Try Some Herbal Magic

You don’t have to play by any rules when it comes to adding fresh herbs to meals. Now’s the perfect time to try new varieties and experiment

Muireann Peters, manager of the Richters Herbs retail store in Goodwood, sits with (from left), a variety of basil, gold crisp oregano and tri-colour sage.
Photo Jim Ross, Toronto Star

 

By Cynthia David

If your herbal know-how begins and ends with parsley, you’re due for an herbalicious upgrade.

The best place to learn is Richters Herbs, a 40-minute drive from downtown Toronto. A mecca for gardeners since 1975, this maze of greenhouses offers 600 varieties of leafy herbs. That’s after you pass through the bright gift shop, which sells seed packets for every herb imaginable - including 40 types of basil.

To understand why these aromatic plants have been beloved for centuries, run your hand through spikes of rosemary, velvety leaves of lemon balm and perky sprigs of thyme to release their scent - or add a few fresh-picked leaves to a green salad.

"Get into the habit of taking any herbs from the garden and just tossing them into dishes," advises Muireann Peters, who manages Richters’ retail store. "Don’t feel you have to play by any rules - do whatever you want."

Growing herbs in the garden or in a pot is easy and cheaper than buying them at the supermarket, says owner Conrad Richter, who grew up in the family business and now heads the year-round company’s popular mail-order catalogue. He also finds time to research and develop new varieties such as orange spice thyme and profusion chives.

"People think herbs are difficult to grow," says the botanist, "but they don’t require a lot of special care. Many common herbs like thyme and oregano come back year after year."

Pretty, hand-lettered signs hang over each row of plants on the long, low metal shelves. Richter says Asian herbs continue to be hot, from Vietnamese rau ram to lemongrass. "Even lining a baking dish with a few blades of lemongrass when cooking fish adds a wonderful flavour," he suggests.

Lavender, another hot herb, is a natural with grilled lamb, says executive chef John Cordeaux of the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, who sent his apprentices to Richters last week for an herbal education. When grilling duck breasts, he often brushes them with olive oil infused with lavender flowers.

One of the newest herbs in the Fairmont’s bountiful rooftop garden is chocolate mint, which Cordeaux chops and tosses in fruit salad with a splash of Grand Marnier. He also poaches the leaves in cream for crème anglaise or ice cream.

Herbs are an easy way to enhance your cooking skills, says Yvonne Tremblay, author of the 2002 cookbook Thyme in the Kitchen: Cooking with Fresh Herbs. "They add flavour and freshness without adding calories."

The accomplished cook, who answers questions on http://www.richters.com, adds pizzazz to carrots with a little dill or chives, and transforms green beans with a few leaves of licorice-flavoured tarragon. "You can make chicken 10 different ways just by changing the herbs," Tremblay adds, "and parsley jazzes up everything - it even makes potatoes and rice look good."

Richters carries 21 varieties of oregano, designated "Herb of the Year" by North American herbalists. From familiar Italian to showy new Zorba Red, its hot, spicy flavour is an essential ingredient in Italian, Spanish and Mexican dishes, and complements summer tomatoes perfectly.

"Oregano brings out the flavour of other herbs," says herbalist Pat Crocker, who gives workshops at Richters and has just written a slim cookbook on oregano. Her favourite member of the oregano family is marjoram, which she sprinkles liberally over chicken, fish and egg dishes. "It’s so sweet and delicious, I love it!" she enthuses.

Crocker says July is an ideal time to explore lemon-scented herbs, from lemon thyme to bee balm. "They’re fresh and piquant, great for salads, dressings and drinks. You can even sprinkle lemon sage over lemonade or a Bloody Mary or Caesar."

And we mustn’t forget ever-popular basil.

"I can’t get enough of it," admits Crocker, who prefers the big, thick, waxy leaves of Genovese basil with its sweet, pine and nutmeg-scented flavour.

When not preserving the taste of summer in basil pesto, she infuses hot milk with basil for rice pudding.

Away from the kitchen, you may find her giving a lecture on herbal topics. The latest: how these lush green plants lift our spirits and warm our soul.

Lavender Blueberry Muffins

These cake-like muffins from Sue Mattie at Stoney Hollow Herbal Treasures have just a hint of lavender. English lavender is best for cooking, she says, though don’t tell the French! If you don’t have buttermilk, mix 1-1/4 cups milk with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and let stand 10 minutes.

If desired, sprinkle muffins with lavender sugar before baking. To make it, grind 1/2 cup granulated sugar with 1 to 2 tablespoons dried lavender in a coffee grinder or mini food processor. Store in a sealed glass container and use as needed.

3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
1-1/4 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 tbsp finely grated lemon zest
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh lavender or 1 tsp finely chopped dried
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries

In large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.

In separate bowl, beat eggs and stir in buttermilk, oil, lemon zest, lavender and blueberries. Stir into flour mixture just until dry ingredients are moistened.

Pour into lined 12-cup muffin tin. Bake in preheated 375F oven 25 to 30 minutes. Cool completely before removing from pan.

Makes 12.

Panzanella

This summery Tuscan bread salad comes from Thyme in the Kitchen by recipe developer and herb specialist Yvonne Tremblay.

1/3 cup olive oil
2 tbsp each: red wine vinegar, lemon juice
Salt + pepper to taste
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
3 cups torn, day-old Italian bread
3 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 cups peeled, seeded, chopped cucumber
1 cup chopped or sliced red onion
1 large clove garlic, crushed
1/2 cup sliced fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup kalamata olives

In small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, lemon juice and a little salt and pepper. Stir in parsley; reserve.

In large bowl, mix together bread, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, garlic, basil and olives. Add dressing; toss well. Taste and season with more salt and pepper, if needed. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

VARIATIONS: For Greek, add 2 tbsp chopped fresh oregano, 2 tbsp mint and 3/4 cup cubed feta cheese. For Middle Eastern, omit red wine vinegar and use 3 tbsp lemon juice in total. Substitute torn pita for Italian bread and 2 tbsp chopped mint or cilantro for basil. Omit olives. If desired, add 1 cup cooked, drained chick peas.

Chicken, Prosciutto and Sage Kebabs

Assertive sage and prosciutto keep chicken moist in these flavourful kebabs by food writer Patricia Jamieson (with the Cooking Club of America), from her 2002 book Celebrating Herbs.

Served with store-bought tazatziki (or other dipping sauce) and panzanella (bread salad, see recipe above), this is makes for a quick and refreshing meal.

3 tbsp each: lemon juice, olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp pepper
1-3/4 lb (800 g) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 30 chunks (each about 1-1/4-inch)
4 oz (120 g) thinly sliced prosciutto
30 small or medium sage leaves

In small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and pepper.

Place chicken in shallow baking dish; coat with lemon-oil mixture. Cover; refrigerate 20 minutes to 2 hours, turning chicken occasionally.

Cut prosciutto from centre of slices into 30 pieces, each about 3-inch by 1-1/2-inch. Place 1 piece on cutting board (reserve straggly ends for other use); top with 1 sage leaf and 1 chicken cube. Fold up edges of prosciutto to partially enclose chicken, then thread on a 10- or 12-inch skewer. Repeat with remaining ingredients, threading 5 chicken pieces per skewer.

Heat gas or charcoal grill to medium (350F to 450F). Lightly oil rack. Place kebabs on grill, cover and cook, turning occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes or until browned and chicken is no longer pink inside.

Makes 6 servings.

Lavender Sun Tea

Lavender grower Sue Mattie serves this refreshing tea to guests at her herbal farm. Serve with ice and a sprig of fresh lavender, if desired.

Lavender gives this tea a spicy edge that’s a bit like cinnamon and tastes most intriguing.

10 cups water
6 bags green tea
5 tsp dried lavender
355 mL can frozen limeade

Place water, tea bags and lavender in 12-cup glass jar/pitcher/mixing bowl. Close lid or cover; place in sunny location at least 8 hours.

Add frozen limeade; stir thoroughly to dissolve. Strain into a pitcher, discarding tea bags and lavender.

Makes 10 servings.


Cynthia David is a Toronto food writer and recipe developer. Email: cynthia.david@sympatico.ca.

Reprinted from The Toronto Star, July 20, 2005. © 2005 The Toronto Star.

 
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