Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.
An Herbal Potluck
by Sandra Bowens
I hope you have a tribe like mine. One that doesn't really need an excuse for a party but will seize an opportunity and run with it.
This was the case when Andrea suggested an herbal potluck to celebrate the summer solstice. The only guideline was to bring a dish prepared with your favorite herb. The organization stopped there.
As the hostess, I was a little nervous. Since we hadn't coordinated who would bring what, aside from Denise volunteering dessert, I wondered if we would end up with six kinds of salad or four versions of pesto. But this actually turned out to be part of the fun. All week long I was dying to see what the menu would turn out to be.
I set the table by bringing every potted herb in from the patio. Among them I arranged all my herb books and catalogs as well as a copy of this site's latest newsletter.
Once everyone started showing up with coolers and picnic baskets, each arrival was like a surprize party. And the menu fell right into place. Jonathan produced bottles of fine wines and set to assembling a garlic and tomato pizza laden with herbs in butter. Andrea carried in two covered pots. One contained a delightful artichoke and carrot sauce while the other held perfectly steamed rice. She rummaged the spice cabinet for more cumin to get the ratio to tarragon just right.
In between tending to her sauce, Andrea discovered the yogurt cheese I had covered with snipped bits of every herb I had growing in the garden. After polishing off a third cracker with the stuff, she said, "We'll just tell everyone that a little goes a long way."
As I was filling a glass bowl with a colorful wine punch seasoned with fresh mint leaves and a vanilla bean, Robert and Margie arrived. Our appetizer selection rounded out as he placed a nut-brown loaf of herb bread and a garlicy olivada spread next to the bowl of pretzels with rosemary-orange mustard, one of my latest experiments. Along with the yogurt cheese and an assortment of crackers, we had plenty of munchies.
Robert added to the bar as well with a spicy ginger tea. It was hard to decide what to drink or eat yet alone pay attention to the last minute touches. I still had to cook a bit of pasta for my minestrone and Jonathan stood by waiting for the oven to heat up.
Denise and Eric were the last arrivals. Appreciative murmurs arose when she unveiled the box of fresh, local peaches. "Enough for everyone to take some home," she said. We all eyed the bowl of peach sorbet she tucked into the freezer.
More contributions for the bar came from her picnic basket. The jar labeled "eau de mint" and the bottle of bourbon were "just in case we decide on mint juleps." The champagne and peach puree were for bellinis, "maybe later."
Denise, too, had thought of an appetizer. She passed a box of pale orange disks, calling them mustard crisps. She looked us all straight in the eyes and said the crunch came from the seeds in the Creole mustard. I found out later, once she gave me the recipe, the crunch came from Rice Krispies. You have to watch these Cajuns.
We could probably have made a fine meal of just appetizers but Jonathan's pizza came from the oven as I added the tiny pasta shells to the minestrone so we moved on.
The main course couldn't have worked out better if we had planned it. Along with the soup and pizza, we had Robert's Outlaw Slaw, an unusual combination of seaweed and cabbage and my pesto pinwheel biscuits. Tomatoes and cucumbers tossed with fresh herbs from Margie's garden and balsamic vinegar were the icing on the cake, so to speak.
We gathered at the table making yummy noises and additional trips back into the kitchen for second helpings until we couldn't take anymore. Except maybe a little dessert.
Denise served up scoops of fresh peach sorbet with soft lemon-thyme cookies. The creamy, rich sorbet with just a touch of mint turned out to be the perfect end to a perfect meal.
After congratulating each other on our wonderful success, we began to plan the next party. Of all the ideas we came up with, I like the alphabet series the most. The theme would be foods that begin with a certain letter. Can't you just imagine a menu full of avocados, artichokes, asparagus, amaranth, annatto, anise and Amaretto?
Sift together: 3 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoon salt, 2 Tablespoons dry mustard, 6 teaspoons baking powder.
Blend with 15 ounces sharp cheddar cheese until cornmeal consistency.
Add: 6 dashes Tabasco, 1/4 cup Creole mustard and 3 sticks of butter. Fold in 3 cups Rice Krispies cereal.
Roll dough into 1-inch balls and flatten with a fork. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes or til crisp. Store in an airtight container.
Fresh Peach Sorbet
1 pound ripe peaches
1 1/2 cups sorbet syrup (I use one can peach nectar and 1/2 cup mint syrup)
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
Place peaches in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave for 10 seconds, drain and cover with cold water. Drain, carefully remove skin, halve and pit the fruit, then chop roughly.
Puree all ingredients in a blender. Freeze in an ice cream machine or freeze in a rigid container til half frozen, beat well and freeze again.
NOTE: The mint syrup is simple syrup (sugar and water boiled together) infused with fresh mint, also Denise's base for a mint julep cocktail.
Herbed Yogurt Cheese
Place a container of plain non-fat yogurt into a strainer lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Suspend the strainer over a bowl, cover everything and set in the refrigerator to drain for about 48 hours.
Discard the liquid and unmold the yogurt onto the center of a serving plate. Use a knife to smooth it into a half a ball and top with all the assorted chopped fresh herbs you can find, pressing lightly into the cheese. Crack a bit of black pepper over the herbs. Serve with crackers, veggies or pita chips.
Solstice Sauce with steamed rice
Even after several requests for a written recipe, Andrea remained vague about everything she put into this creamy vegetable sauce but you'll get the idea.
Onions and celery might have been sautéed in a bit of butter. Coconut milk and perhaps a bit of chicken stock were then added along with a can of artichokes, in their liquid, and some shredded carrots. Tarragon and cumin were definitely used, salt and pepper probably, thyme and basil, perhaps. All of these combined created a bright and sunny sauce to be served over steamed rice.
This makes the best leftover cold pizza I have ever eaten!
Begin with a roll or two of refrigerated pizza crust. Melt a lot of butter and add any herbs you want but be sure basil and garlic are in there. This is the sauce so spread it over the crust in a prepared pan. Now add thin slices of tomato and bits of fresh basil and maybe even a little more garlic. Top with shredded Monterrey Jack and Parmesan cheeses and your choice of toppings like artichokes, mushrooms, onions, you get the idea. Bake in a very hot oven.
Robert says: This recipe includes a few ingredients that are possibly unfamiliar, but they are obtainable from any Asian market. Now all of these together are a considerable investment, but if you have them on hand, you will probably find them working their way into any number of your own recipes. They are the following:
dried wakame (seaweed: still with me?),
dark sesame oil,
rice wine vinegar,
sweet soy sauce, and
This last is dried, smoked bonito powder; and you’ll recognize the odor and flavor immediately, as they are both pervasive in Japanese cooking. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find any that does not include MSG, but you’ll be using very little of it. So, let us proceed.
Into a large bowl you’ll first want to shred a small cabbage, or maybe half of a large one, along with a couple of carrots, julienned or thinly sliced, some chopped green onions (scallions), some chopped, dried wakame, and maybe half of a fresh, red cayenne pepper (Green will do, but red looks pretty.), minced with a couple cloves of garlic.
Now, in a Pyrex measuring cup or other microwave-safe container, measure out maybe half a cup of the dark sesame oil, and perhaps a quarter cup each of sweet sesame sauce and rice wine vinegar.
(All of these measures are approximate and subject to your own very good taste and judgment. And of course the mixture may be done in a small pot on the stovetop.)
Now, as soon as the mixture comes to a boil, pour it over the cabbage and toss to coat, adding a sprinkling of toasted (in a dry skillet) sesame seeds and hon-dashi. Finally, put the slaw in the fridge to chill for a couple of hours and serve it forth.
This is delicious by itself (it’s often the extent of my lunch.), but also especially nice with grilled or roasted pork.
Find the meatball recipe at All About Fennel, just form them into tiny balls and bake for about 13 minutes or until cooked through.
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced
2 ribs celery, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chopped cabbage, green, savoy or napa
1 large zucchini, cut into half moons
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 can (16 ounces) diced tomatoes in juice
1 can (16 ounces) kidney beans, drained
1 can (16 ounces) garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
4 cups beef broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound small meatballs, cooked and drained
2 cups cooked small shell pasta, or other small pasta shape
3/4 cup fresh minced herb mix such as basil, oregano, parsley, thyme and marjoram
Extra virgin olive oil, for serving
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
Melt butter with olive oil in a soup kettle over medium-high heat. Stir in onion, bell peppers, carrots, celery and half the dried herbs; cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add garlic, cabbage and zucchini; stir and cook 3 minutes more. Add tomatoes, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, remaining dried herbs, beef broth and 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes or longer to develop flavors.
About 15 minutes before ready to serve, add the salt and pepper and meatballs. About 5 minutes before ready to serve, add the pasta and fresh herbs. Taste for salt and pepper; adjust if necessary.
To serve, ladle into pasta bowls, drizzle with olive oil and top with a hefty pinch of cheese.
Makes 8 servings
Margie's Recipe for a Garden
Although she didn't prepare any of dishes for the dinner, Margie provided many of the herbs Robert cooked with. I asked for her thoughts on this.
"When I first moved to my place several years ago, I decided the triangular space of earth between sidewalks and a pine stump was THE spot for my herb garden. That turned out to be a lucky choice: I dug up a horseshoe while turning the soil, and most everything I plant there thrives.
So, Friday night my beloved created a yummy salad with thyme, oregano and basil from the triangle-horseshoe garden. As I write this, I'm wondering what he'll do next with the dill, English mint, tarragon, parsley...."
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