Fresh Herbs – Fresh Flavor

For many years I used dried herbs and spices in my cooking. In fact my spice cabinet is chock full of large and small containers of herbs and spices from the plastic, to glass, and even the rectangular metal containers. All these different styles of containers make it challenging to organize and find what I’m looking for. The other day, I needed some cinnamon as I was baking a cake. Usually the cinnamon is right in the front because I use it so often but this time it was buried in the back of my carousel organizer. As I searched through all my spices I realized – in the past 10 years I have made a significant switch from using dried herbs to using fresh. Many of the dried herbs I have probably need to be pitched because they’re old and I haven’t used them in a looooooong time. I think I’ve had the two containers of garlic powder for 15 years now – gotta go!

Many TV chefs have led the way in using fresh vs. dried herbs. More recent recipes call for fresh herbs instead of dried. Because of this trend more types of fresh herbs are readily available in the produce section of your grocery stores. With my weekly CSA share, I always receive one or two fresh herbs and these are even better as they were picked that day.

To my taste buds, using fresh herbs makes a significant improvement in what I’m cooking. I love to stuff the cavity of a chicken I’m about to roast with a big handful of fresh thyme or rosemary. This perfumes the meat of chicken beautifully with the earthy and delish flavors of the herb. The aroma of fresh basil in the kitchen always makes me smile. And using it in my cooking makes my taste buds sing.

Of course in a pinch, I’ll use dried herbs if I must, especially if I can’t find fresh herbs in the store. To avoid this, I’ve started growing my own herbs. Admittedly I’m not the best gardener around but I find it quite easy to keep a few flowerpots with basil, thyme, chives, rosemary, cilantro and parsley in the back yard. I feel such a sense of accomplishment when I can go out back and snip off some fresh herbs for my cooking. And it’s so convenient too!

Of course, as with most things, I have an exception. I have also grown fresh oregano but I find it to be so strong fresh that I prefer the dried herb in this one case. Everyone has their own taste preferences and for me, I have found dried oregano works better.

One of the challenges I had when I first started using fresh herbs was converting my older recipes that called for dried herbs. I have included some tips below to help you if you’d prefer to make the switch.

Tips on using fresh vs. dried herbs:

  • Dried herbs are more potent than fresh as the dried leaves have shrunk into smaller pieces concentrating their flavor.
  • I use a ratio of 1 (dried) to 3 (fresh) when substituting. So if you recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped rosemary and you only have dried, use 1 teaspoon of dried rosemary. (1 Tablespoon = 3 teaspoons) Or if you have a recipe calling for ½ a teaspoon of dried basil, use 1½ teaspoons of fresh basil.
  • The 1:3 ratio is a general rule of thumb but you should let your taste buds guide you too. Always taste your food and make any adjustments to seasoning.
  • Generally when you use dried herbs, add them early in the cooking of the dish. Rubbing them in your hands as you add them activates the oils and helps bring out the flavor. I like to add dried herbs to the oil if I’m sautéing onion and garlic in the beginning of the recipe as the oil or butter can help to rehydrate them and get more flavor out of them.
  • When using fresh herbs, add them in the middle or towards the end of cooking as the flavor will release more quickly and you don’t want to cook the flavor out of your dish. Some herbs can become bitter if you cook them too long.

Hope these tips help. You will make a significant improvement in your cooking when you start using fresh herbs. People often ask me, “What did you put in this? It tastes so good!” One of the main reasons – I use fresh herbs and the freshest ingredients I can find.

Try it – you’ll like it!

Summertime – Grill Time

As summertime kicks into full gear, it marks the migration from the kitchen to the grill.  Who wants to heat up the house with a hot stove!

One of my favorite things to do on the grill is fresh vegetables.  Now that many are coming into season it’s time for making the most of them on the grill!  I got quite a few zucchini in my last two CSA shares and there is nothing better than slicing them on the diagonally into thick pieces, rubbing them with some olive oil, and throwing them on the grill.  My other favorites are bell peppers, eggplant, asparagus, onions, mushrooms and even tomatoes.

Once I cut them into grill ready pieces, I take a sheet or two of paper towel and my favorite olive oil and rub them all down.  Not too much olive oil mind you, you don’t want flare ups.  But enough to get grill marks and add that delish flavor (plus it keeps them from sticking to the grill!).  I grill them to the color and texture I like then remove them from the grill into a bowl.  I add salt and pepper and – balsamic vinegar to them.  It couldn’t taste better!  I sometimes add a little more olive oil and if I’m feeling really crazy, I sprinkle them with fresh ground parmesan cheese.  Oh la la la la as they say in Paris.  Tres magnifique!!!

These veggies make the perfect side dish for any meal.  The rainbow of colors and the flavors create a visually exciting dish that people can’t wait to eat.  And the pieces are big enough that if there is a particular vegetable that someone doesn’t like, they can pick around it.

Another  great example is simple is delicious!  AND the fresher the vegetables the better.  When using few ingredients, use the best you can find.  It makes a huge difference!

I can’t wait for corn to come into season!!!

Bon appétit!

Let the Summer Festivals Begin!

The summer brings one of my favorite string of events – the cultural festivals. Here in Wilmington, DE, the season kicks off today with The Greek Festival – OPA! The Greek Festival is my absolute favorite of them all. Not only because I love Greece and have fond childhood memories of visiting as a teenager, I LOVE Greek food and The Greek Festival has it in abundance.

For whatever reason, Wilmington, DE, does not have many Greek or Middle Eastern restaurants. Some have come and gone but by and large, there is no place to go on a regular basis and get a Gyro. Enter the Greek Festival! Although all of my favorite Greek foods are available at the Greek Festival from Spanakopita, Souvlaki, and Pastitsio, the item I look most forward to is the Gyro. And I think most of Wilmington agrees with me because the line for the Gyro stand is always the longest. They are that good! From the salty, juicy lamb and beef, the freshness that the tomato and onion adds, to the tangy Tzatziki sauce, it is a taste sensation I look forward to all year!

Me diving into a Gyro at the 2011 Greek Festival

My friends and I get there as early as we can to beat the line – if possible. We get our food and beverages, then we gather on the steps of the church to eat our fantastic treats. The other thing I love about this festival is that you see people there you haven’t seen in forever. Sitting on those church steps, right near the entrance of the festival, the whole world passes you by. You see people reconnecting and catching up, eating, drinking, and dancing together. It is another great example of how food brings people together.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pastries! All the favorites, including baklava, are there and they even sell them in bulk so you can take them home and enjoy them for as long as they’ll last.

I find endless inspiration in the food that I experience at these cultural festivals. I grew up overseas and was exposed to many different national dishes in my formative years. These festivals bring back wonderful childhood memories and also inspire me to add different flavors to my cooking. Fusion of cultural dishes has become more and more popular over the last decade as chefs travel to different countries and bring flavors back to their regional dishes. I love the opportunity these summer festivals provide to do the same thing without having to travel too far.

Next festival on the heels of the Greek Festival – The Italian Festival – bellissimo!

Enjoy your local summer festivals!

Fresh Ingredients – Better Flavor and Nutrition

Since my return to the US from my all too short stay in Paris I have been obsessed with the freshness of the ingredients I’m cooking with and eating. One of the many aspects of eating in Paris is the culture of shopping daily at the open markets. Buying the food directly from the farm as fresh as it could possibly be purchased. This not only makes a huge difference in flavor, it also makes a huge difference in nutrition.

Farm Fresh

Fruits and vegetables that are purchased in US grocery stores are minimally a week old. This of course depends on how far the food has to travel and how long it is kept in cold storage. In that time we are lucky of 40% of the nutrients from that food is still there. Many of these fruits and vegetables are grown by single source farmers, meaning farmers that only grow one crop – like corn, a practice that can render the soil deficient of nutrients necessary for healthy plants. This means that it becomes necessary to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The bottom line is that our mega farms are producing food that is less nutritious and has more chemicals being used in its production.

The good news is there are more and more restaurants that are adopting the Farm to Table principle. Chefs working with local farmers to get the products they would like to cook with in their restaurants. This not only includes produce; it includes dairy, grains, and livestock. It is exciting to see farmers and chefs working together and talking to each other about how food is grown or how livestock is fed. The farmers know what the local chefs will buy and therefore are more willing to adopt organic practices to produce more wholesome food. More nutritious and with no chemicals! Imagine how much better it tastes. There is a noticeable difference AND it’s better for you!

Another exciting trend, one which I have recently joined, is people buying CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares from local farmers. This is an exciting win-win concept where people in the community buy fresh fruits and vegetables for the season from a local farmer in advance. As an individual or family, you are guaranteed fresh and organic fruits and vegetables weekly and the farmer knows how much to plant and grow to support the community it serves. Win-win!

A Caprese Salad I made with fresh heirloom tomatoes, fresh buffalo mozzarella, and basil.

As a person who loves to cook this has been an exciting way to challenge myself. Each week I get a large bag full of fresh veggies, herbs, and fruits. I never now exactly what I will be getting so when I get a pound of Swiss Chard for example, something I haven’t cooked with before, I get to explore websites for recipes and try things I have never cooked before. Of course if there is a vegetable or fruit I don’t care for it can make a lovely gift to a friend or neighbor but so far I’ve used everything I have received.

The farm where I purchased my share here in Delaware, Highland Orchards, also has their own farm fresh eggs. The difference in the taste and freshness of these eggs is very noticeable to me both in eating them for breakfast or using them in my baking.

Another added benefit is that these community-supported farmers are growing many different crops on their land. Through crop rotation, this also ensures that the soil is abundant with nutrients that the plants need to grow in a healthy way. This means that chemicals aren’t necessary because the plants are healthy enough to fight of disease and pests and are in turn more nutritious for us when we eat them.

One of the basic principles of good cooking is to use the freshest and best quality ingredients you can find. Buying fresh ingredients from local farmers is one of the best ways to accomplish that. As our grocery stores have made many fruits and vegetable available all year long, we have moved away from the concept of seasonal cooking. Cooking with an ingredient when it is most fresh and ripe also makes a huge difference in flavor and nutrition.

In fact there are produce items, such as tomatoes, that are available in grocery stores all year round. There are friends of mine that don’t even know when tomatoes are naturally in season. I don’t mean that tomatoes shouldn’t be available all year round. In many cases, I’m glad they are. But there is a HUGE difference in flavor when the delicious Jersey tomatoes are in season and purchased fresh from the farmer and buying the “tomato-on-the-vine” in the grocery store.

I learned a great deal from watching several documentary films, most of which are available to stream on Netflix. Documentaries such as Food Matters, Fat Sick and Nearly Dead, The Gerson Miracle, and Food Inc. have taught me a great deal about the food we are eating and the nutritional value of that food. I recommend checking them out for further information.

In the meantime, check out your local farmer’s markets and do a Google search for CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in your area. It will make a huge difference in your cooking and your health!

A bientôt mes amis!