Photo By: Courtesy of Eve Hill-Agnus
Toss herbs with pasta or on potatoes, or simply immerse them in hot water for a spring tea.
Every night, my mother plucks from her garden a handful of herbs that add bursts of flavor to her salad. It’s a reminder that big, generous basil leaves and curly tufts of parsley don’t have to be mere garnish.
If you love the idea of fresh herbs but don’t always know how to use that fragrant fistful, following are ideas for a spring awakening with herbs like tarragon, mint, oregano and thyme.
Mint: A breath of fresh air
A handful of mint means a tingle of energizing freshness. It’s a pep talk, a pick-me-up, a breath of fresh air.
I’ve been starting my mornings with frozen pineapple and mint smoothies. With their cool tartness and crisp, mood-lifting mintiness, they send me out the door ready to face the world.
When it comes to dinner, we can look to Italian cuisine for interesting uses of mint in spring dishes. Fava beans with mint make a classic Italian variation on mint and peas. A light, fresh pasta dish might include ricotta, mint and zucchini. And a touch of mint and mascarpone makes all the difference in a potato frittata.
For a little nudge toward Spain and Morocco, pair mint with smoked paprika. The balance of fresh and smoky flavors is enticing.
Tarragon: Tongue-tingling flavor
Tarragon isn’t a common herb, but you may find yourself seeking out its distinctive anise flavor.
I use tarragon in my salad dressing – a vinaigrette of olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, fresh tarragon and a dash of salt. It’s the dressing my French grandmother always made in the bottom of her wide, white porcelain salad bowl, to be tossed with butter lettuce or Romaine. Classic and classy, it has a depth of flavor that inevitably prompts people to ask what the secret ingredient is.
Another secret weapon: tarragon oil, a beautiful jade-green liquid that seems straight out of the Land of Oz. It’s easy to whip up from equal parts blanched tarragon, parsley and olive oil. Puree in a blender, strain and store in the refrigerator (though it won’t last long).
As a sauce for fish, stirred into peas or drizzled on a crostata of crusty bread and pecorino cheese, it lends allure to any dish. For a recipe, check the excellent food blog 101 Cookbooks (www.101cookbooks.com).
Like cilantro, tarragon isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a fan of its bright, slightly tongue-tingling flavor, try a salad of goat cheese and fennel (an anise-y cousin), drizzled with lemon juice. With a few edible flowers for garnish, it’s a springtime charm.
Thyme and oregano: Spring seasonings
We often use oregano and thyme in their dried form to flavor fall and winter’s hearty soups and stews. Spring is the time to use them fresh.
Case in point: Asparagus is sending up its bright-green spears, and it’s wonderful with thyme. Asparagus-celery soup takes on a savory undertone with a few snippets of fresh thyme.
And Mexican oregano, with its hint of lemon verbena, is perfect for any dish that plays to the flavors of Latin America. It’s great in a simple dish of roasted sweet corn with pumpkin seeds, lime and cotija cheese.
A world of possibility
Fresh herbs need no ambassadors, ultimately. The smell of a fresh mint leaf speaks for itself. Get creative. Small twists on classics keep things fresh. Try a carrot soup made with goat’s milk and fresh dill. Make herbed cream cheese or ricotta with thyme, tarragon and oregano. Pair herbs as partners in pesto: parsley and oregano; basil and mint. Try ending your day with thyme and tarragon tea (fresh herb infusions are another French classic). Or close a springtime supper with a homemade cherry-thyme crumble, fresh mint-chip frozen yogurt, peach-oregano granita or honeydew-lemon-mint sorbet. There are a world of possibilities.
While recipe testing for a new cookbook, “Smoke: New Firewood Cooking” (Rizzoli, 2013), I fell in love with chef Tim Byres’ salad that features a fresh-herb, gremolata-style vinaigrette. A gremolata is a condiment, usually made of finely chopped parsley, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. Here, tarragon and cilantro combine for a delicious variation. See what you think.
Watermelon, Cucumber, Jicama and Radish Salad
Reprinted with permission from Tim Byres’ “Smoke: New Firewood Cooking”
• 1 English cucumber, cut into large dice
• 1 jicama, cut into large dice
• 8 radishes, cut into large dice
• 1/8 watermelon, cut into large dice
• 4 Roma tomatoes, seeded and cut
into large dice
• 2 tablespoons fresh jalapeno chiles, diced
• 1 shallot, minced
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, stemmed and minced
• 1/2 bunch fresh marigold mint or tarragon, stemmed and minced
• Zest and juice of 2 lemons
• 1/2 cup olive oil
• 1/4 cup pickle juice or vinegar
• 1 teaspoon honey
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, stemmed
• 1/2 bunch fresh tarragon, stemmed
Toss salad ingredients in large bowl. Combine vinaigrette ingredients in another bowl. Toss salad with vinaigrette and garnish with fresh herbs.