A Passion for Herbs

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The comforting signals are back that it’s time to plant some herbs in the garden.  The birds are chirping by 5:00 am, the ground is warming up, and my chives are visible.  Whether you grow your own fresh herbs, buy them at a Farmer’s Market or grocery store, herbs make the difference between an ordinary and spectacular dish.  Herbs offer endless opportunities for creative and flavorful cookery. 
I have been reading chef Grant Achatz’s incredible new book, “Life, On the Line,” (which is going to be a blog when I finish the book!) and he mentioned something he did with fresh rosemary that I could almost smell through the pages.  He put fresh rosemary in a bowl, put another smaller bowl of  a lobster creation on top of the rosemary-filled bowl, then poured hot water over the rosemary, and the fragrance literally hits the diner right up the nose!  Genius! 
An herb garden is generous with its gifts beyond the heat of summer months.  They can be dried for winter use, put into homemade oils and vinegars, and used in jams and preserves.  When my garden is filled with perfect plum tomatoes, basil, and oregano, I make and preserve a bruschetta to enjoy over the winter.  I will make marinara sauce with the tomatoes and herbs and freeze, and also freeze pesto, which is one of my favorite things to pull out and toss with pasta on a day when it’s 35 degrees below zero during a Chicago winter.
I love reading herbal cookbooks and admiring the endless photos of gardens around the world.  My garden is not large at all and I love seeing what can be done when space is not a problem.  When my daughter was attending Northwestern University near Chicago, we would love to go the charming and incredible Shakespeare Garden.  There are herbs and flowers that have been around since Shakespeare’s time, and the garden is filled with the ones mentioned in his books and sonnets.  It is a sight to behold, and rivals gardens I have seen in England.  There is a little bench to sit upon and take in the fragrance of the surroundings. 
Parts of the beautiful Shakespeare Garden at Northwestern University

The key to cooking with herbs is to infuse foods with just a hint of herbal flavor, to give foods complexity and body, but not to completely dominate the other parts of the dish.  The joy of herbs is how you can put your own creative stamp on foods.  Such improvisation is part of the pleasure of cooking with fragrant herbs.  This lovely book will get you started on a journey of learning about herbs and how to use them in any dish, sweet or savory.  My mint will be coming up soon, and I am looking forward to trying some of  the recipes in the beverage chapter like peppermint mimosas, spearmint tea with strawberry nectar, and lavender lemonade.  We love salmon in our family, and the recipe for salmon with a dill and shallot butter is high on the list.  
This summer, make it a point to try a variety of fresh herbs and see how it will transform every meal.  It will change your culinary life! 

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