Season the season with herbs

Posted: November 19, 2013

Special to The Winchester Star

Dill has a mild licorice flavor that blends well with many vegetables and breads.
Sage just says Thanksgiving. It can be used in the stuffing and gravy and for garnish, as well as in a centerpiece arrangement to spread some of that fragrance through the house.

Winchester — One of the great things about gardening is having all those fresh herbs to use in cooking. Nothing personalizes my recipes better than a last minute handful of something from my garden. It makes the dish seem special and taste better, too.

To me Thanksgiving is definitely the meal that is just made for herbs.

As a child, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving was always punctuated by a few verses of “Scarborough Fair” sung by my mother. As I became more interested in cooking the turkey, she explained that the chorus “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme” was the seasoning she used for the turkey. All four were sprinkled liberally inside and outside the bird. They were also the main seasoning for the stuffing and gravy. She sometimes added other things like oranges, dried plums, or garlic, but those four herbs were definitely the glue that supported the flavors of whatever else.

Now that I’m an adult, I have also found summer or winter savory, tarragon, bay leaves, and lavender can also bring in some unusual but tasty flavors.

Also don’t forget clumps of whatever you use around the base of the turkey on the platter as garnishment. It is beautiful and gives guests a visual hint of what they will soon be enjoying on the plate.

The licorice flavor of dill is wonderful to add to green beans, any potato or tomato dish, and also to many versions of congealed salad. We also often had the fresh dill tossed into a mixed green salad. Fennel can also be used instead. But keep in mind it is a bit stronger in flavor than dill is.

Mint is surprisingly a wonderful addition to many side dishes. I love it in a number of pea and carrot recipes, and also stirred into mixed fruit, sliced strawberries, oranges, or melon.

Chives can be clipped on potato dishes and also works added to gravy, butternut squash, or anything else that might call for a mild onion flavor. I also love it mixed into cottage cheese for a side salad or chopped onto fresh greens.

Lemon balm is often steamed with my broccoli or mixed into winter squash for a subtle lemon flavor and is also nice added to fruit.

Any of these herbs can be steeped in white vinegar to make a special flavor for vinaigrette salad dressings. Or the fresh leaves can be blended into cream dressings as well. Even adding them to a store-bought version will add a bit of specialness while saving some time.

Herbs are also included into my breads and rolls. It doesn’t really matter what you choose. I find anything is wonderful, although I admit I especially love dill, oregano, or savory. They can be blended into the dough as you mix it. Or again, if you are employing premade dough for a time saver, let it rise and then brush the tops with melted butter or olive oil and sprinkle the dried herbs on top. Also think scones with basil for a family breakfast.

In addition, let me say a word about drinks. My water, iced tea, or hot tea almost always includes some kind of herb as a fresh pick me up. Mint and stevia can be used to sweeten it some; lemon balm or lemon verbena add citrus to the mix. Basil tea has a very interesting spice flavor. I also really love a hot tea of lavender, sage, or rosemary, fragrant and earthy, and perfect for warming up on a cold, cold day. Herbs steeped in wine are marvelous cold or hot. Prefer mixed drinks instead? May I mention mint juleps or mojitos are also great made with lemon balm instead.

And a quick note on deserts. Who doesn’t love mint and chocolate? Lemon balm and lemon verbena are also wonderful in cream pies. Lavender in a white or yellow cake is light and fresh tasting. Herbal ice creams or sorbets are unbelievable, especially lavender, sage, or basil. One of my favorite cookies is a sugar cookie with rosemary or lavender flowers added to the mix. And for the piece de resistance, a tomato cake with basil grenache. Need I say more?

I do encourage you to grow your own herbs. I find my home-grown versions usually have more flavor than those I buy. And most varieties are fairly care free and actually taste better when they are ignored. I grow and dry my winter supply each summer, tossing last year’s leftovers as soon as I have a new supply. I also freeze some and make my vinegars while they are fresh as well. But if you just can’t grow your own, it’s OK. Your meals will still be so much more special with herbs from the store.

— Mary Stickley is a master gardener.