Celebrity chefs on television handle fresh herbs with casual aplomb, tearing or mincing them and scattering them through their dishes with abandon. That assurance comes from long familiarity with herbs and their flavors. It takes time to build that kind of familiarity, but tasting and enjoying those fresh flavors isn't exactly a chore.
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Most of the herbs you're familiar with belong to two basic groups, the mint family and -- surprisingly -- the carrot family. Aside from mint itself, the mint family includes basil, oregano, lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme. The carrot family includes parsley, chervil, dill and cilantro. Celery and fennel are also part of that family, and can be used either as a vegetable or herb as needed.
You'll quickly notice that some herbs have very strong flavors, while others are delicate. For example parsley, chervil, chives and celery leaves all have the agreeable characteristic of complementing other herbs, and making the foods around them taste better, without lending an especially strong flavor of their own. Others such as basil, oregano and sage are more assertive, and a few -- such as rosemary and tarragon -- have to be used with caution lest they overpower the other flavors. As a rule, the stronger-smelling a herb the more sparingly you should use it.
The flavors of fresh herbs won't stand up to long cooking, so as a rule it's best to use them as a late addition to long-cooking soups, stews and braises. That's less important with quicker-cooking grilled or steamed foods, such as chicken breasts or fish fillets, so they can be added at any convenient point during the cooking process. You might find it helpful to start with something simple, like chicken, and cook it each time with a single herb. Once you've become familiar with their flavors, you can begin to look for combinations of two or more that work well together.
The best way to preserve the flavor of your fresh herbs is in your freezer, where their volatile oils and ephemeral flavor compounds won't fade. Just mince your favorite aromatic herbs and portion them into the cups of an ice cube tray. Cover them with your favorite cooking oil to protect against freezer burn, then wrap the tray in plastic wrap. Alternatively, empty the cubes into a freezer bag so you can re-use the tray. When you want a splash of bright flavor, drop a cube into your pot or pan. One important tip: Set aside a separate tray for herbs, otherwise your summer drinks might taste a little funky.
There aren't many kitchen flavorings that you can conveniently supply for yourself. Common ingredients such as soy sauce and vinegars require extended -- and smelly -- fermentation, and spices mostly come from faraway climes. Fresh herbs are the exception that proves the rule. Even if you don't have a garden space, one decent-sized pot or window box can easily hold several herbs. You can even keep a few of your favorites indoors on a windowsill, and enjoy their fresh flavors year-round.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- The Herb Garden Cookbook: The Complete Gardening and Gourmet Guide; Lucinda Hutson