Friday, September 5, 2008

Cooking With Herbs

My first career in writing was cookbooks – seven of them to be exact. I’ve moved on to children’s books, however I still love to cook. So, you’ll be seeing lots of recipes and cooking tips in my blogs – all geared to a healthier lifestyle. I thought it would be nice to start with herbs. Please feel free to comment and to add your own favorite recipes.

To my mind, herbs are the essence of cooking. These are the special ingredients that you remember most about a dish. And, even though herbs are used in relatively small quantities, they add a great deal of flavor to the recipe.

Herbs can be dried or fresh. Indeed, a mere teaspoon or two of dried herbs can make all the difference in a soup or sauce. However, all too often the dried herbs have been sitting on the shelf too long and have lost their seasoning capabilities. So be sure to buy from a store that has a relatively fast turnover and buy dried herbs in small quantities whenever possible.

Finding fresh herbs used to be difficult unless you grew your own. However, today a wide variety can be purchased in most large grocery stores. When choosing fresh herbs, keep in mind that they are very delicate and will not keep for more than a few days. Avoid wilted herbs and, if possible, purchase ones with the roots intact as they keep longer this way. Fresh herbs should be wrapped and stored in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator and washed just before using them.

Remember that fresh herbs are less potent than dried herbs, so you'll need to use more - about two to three times as much as dried. When used in a slow-cooked sauce or stew, fresh herbs are best when added toward the end of the cooking time. Dried herbs, on the other hand, are best when simmered slowly to release their flavor or allowed to marinate in dressings. Fresh herbs can always be used in recipes that call for dried herbs.

The following recipes feature dried herbs. I think you’ll agree that herbs add depth and character to even the most humble dishes.
(Note: In case you've wondered about the difference between herbs and spices, spices are actually derived from the seeds, bark, roots, flowers, and fruits of certain plants and herbs are the aromatic leaves.)
Manhattan Clam Chowder

Basil, thyme, parsley, and bay leaf are featured in this exquisitely flavored chowder.
Makes 6 servings
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup sliced onions
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes
1 16-ounce can tomatoes, drained (Reserve liquid.)
1 large cooked potato, diced (about 9 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1-1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
12 ounces canned clams, drained (Reserve liquid.)

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
Add carrots, celery, and parsley. Cook, stirring frequently, 5 minutes. Add small amounts of water, if necessary, to prevent sticking.
Add tomatoes, potatoes, salt, pepper, and remaining spices.
In a 1-quart bowl, combine reserved tomato liquid and clam liquid. Add water to equal 1 quart. Pour liquid over vegetables and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 45 minutes.
Add clams. Simmer 15 minutes, covered.
Remove and discard bay leaf before serving.
Each serving provides 137 calories.

French Herbed Cheese Spread

If you love the expensive, imported herbed cheese spreads, this one's for you.
Makes 6 servings (2 tablespoons each serving)
3/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon dried parsley flakes
2 tablespoons dried chives
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
Pepper to taste

In a small bowl, combine all ingredients, mixing well. Chill several hours or overnight to blend flavors.
Spread on crackers or bread.
Each serving provides 46 calories.

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