Fresh
It’s important to harvest fresh herbs before they bolt. Once the plants turn their energy to making seed, the leaves and stems loose their flavor and can go bitter and fibrous. If you are growing your own, nipping the herbs from the top will help them to grow wide and full.
Treat herbs off the plant like the precious posies that they are—give them a fresh cut on the stem end, put them in a glass of water and store in the refrigerator. (The exception to this is basil, which blackens in cool temps.) If you can also tent the bouquet in a plastic bag or damp paper towel, even better. If you don’t have the fridge real estate for this, you can loosely wrap your herbs in damp paper towels and store them in your crisper.
Shelf Life of Herbs
Using the “vase” method, you can expect fresh herbs to keep for 7-10 days, 3-5 if you only wrap them. Tender herbs like tarragon won’t last as long as woody ones like rosemary, so you want to use those up quickly.
If time is running out and your herbs are starting to wilt, don’t just give them the heave ho. Use these ideas to use up the better part of the bunch—and the stems, too!
Recipe: Herb Salad
“Served with an herb salad” sounds very posh indeed, doesn’t it? And it is. But that doesn’t mean this dish is just for white tablecloth restaurants. Toss one of these salads together for your next meal for a bit of everyday elegance. Herb salad is great with a steak or piece of roast chicken. Or, use it to top a lightly sauced pasta or toasted crostini, perhaps with a bit of goat cheese.
Tender herbs work best here—such as tarragon, mint, chervil, parsley, chives and dill. And keep the dressing light so that the flavor of the herbs really shines through.
- 1 tablespoon white wine or champagne vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 small shallot, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons flavorless oil such as organic canola
- 1 cup of assorted herbs such as tarragon, mint, chervil, parsley, chives, and dill, large leaves cut into 1-inch pieces, small leaves left whole
- 1 cup of delicate lettuce such as Boston or Buttercup, torn into 2” pieces
In a medium bowl, whisk the vinegar or lemon juice with a pinch each of salt and pepper. Add the shallot and let it sit for 5 minutes to slightly “pickle” and soften the shallot. Slowly whisk in the oil. Add the herbs and lettuce and toss gently. Serve immediately.
Taste it Tips: 10 Ways to Use Up Extra Herbs
Don’t pitch the stems. Woody stems, like rosemary branches, make great skewers, imparting a subtle piney note to whatever you spear. Tender stems, such as cilantro, can be chopped fine and used in dishes right along with the leaves. Tougher stems from older plants can also be simmered in dishes such as soups, stocks and braises to extract their flavor—just be sure to tie them with butchers’ twine before adding them to the pot and remove before serving.
The best way to freeze herbs is to puree them in a little water or oil. Spoon the puree into ice cube trays, freeze until solid, then transfer the cubes to an airtight container until you are ready to use. Defrost and whisk into salad dressings and dips, drop into soups, stews and sauces, or stir into freshly cooked rice or pasta for a delicious, quick side dish.
You can use extra herbs and herb stems to infuse oil with their lovely verdant flavor. In a small saucepan, gently heat 1/2 cup loosely packed herbs and 1 cup oil over a low flame for 15-20 minutes (you can add a few peppercorns or dried chilies if you like). Then strain and refrigerate for up to a week or freeze for 3 months. (To avoid the risk of food borne illness, never leave infused oil out at room temperature for more than two hours.)
Drying herbs is perhaps the easiest method of preserving them and is a great solution for using up any amount that you have on hand. You can arrange the herbs on a cookie sheet and dry in a warm oven. Or you can simply tie them by the stems in bundles and hang them, upside down, in a well-ventilated area.
Leftover herbs and stems can be used to infuse alcohol or vinegar. Sterilize a canning jar by submerging it in boiling water for ten minutes. Add your herbs and stems to the hot jar, cover completely with 50 proof alcohol or vinegar with at least a 5 percent acidity. Cover the jar and set it aside for at least a day and up to a week to allow the flavor to develop then strain. You can use the infused alcohol to create your own bitters or custom artisan cocktails. The vinegar works wonders in a vinaigrette.
A very simple sauce can be made by pureeing a fistful of tender herbs such as parsley, tarragon, cilantro or basil, a glug of olive oil, a splash of red wine or cider vinegar and a pinch of salt and pepper. Slather it on sandwiches, serve alongside roasts or drizzle on grilled, steamed or roasted vegetables.
Blend softened butter with chopped herbs, maybe a minced shallot or some citrus zest and a pinch of salt and pepper. Form it into a log, wrap in plastic wrap or waxed paper and refrigerate for a few days or freeze for three months. Slice off a coin to top your steak, chicken, fish or veg for dining perfection.
Infuse simple syrup with herbs and it’s more than simple—it’s superb. Think lavender or mint tea, thyme and lemon verbena Manhattans, lemon pound cake with rosemary drizzle. The making is easy. Bring equal parts of water and sugar to a boil and stir until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and add any leftover herbs or stems you have on hand. Steep until the syrup cools to room temperature. Strain and refrigerate until you are ready to use.
Pesto isn’t just for basil. Parsley, dill and cilantro are great, too. Assertive herbs such as rosemary and thyme can be used in smaller quantities with greens such as arugula or cress added for bulk and balance. A basic formula of 1 cup of loosely packed herbs or a combination of herbs and greens, 1/2 cup each of oil (olive, organic canola) and grated hard cheese (parmesan, ricotta salata), 1/4 cup nuts (pignoli, walnuts, almonds), a clove of garlic and salt and pepper and will do the trick. Puree and thin with water if necessary.
You can make this dressing on a whim with any fresh herbs you happen to have on hand. In a standard or immersion blender, puree 1/2 cup yogurt and/or sour cream, 1/2 cup fresh herbs, 1/4 cup each of oil and red wine or apple cider vinegar with a pinch of salt and pepper. Use on salads or as a dip for fresh vegetables and chips.