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Herbs: Plant 'em, pick 'em, toss 'em in

Herbs can completely transform the flavor of a

Herbs can completely transform the flavor of a dish. (April 8, 2011) Photo Credit: Michael Gross

Herbs are powerful ingredients that lend unique flavors to dishes and have the ability to catapult them from average to outstanding. Simply changing the herbs in a recipe can transform the cuisine of your meal from Italian to Indian or Asian to Middle Eastern. And dry herbs, though more concentrated, are indisputably inferior to their fresh counterparts, especially those picked from your own garden in the morning just after the dew has dried, when flavor and aroma are at their peak.

Once home from the market or in from the garden, trim the bottom of long-stemmed herbs, such as basil and parsley, and place in a short vase or jar filled with water, as you would flowers. Change the water every other day; they'll keep for at least a week. Other herbs, such as rosemary, sage and thyme, should be loosely wrapped in a paper towel and placed in a plastic food-storage bag. Leave the bag open to prevent a buildup of moisture, and store in the refrigerator for seven to 10 days. Don't rinse until ready to use.

Substituting herbs

In general, when substituting fresh herbs for dry in a recipe, use three times the amount indicated. If a recipe calls for a teaspoon of dry sage, use a tablespoon of fresh (3 teaspoons equal 1 tablespoon).

Basil is among the most popular herbs, and often is what makes Italian food Italian. Add it to sauces, soups and meat dishes, layer it between tomato and mozzarella slices and top with a drizzle of olive oil, or blend it with garlic, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and pine nuts for an aromatic pesto. Similarly, oregano conjures up flavors of Greece and the Mediterranean, as well as Mexico, as it complements most tomato dishes, and stews of beef and lamb. Dill seeds also are found in Greek meat dishes, as well as sauerkraut. Its leaves can be finely chopped and added to cucumbers and sour cream, salmon, potato salad and pickles. Chive stems, which impart a sharp, onionlike flavor, should be bundled and scissors-snipped directly into dishes to preserve their flavor. Add chives to omelets and soups, and don't discount chive flowers; they're edible and make a pretty and flavorful addition to salads.

A leading authority

Jekka McVicar, owner of the organic Jekka's Herb Farm in Bristol, England, is one of the world's leading authorities on herbs. For more than a quarter century, she has been growing about 650 varieties -- many difficult to find elsewhere -- on the farm, which has won 59 Royal Horticultural Society gold medals. She is the author of Jekka's Herb Cookbook" (Firefly/$19.95), featuring 250 original recipes using her "hit list" of 50 favorite herbs, some unfamiliar, such as shiso, Vietnamese coriander and good King Henry.

The book is peppered with anecdotes, which lend a feeling of intimacy, and includes the history, growing, harvesting and usage instructions, and beneficial properties, as well as several recipes, for each herb.


ZUCCHINI, DILL AND PARSLEY PANCAKES

From Jekka McVicar's "Jekka's Herb Cookbook"

Zucchini and dill was one of my mother's signature combinations. This recipe shows off how delicious the partnership is, but I've also added parsley to this mixture, which provides another level of flavor and a lovely green color. These pancakes can be eaten hot or served cold with green salad.

7 to 8 tablespoons light olive oil or

sunflower oil, divided

1 large onion, grated

2 zucchini, grated

2 teaspoons dill seed

2 1/2 ounces feta cheese

2 tablespoons dill leaf

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 eggs

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a frying pan and fry the grated onion gently until soft and translucent. Gently squeeze the grated zucchini in your hands to remove any surplus moisture. Add the dill seed and the zucchini to the onion, and cook quickly for 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.

2. Whisk together the feta, dill leaf, parsley, flour and eggs in a mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper, then add the contents of the frying pan and mix well.

3. Wipe out the frying pan and add enough oil to shallow-fry. When hot, drop the zucchi mixture into the oil by large spoonfuls, allowing room for the mixture to spread. Cook until golden brown on one side before turning over. When cooked on both sides, remove from the pan, drain on paper towels and serve. Makes 6 to 8 pancakes.


FRENCH TARRAGON CHICKEN BREASTS

Serve this dish with baked potatoes and a crisp green salad for a lovely summer meal.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Light olive oil or sunflower oil

2 boneless chicken breasts

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons crème fraîche

1 tablespoon French tarragon, leaves removed from the stem and finely chopped, plus a few whole leaves for garnish

1. Heat a large frying pan with a lid and add the butter and a good glug of olive oil. Once the butter has melted, add the chicken breasts and cook on both sides until golden brown to seal the meat. Lower the heat, cover and cook for about 10 minutes, until cooked through.

2. Remove the cooked chicken and add the shallot and garlic to the pan. Turn up the heat and cook, stirring, until soft. Add the crème fraîche and cook for 1 minute.

3. Return the chicken breasts to the frying pan and toss them in the sauce for 1 minute. Serve garnished with some tarragon leaves. Makes 2 servings.

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