Break out the basil, party with your parsley. If you want to ramp up flavor without adding a scrap of fat, salt or sugar, herbs are the answer. They’re nature’s green goodness, enhancing our food and our lives.
Green is key. That’s how herbs start out — they’re the fresh, leafy parts of plants, while spices — pods or seeds, are brown. For maximum pleasure and flavor, green is how herbs should stay.
“Fresh herbs should be kept in the refrigerator and ideally used within a week,” says Yaniv Cohen, vice president of Shiraz Catering. Wait too long and what was once verdant and fragrant emerges black, slimy and fetid. That’s no way to treat an herb.
Drying herbs extends their shelf life, but not forever. A sprig of fresh basil Genovese, the basil in classic Italian pesto, smells sweet and heady and has layers of flavors, including a hint of licorice. Dried, it’s dusty-colored and can have next to no scent or taste. How long has the jar been on your shelf? How long was it sitting in the supermarket before you bought it?
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“Dried herbs shouldn't be kept for more than three to six months,” says Cohen, who channels his passion for herbs into his website, www.thespicedetective. “Their delicate flavor fades.”
“My best recommendation is to buy just a small quantity,” says Redland Spices owner Aimee Ortega. She sells her largely organic range of dried herbs and spices in single-ounce and five-ounce packages online at www.redlandspices.com and at occasional farmers markets. Keep them “in a cool, dark place, away from direct heat and sunlight, in tightly closed bags or containers.” Redland Spices stocks many culinary hard-to-finds including epazote, an oregano-like herb essential in Mexican and southwestern cuisine. It’s all part of Ortega’s mission “to bring the beauty of spices to Miami.”
Somewhere between fresh herbs and dried is Gourmet Garden, in your supermarket’s refrigerated produce section. A dozen herb pastes (4 ounces, $4.29) from lemongrass to basil keep up to three months in the fridge. The pastes contain whey, a milk derivative, to reduce spoilage but means they’re not strictly plant-based. Happily, Gourmet Garden also sells tiny tubs of chopped lightly dried herbs (.78 ounces, $4.29). They’re vegan-friendly and kept refrigerated, deliver brightness, fragrance and a big herbaceous kick for up to a month.
Ellen Kanner is the author of “Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner.”
Chili Mint Pesto
Cool, green mint is the the star of this garden-fresh pesto, balanced with a little chili heat. A dollop brightens fresh or roasted vegetables and adds a springtime note when tossed with pasta.
Keeps refrigerated in an airtight jar for up to five days.
1/2 cup walnuts
1 garlic clove
1 cup fresh mint leaves, well-packed
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves, well-packed
1/4 cup olive oil, plus an extra tablespoon or so to preserve
good pinch dried red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
sea salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread walnuts on a shallow rimmed baking sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until walnuts start to brown and smell toasty. Set aside and allow to cool slightly.
Pour walnuts into a blender or food processor and process briefly, until nuts are powdery — less than a minute. Add the garlic clove, fresh mint and cilantro, and process again until mixture forms a gorgeous, green paste.
Pour in olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Add pepper flakes, lemon juice and sea salt to taste. Mix briefly one last time, until pesto reaches a smooth, spoonable consistency.
Pour into a jar and top with a thin seal of olive oil to help preserve color and flavor.
Yield: 2/3 cup, about 6 servings.