Gulf Coast Cooking

Coast Cooking: Herbs from garden add fresh delight

Not everyone is up for maintaining a full-size vegetable garden, but there is a pretty simple alternative, if you just want to get your hands dirty. Many herbs do very well in raised beds or even in large pots filled with good soil. Both options drain well, something most herbs seem to enjoy, and both are low maintenance. This is a gardening idea that almost anyone can be successful with.

Herb gardens may not supply a daily ration of tomatoes, peppers and beans for you table, but fresh herbs can make a substantial difference in the way you cook. Many cooks don't realize how aromatic fresh herbs are compared to dried. As an Italian chef friend said recently, "Just because you put dried oregano in it, doesn't make it Italian. We always use fresh herbs."

And so should you.

There is one cautionary note on using fresh herbs. Dried herbs can be added at the beginning or even midway through the cooking process, but fresh herbs go into the pot at the end. If you use fresh herbs too early, they will just disappear into that pot of red sauce you slow cooked for hours. Also, be careful how much you use; some herbs, such as rosemary and bay leaf, can be quite strong. Add a little, stir, simmer and then taste.

Rosemary and bay probably will do best when planted on the sunny side of your house. They will grow to be quite large, and if you clip only the new leaves, you will have an almost endless supply of fresh herbs. Plant basil, thyme, parsley, mint, sage and tarragon in large pots, and with judicious prun

ing, you will have plenty of fresh herbs. Remember, if you harvest too much, you will kill the plant.

What could be nicer than adding a bundle of bouquet garni, picked fresh from your garden, to your favorite stew or stock? If you collect them and dry them yourself, you will have herbs for the winter and can make your own, such as herbes de Provence, or other herb combinations.

A home herb garden is just a good idea. It will liven up your cooking, save you a few bucks and perhaps add a new dimension to your culinary skills.

BOUQUET GARNI

This classic combination of herbs may include almost any combination of parsley, basil, rosemary, tarragon, thyme and bay leaf. You may also want to include leek, onion, carrot or celery. Pick the herbs that will go best with your recipe, tie them in a tight bundle and add to your cooking pot, but make sure to remove it before serving.

Pesto was invented in Genoa, and they still claim the original recipe cannot be made without the basil that only they can grow. The Italians also claim that it must be made by hand with a marble mortar and pestle, never using a machine of any sort. Let's be fair and just say that pesto made by hand will have more character. If you use a machine, nothing dire should result.

PESTO

4 cups fresh basil (substitute spinach, parsley, or cilantro)

1/2 cup good olive oil

1/3 cup pine nuts (substitute pistachio nuts or pecans)

2-3 cloves of garlic

1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/4 cup grated pecorino

2-3 pinches salt

Combine basil, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino, garlic in a food processor and pulse until smooth. With the machine on low, dribble in the oil until completely incorporated and smooth. Taste and add salt as needed.

Since pesto comes from Genoa, this classic Genoese recipe is included. It may sound odd to cook the pasta, potatoes and beans all together, but if you have cut the potatoes into the correct size -- baton or like a matchstick -- it works.

LINGUINE AL PESTO GENOVESE

1/2 cup pesto

1 pound linguine

2 potatoes sliced into batons

1/2 cup green beans

Combine the pasta, potatoes and beans in a pot of salted water and simmer until al dente. Toss with the pesto and serve at once.

Herb butter

Butter can be fortified with herbs, often called compound butters, and are good for a variety of uses. This technique has been around for ages and we often see them served with roasted meats. Best know is maitre d' butter, a combination of butter, parsley, lemon juice, salt and pepper. But butter mixed with cilantro, basil and tarragon can be interesting as well.

Use this butter to grill oysters with the next time you crank up the gas grill. Substitute any herb you like.

SKILLET ROSEMARY CHICKEN

3/4 pound small red-skinned potatoes, halved, or quartered if large

Kosher salt

2 sprigs fresh rosemary, plus 1 tablespoon leaves

1 clove garlic, smashed

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Juice of 2 lemons (squeezed halves reserved)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

4 skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts (6 to 8 ounces each)

10 ounces cremini mushrooms, halved

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Cover the potatoes with cold water in a saucepan and salt the water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until tender, about 8 minutes; drain and set aside. Pile the rosemary leaves, garlic, 2 teaspoons salt and the red pepper flakes on a cutting board, then mince and mash into a paste using a large knife. Transfer the paste to a bowl. Stir in the juice of 1 lemon and the olive oil. Add the chicken and turn to coat.

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken, skin-side down, cover and cook until the skin browns, about 5 minutes. Turn the chicken; add the mushrooms and potatoes to the skillet and drizzle with the juice of the remaining lemon.

Add the rosemary sprigs and the squeezed lemon halves to the skillet; transfer to the oven and roast, uncovered, until the chicken is cooked through and the skin is crisp, 20 to 25 minutes.

-- Courtesy of Food Network Magazine

TARRAGON BUTTER

4 ounces tarragon

8 ounces butter

Blanch the tarragon in boiling, salted water for 1 minute. Dry the leaves thoroughly, then add them and the butter in a food processor.

Fresh herbs in olive oil

Olive oil and fresh herbs are a natural match, and it is fun and delicious to combine different herbs, garlic and spices to make your own blend. The problem is that the water in the herbs can lead to the development of botulism. If you make your own blend, it is best to use it up within a week. You can freeze herbed olive oil, but some damage will be done to the oil and it will go rancid very quickly after being thawed. If you dried herbs, then you should have no problems, but keep the oil in the refrigerator (it should last about a month).

This recipe is intended as a first course to be served with fresh, crusty bread. Give each guest a bowl and a hunk of bread or serve it communally.

HERB AND OLIVE OIL DIP

1 bunch rosemary (substitute any fresh herb you like)

1 bay leaf

2-3 cloves of crushed garlic

1 teaspoon whole pepper corns

1 pinch red pepper flakes

Simply combine the ingredients and let sit for a few hours. Serve at room temperature.

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