Cooking With Herbs
( Originally Published 1933 )
Judging by the conversation in most American homes during meals, the food might be as nonexistent as the Emperor's new clothes in the fairy story. Even though I would not recommend sitting down to the table and rubbing one's hands in joyous anticipation, followed by the loud smacking of lips and bringing the meal to a grand finale by swabbing up every last bit of sauce with a piece of bread, as I have often seen South Europeans do, yet discerning comments upon the fine shadings in flavor encourage the hostess to be creative about her menus. The habitual silence on the subject may be one of many reasons why so few housewives are imaginative in the preparation of foods and the decoration of the platters.
To be adventurous about food one need not go beyond the garden gate, but can cook bamboo shoots, Chinese bean sprouts, sorrel, or basil at home provided they are growing in the garden. Dishes can be prepared which come to us from far-away lands, from distant times, and from recipes which, like Sleeping Beauty, have been slumbering for years in some old cook book on the shelf in the library.
People with delicate or nervous digestions are apt to be diffident about eating new foods, and I will not try to override their fears but will concentrate on those who enjoy new sensations of the palate and the nose.
In flavoring with herbs the same discretions must be exercised as with any condiment. There should be merely a soupçon, that is, a suspicion, of a hot, aromatic, or a pungent flavor in a dish, and this should merge in with the taste of the eggs, meat, or soup and enhance their natural flavor and not disguise or dominate it. The herb flavoring should have a subtle, intriguing quality, and never be so strong that one is instantly aware of it, except where the dish is named for the herb as in rosemary soup, or eggs à l'estragon, when it quite properly prevails over any other savors. Until one has used the aromatic herbs as condiments one cannot conceive how such commonplace dishes as veal stew, chopped meat, or pea soup can be changed into a delicacy of flower-like fragrances to delight the palate of the most fastidious gourmet. But the herbs should not enter into every dish served at a meal. If they flavor two courses, that is sufficient.
To cook with herbs no special equipment outside of the usual kitchen utensils is necessary except a mortar and pestle for pounding certain of the seeds and leaves. Although rose water, the Eastern spices, and pepper are included in some of the recipes, in general, when the herbs are used, no other condiments are required except salt, sugar, and at times a little of the juice or peel of lemon or orange, which seem to heighten the herb flavorings. A bit of onion should be present in meats, soups, and salads, for, like the pedal point in a chord of music, it is the base upon which all other flavorings vibrate. One takes a pinch of finely minced leaves, as much as can be held between the thumb and forefinger, for a dish for four people, and about the same amount of seeds. After the herbs have been in the dish for a time the flavor becomes stronger, so one cannot judge whether enough has been used merely by the taste when the herbs are first dropped into the pot. It takes a little practice to learn exactly how much is required and, as our French cook used to say, one has to have l'habitude of cooking with herbs.
In flavoring meat balls, or dressings for chicken or veal, the dry or fresh herbs are generally mixed with the ingredients before they are cooked. If they are allowed to soak for an hour or two in the milk, stock, butter, or water, however, the flavor is drawn out more fully. For example, when a dash of coriander seeds in biscuits is desired, the crushed seeds are soaked in the milk before making up the dough; when cooking mackerel aux fines herbes, the herbs are mixed in with the creamed butter. Butter, cheese, and eggs take on the taste of herbs well. In soups, when using fresh parsley or rosemary, the finely chopped herb is dropped in at the last minute and the aroma is quickly transfused through the hot dishes and floats up to us as we drink it. To flavor cold drinks with mint, marjoram, thyme, or borage, the herbs are wrapped in a cloth and bruised, and then steeped in the liquid for some time. In making iced tea or drinks from hot fruit juices, the herbs are steeped in the hot liquid, which is then cooled. When a sprig of mint is perched on top of a glass of iced tea, it is fresh and green to look upon, but this last-minute association does not suffice to impart any of its spicy quality to the liquid.
The tops of sweet woodruff and the leaves of burnet, or costmary, and any of the other plants formerly steeped in cool tankards add to the relish of cold fruit drinks. The flowering tops of borage impart a cucumbery flavor, but this herb is very strong and should only be allowed to steep for a few minutes. For decorating fruit drinks flavored with herbs I lift the sky-blue corollas of the borage right out of its calyx and float them in the pitchers where they look more delicate than the usual maraschino cherries.
Dried herbs, in most cases, are as effective as the fresh ones, but not as pretty. The herbs, after being steeped, are strained out before finishing the dish, unless one prefers to see them scattered through the food.
The French use four herbs for the fines herbes, and when an omelette aux fines herbes is ordered in France, as the fork breaks into the golden surface dotted with the tiniest of green specks, the fragrance exhaled from the combined herbs is entirely different from the scent of the spurious copies flavored only with parsley found in American restaurants.
After experimenting with various combinations of herbs, Miss Shapleigh concluded that thyme, basil, summer savory, and chives form a delicious partnership for flavoring omelettes, soups, or meats.
Chives with thyme, winter savory, and fennel give a mild taste to fish when mixed into a hot fish stock and a little butter.
Basil, thyme, sweet marjoram, and parsley are delicately aromatic—the thyme and sweet marjoram pre-dominating.
Chives, with parsley, summer savory, and basil are not as sweet as the above, but grateful, too.
If enough of any of these mixtures is stirred into a cream cheese to speckle the luscious surface thickly and is then allowed to stand overnight, if possible, by the next morning the whole cheese is permeated with the fragrant essences and can be spread over thin slices of bread and covered with another slice. Cottage cheese, too, becomes a delicacy if herbs are stirred into it in the same fashion. This mixture, laid on lettuce leaves and served with a cup of tea, some pieces of crisp toast, and a slice of cake, pro-vide an entirely feminine supper to have on a tray in front of the fire when the family have left the mistress of the house to dine in blissful solitude.
Herbs are pleasant for filling sandwiches and particularly appropriate for a garden party or any other out-of-door meal. Jasmine or linden tea served with them and a bowl of sweet-smelling herbs placed on the table would compose an aromatic repast. Watercress chopped and mixed with a little lemon juice, sugar, and mayonnaise makes another pleasant sandwich filling, as do the finely chopped leaves of fresh mint, mixed with butter and a little sugar. Where thyme, mint, watercress, or parsley have been mixed into the sandwiches a few sprigs of them are pretty and appropriate for decorating the platters.
The common parsley or the moss-curled variety are not as attractive for a garnish as the fern-leaved one with its finely cut dark green leaves. Strangely enough, parsley seems to have displaced all other herbs as a decoration of platters, except for an occasional appearance of watercress, the "spring greens" which accompany roast meat in England. With a herb garden to draw from, we can have attractive garnishes of sprigs of thyme, the savories, sweet marjoram, and the basils or balm lying beside roasts or spread all through a dish of mixed vegetables jardinière served on yellow or green Italian pottery platters. Mint would make a fitting garnish for roast lamb, especially if it has been chopped into the sauce. Where rosemary or thyme have flavored the soup, a tiny sprig consisting of two or three leaflets can be floated in the hot soup after it has been poured into each plate, as a reminder of what has happened in the kitchen.
A few leaves of rose geranium are attractive placed around a custard, rice pudding, or fruit jelly, which has been flavored with rose water or geranium leaves; the mint, nutmeg, or oak-leaved geraniums are pretty, too, as garnishes. The leaves of these scented geraniums and of the lemon verbena are floated in finger bowls and when taken between the fingers the same effect is obtained as when the Turks pour rose water over the guests' hands after a meal.
In preparing a fresh, crisp salad of herbs one need never repeat oneself. Before dinner I walk along the paths between the rows of herbs and with a sharp knife cut a leaf here and another there and drop them into a bowl filled with cold water which I carry. Upon returning to the house I set this in a cool place until it is time to arrange the salad platter. The foundation is of pale green lettuce leaves and on these I place whatever I have picked that day. It may be a few leaves of anise, caraway, the very young leaves of sorrel, mustard, or the stems of nasturtiums cut into small pieces. Sometimes I take the tips of the burnet leaves, or bits of fern-leaved parsley, or watercress; or, if I feel like being flowery, the buds of nasturtiums are disposed among the greens, and the salad garnished with the open blossoms. Whenever I think it will go well, a dash of chopped chives, which taste delicately of onion, are added. Over a mixture only of lettuce and endive, dark green tarragon leaves are sometimes minced and scattered as a last-minute gesture. This herb has a characteristic taste that does not blend well with the others so it must be used alone.
For these salads, all in different shades of green, I prefer a colorless French dressing to a yellow mayonnaise or a red Russian one. Nestling amongst the greens are snowy cream-cheese balls speckled with fragrant herbs. This is a dish to savor slowly, turn about on one's tongue, and wonder out loud of what it is composed.
When the fresh herbs are not available, their flavor can be introduced into the salad by using a vinegar in the dressing which has been aromatized variously with tarragon, thyme, dill, or fennel. Dill or fennel soaked in vinegar, is very sour.
The leaves of dill and fennel when stirred into a mayonnaise do not impart any noticeable taste, but the pale green strands are pretty scattered through the golden sauce. Half a cup of mayonnaise will take half a teaspoonful of chopped herb leaves.
Chopped chives, all alone without other herbs, are good mixed into cream or cottage cheese as well as in omelettes and scrambled eggs and scattered over boiled potatoes.
Dill leaves, besides flavoring pickles, lend piquancy to hot or cold fish sauces as do the leaves of fennel, which also give a good flavor to soups and omelettes, provided one likes their strong taste of anise.
The thickened stem bases of Foeniculum dulce, called finocchio, are eaten as a vegetable, either boiled and served with a hot butter sauce, or baked and scattered over with Parmesan cheese.
Basil gives a delightful relish to dishes where tomatoes predominate as in spaghetti with tomatoes and cheese.
Thyme has always imparted its fragrance to chicken stuffings and some cooks think it is the best herb for turkey dressings. It is a necessary ingredient for New York clam chowder and either fresh or dried adds to the pleasure of eating broths, cream cheese, chopped meat, and stews. It is an ingredient in fines herbes or mixed seasonings.
Sage is present in stuffings for veal, pork, and of course where a goose is to be cooked. The fresh, crumply leaves are delicious in cheese.
Winter savory is called bohnenkraut, bean herb, in Germany, and until one has tried a few sprigs of it with string beans one has no idea how it ennobles this ubiquitous vegetable.
Sweet marjoram combines well with other herbs, but has not been featured alone. The French like chervil, which tastes like a mild parsley. They also like tarragon, which gives the special note to lobster thermidor, sauce Bearnaise. It is good in brown stock and hollandaise sauce, and eggs à l'estragon, where two whole leaves are laid cross-wise over each little poached egg before it is immortalized in the aspic jelly.
In the South most people think of mint in relation to juleps and everywhere it is used with lamb. Some like it minced over green peas, but few know how pleasant it is scattered over glazed carrots, and that minced and scattered over sliced oranges or other chilled fruit salads, it is pretty and has a refreshing scent. A little of the herb with a dash of nutmeg stirred into creamed spinach will change that much maligned dish into a delicacy. Spinach is also luscious when one-third of the quantity is made up of slightly sour, but pleasantly tasting, sorrel leaves, to which is added a little rosemary or nutmeg. Borage leaves make a palatable spinach.
The yellow petals of marigold flowers as a flavoring seem odd to moderns. Before cooking them the petals should be crushed in a mortar to bring out their flavor, which is a little bitter, but when mixed with other ingredients such as macaroons, nutmeg, allspice, and rose water is delicate and unusual. Miss Shapleigh used these ingredients in her marigold custard.
I make a jam of rose petals from a Turkish recipe. Turkish rose petal jam is not solid, but mine generally is and both jams are of an old rose color, taste as the roses smell, and truly seems like the ambrosia the Gods ate on Mount Olympus.
I give a recipe of "Pastils of Roses" from the "Toilet of Flora" as follows :
Pulverize one pound of the marc or residuum left in the still after making angelica water, add a large handful of roses and with a sufficient quantity of gum tragacanth dissolved in rose water, beat them into a stiff paste which is to be rolled out upon a marble with a rolling pin and cut into lozenges or formed into pastils; if you have in mind to ornament them cover them with leaf gold or silver.
Since angelica water is mentioned in the above we give a recipe for candying the stems :
Boil the stalks of angelica in water till they are tender; then peel them and put them in other warm water and cover them. Let them stand over a gentle fire till they become very green; then lay them on a cloth to dry; take their weight in fine sugar with a little rose water and boil it to a candy height. Then put in your angelica and boil them up quick; then take them out and dry them for use.*
From the candied stems of angelica grow the sugared roses and violets atop the snowy icing on elaborately decorated cakes.
The stems are faintly flavored, but the seeds are stronger and give a pleasant savor to custard, blanc mange, or floating island.
Besides the leaves and stems of the herbs, the seeds of caraway, coriander, dill, fennel, or poppy, and fennel flower, Nigella sativa, are all delightful condiments when whole, or crushed. They are crushed and the oils extracted to scent liqueurs and perfumes; this process, however, is a little beyond the skill of most amateur cooks. In addition to the well-known and long-practiced ways of employing them I flavor biscuits, cup cakes, and baked apples with coriander seeds. Caraway comfits can be bought and probably coriander comfits too, to decorate short bread and sprinkle on top of cookies. The seeds of fennel flower, almost unknown in America, have a sharp, spicy taste. Powdered and steeped in vinegar they add a dash of spice to fish sauces. Dill and fennel seeds are savory in pickled beets and a change from caraway seeds. Opium poppies yield seeds for sprinkling on breads and cakes, and are easy to grow, but they should be the black-seeded varieties.
The roots of herbs, notably the horseradish, are used, too, as flavoring. To make a horseradish sauce, the young root is grated as finely as possible and sugar, vinegar, and salt are added. Into this is stirred cream or oil; if the latter, orange rind should be added.
These are merely a few of the possibilities of flavoring with herbs and they have been presented as preliminary suggestions to the beginner. Moreover, once the imagination has begun to function in regard to the preparation of foods, undoubtedly many other combinations and ways of using these pleasantly aromatic or tart flavors will be found, for with so many varieties available why cling to the old-time chocolate and vanilla, delightful and agree-able as these undoubtedly are?
The herbs, besides flavoring food, can be combined into sachets and potpourris. I have not as yet ventured into working with alembics and stills, weights and measures, but since I have been asked so frequently to give recipes for sachets, I have looked up the subject and found some which seem simple and inexpensive to prepare for one who is growing many of the ingredients in his back yard.
Every perfume must have an element known as a fixative in it to keep the essential oils from evaporating and thereby losing its fragrance. Since Theophrastus' day, and probably earlier, these have been ambergris, castorium, civet, musk, and gum benzoin, all of them except the last being very expensive. They can be bought from wholesale druggists, as can the ingredients mentioned in the recipes.
Piesse, in his "The Art of Perfumery," says the materials employed in the manufacture of sachet powders are only those which retain their odor in a dried state and these include what are termed "herbs"—lemon, thyme, mint, and so on, also a few leaves of plants such as the orange and lemon trees. Few blossoms except lavender, rose, and cassia have any fragrance when dried. Surprisingly enough, the jasmine, tuberose, violet, and mignonette lose theirs.