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Healing Kitchen

Cooking with Fresh Herbs

[Our guest chef this week is Georgeanne Brennan, cookbook author and the owner of her own cooking school in Provence, France, an area whose cuisine is known for its use of fresh herbs.]

Herbs are an essential ingredient in the Mediterranean diet, an uncomplicated regimen built primarily on vegetables, fruits, grains, fish, and olive oil. Despite such simplicity, it is some of the world's best-tasting food. Indeed, it is not surprising that people are captivated, seduced even, by the fragrantly herbed food of Italy and Provence, of Spain and Greece. A platter of local cucumbers-sliced into thick rounds, sprinkled with red onion, drizzled with deep green olive oil, and strewn with aromatic mint or basil--served up in a Greek cafe, a Spanish bodega, or an Italian trattoria is memorable. A rockfish stuffed with branches of dried fennel and seasoned with thyme, salt, and pepper exudes a richness of flavor that belies its simplicity. Fortunately, the Mediterranean table is easy to emulate no matter where you live. Its style is uncomplicated and its rules are few: the freshest of ingredients, red meat introduced sparingly, and olive oil and fresh herbs used profusely....

Because Mediterranean cooking is generally simple--grilling, soups, stews, fresh salads--the herbs that grow so readily in the region play an important role in flavoring. Using herbs, especially fresh herbs, in abundance means that even the most humble foods--steamed potatoes, freshly grated carrots, springtime's first peas, pasta tossed with greens, braised white beans--need only a sprinkling of chopped fresh thyme, or perhaps fennel or parsley, to complement their tastes and make them soar. The herbs are singularly important because the flavors, and thus the pleasure and satisfaction derived from a meal, come primarily from them rather than from flavor-rich meat fat or elaborate butter-based sauces. Through their volatile oils, herbs engage our senses of smell and taste, which heighten both the anticipation of the food and its enjoyment. Before we sample a plate of tomatoes strewn with fresh basil, the beckoning aroma of the basil prepares our palate for the taste to come, as does a cup of hot tea infused with the fragrance of fresh mint, or a bowl of pasta-laced broth issuing the scent of thyme and rosemary....

As an unabashed lover of herbs and a passionate believer of their importance in the kitchen, I want to encourage everyone to grow even a few herbs so that they might enjoy the pleasure of using fresh herbs in everyday cooking. It is surprising how clipping two or three sprigs of basil from a windowsill pot can transform even a frozen pizza or a basil pasta dish. Many people balk at the notion of growing herbs, feeling that they have a black thumb or not enough time or skill to cultivate them, but many herbs are easily and quickly grown from seed, including arugula, dill, cilantro, and borage. Seedlings both of annuals like basil, chives, and summer savory and perennials such as rosemary, thyme, sage, and mint are readily available at nurseries. All you have to do is bring them home and put them in a pot or in the ground. Even if you find your green thumb is slow to develop, you will discover enormous satisfaction from buying pots of chives, parsley, and rosemary and snipping leaves from them over several weeks. Should they eventually fail under your care, the return on your investment will have been enough to encourage you to replace them and continue to cook with fresh herbs as your green thumb develops.

Oranges, Walnuts, and Watercress with Lavender-Yogurt Dressing
Oranges flourish along the shores of the Mediterranean, the lavender comes from the plateaus of Provence, and yogurt and honey are abundant throughout the area, so while this salad has no particular land of origin, I was inspired by the region's products.

     2 oranges  1 teaspoon Dijon mustard  3 tablespoons honey  1 teaspoon minced fresh lavender blossoms, or 1/2 teaspoon dried lavender blossoms  1/2 cup low-fat plain yogurt  4 cups watercress leaves  1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Place 1 orange on a cutting board and cut a thick slice off the top and bottom to expose the flesh. Stand the orange upright and thickly slice off the peel, removing all the white pith and following the contour of the fruit. Cut the orange in half through the stem end, then slice crosswise. Repeat with the remaining orange. Place in a large salad bowl.

In a small bowl, beat the mustard into the honey, then add the lavender and yogurt, mixing well.

Add the watercress and half of the walnuts to the oranges and toss to mix. Then mix in the honey-yogurt dressing, turning gently. Spoon onto individual plates and garnish with the remaining walnuts. Serves 4

Chilled Melon Soup with Cilantro
The color of your soup, of course, will depend upon the color of the flesh of the melon that you choose. The soft salmon of a cantaloupe, the palest lime of a honeydew, and the near ivory of a Galia will all show off the bright green specks of cilantro, a Tunisian standby, added at the finish. For a slightly different finish you might choose fresh mint or basil.

     1-1/2 cups water  1 cup fruity white wine such as Chenin Blanc, Semillon, or Gerwurztraminer  1/4 cup sugar  1 teaspoon grated lemon zest  1 ripe melon such as cantaloupe, honeydew, or Galia, about 2 pounds, halved, seeded, peeled, cubed, and chilled  1 ice cube  2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
In a saucepan, combine the water, wine, sugar, and half of the lemon zest. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Continue to boil until the liquid is reduced by about one-third. Remove from heat, let cool, and then place in the freezer for 15 minutes to chill.

In a blender or food processor, combine half of the wine mixture, half of the melon cubes, and the ice cube. Puree until smooth. Pour into a soup tureen. Repeat with the remaining wine mixture and melon cubes and add to the first batch. Stir in the remaining lemon zest and all but 1 teaspoon of the cilantro.

Ladle into chilled bowls and garnish each serving with a little of the remaining cilantro. Serve at once. Serves 6

Double-Lemon Sugar Cookies
Lemon thyme and the juice and zest of a fresh lemon account for the flavorings here, but lemon verbena or lemon basil might replace the thyme for a slightly different, yet still satisfying version.

     1-3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour  1/2 teaspoon baking powder  1/4 teaspoon salt  2/3 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature  3/4 cup sugar  1 egg  2 teaspoons minced fresh lemon thyme  2 tablespoons grated lemon zest  1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Preheat an oven to 400°F.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt onto a piece of waxed paper. In a bowl, beat together the butter and 1/2 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg, lemon thyme, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Then add the flour mixture in three batches, stirring each time until the dough is smooth.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough 1/8" thick. Using a round cookie cutter about 2" in diameter (or another shape)cut out the cookies. Arrange on an ungreased baking sheet, spacing them about 1/2" apart. Gather up the dough scraps, roll out, cut out additional cookies, and place on the baking sheet. Sprinkle the cookies with the remaining sugar.

Bake just until lightly browned on the bottom and pale golden n top, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the cookies cool on the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Store in an airtight tin for up to 1 week. Makes about 36 cookies

From THE MEDITERRANEAN HERB COOKBOOK by Georgeanne Brennan. Copyright 2000 by Georgeanne Brennan. Reprinted by permission of Chronicle Books, San Francisco

Author: Georgeanne Brennan
Date Published: 09/17/2000
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