Spring is finally in the air, and I am on the road. In recent weeks, I’ve cleaned up the garden beds; watched crocus, ipheion, scilla, and daffodil blooms open wider by the hour; and found the first perennial herbs like mint, oregano, sorrel, and chives poking through the ground. But it’s also one of my favorite seasons to travel—with Twice as Tasty workshops, to visit family and friends, and to explore new places.
Food has always dominated my travels, first as a vegetarian struggling to find things to eat in a newly reunified Germany and later when discovering new flavors and spices in Africa and Asia and even unknown fruits and vegetables in the South Pacific. Although I still dream of the more exotic tastes, the dishes I bring home put that international spin on food I can grow or easily find in my climate. It almost always starts with herbs.
Fresh Is Best
There’s no argument: fresh herbs in season should be your first choice in any dish. You reap the best flavor, texture, and scent by sticking with fresh. Growing your own ensures the freshest bite, and fortunately most herbs start easily, live well in pots, and can survive indoors or out given your climate and the season. They also love being used: regular trimming makes the plants grow stronger, healthier, and faster.
Once snipped, herbs can have a short life—even woody ones like mint and oregano that are hardy on the plant can be delicate off the stem. Several tricks can keep your fresh herbs brighter longer:
- Choose your space and timing. When you snip a handful of leaves while prepping a meal, you don’t have to worry about time of day, moisture, or humidity: just grab the best and brightest. That’s why my daily-use herbs grow in a small spiral garden steps from my door. If you’re harvesting in advance, visit your herb garden midmorning, after the dew has evaporated but before the heat of the day starts to wilt the leaves.
- Go big. You usually have two choices when you buy fresh herbs: small sealed plastic packets of herbs that you can’t fully see or smell and large bundles that usually hold far more than you need for a particular dish. Choose the latter; you can judge the quality, and the sticker price will still probably be less than that of the tiny clamshells. You can also go big when cooking: in recipes that call for dried herbs, substitute 3 times the amount of fresh leaves.
- Use your eyes and nose. Whether you’re growing or buying, you can see and smell healthy herbs. Leaves should look plump, tender, and shiny with a uniform color. Dried tips, waxy leaves, or weak, soggy stems reveal plants past their prime. Rub a leaf gently between your fingers; it should smell fresh and bright, clearly identifiable as that herb.
- Give it a drink. Many fresh herbs will last longer if treated like a vase of flowers, with their stems in an inch of water, and then stored in the lower front part of the fridge; this includes cilantro, parsley, dill, mint, and tarragon. Basil likes the vase treatment but at room temperature, and preferably with root still attached. Wrap small-leaf herbs, like marjoram, thyme, rosemary, and oregano, in a damp paper towel and store them in a bag in your fridge’s crisper.
Improving on Dried
Even those blessed with a sunny window or climate that grows fresh herbs year-round need dried leaves at some point. Forget the prepackaged, uniformly minced jars of herbs at the grocery store: you’re probably paying the most money for the least flavor. Instead, buy tiny amounts from a bulk source that turns over its stock regularly or, better yet, dry your own.
Bay leaves are an exception to the “fresh is best” rule. Unless you have a bay laurel tree, dried bay leaves typically cost less and taste the same in their typical well-cooked uses. A few tips for using dried herbs can be applied to any recipe:
- Waste not, want not. Whether you overharvest or buy an oversized bundle of fresh herbs, the excess needn’t wilt away in your fridge. Whatever won’t get used within a few days can go straight to the dehydrator or freezer.
- Just a pinch. Dehydration intensifies flavor as it pulls moisture from food. So back off on quantity when using dried herbs or seeds instead of fresh leaves in a recipe. The rule of thumb is to use 1/3 of the dried form in place of fresh. This can be easy math when using standard U.S. measures: 3 teaspoons equal 1 tablespoon, so simply substitute a teaspoon for each tablespoon.
- A head start. I get the best results when I add dried herbs earlier in the cooking process, particularly in soups and saucy dishes. In contrast, fresh herbs usually shine brightest when added at the end or even sprinkled over the surface just before serving.
Leaf versus Seed
Some herbs just don’t taste as good or lose all flavor when dried but have seeds that pack a flavor punch. Common examples include dill seed and coriander (the seed form of cilantro). Dill seed can be substituted for fresh dill fronds, but it can have a stronger flavor depending on how it’s added. Coriander seed and cilantro leaf carry distinctly different flavors and are less ideal swaps: Cumin and caraway are decent replacements for coriander, whereas cilantro haters should turn to flat-leaf Italian parsley or basil.
Both dill and cilantro happily self-seed, making them a gardener’s curse and blessing: when the heat is on, all these plants want to do is set seed. By letting them, you can easily save more seed than you’ll use before the following season—and ensure the plants reseed the next crop.
Twice as Tasty
This month’s posts will focus on food discovered during some of my travels and my Montana take on some of my favorite imported recipes, with an emphasis on the first herbs and vegetables of spring. I’ll share my experiences with tea in England, Morocco, and Russia and home-based adaptations. This month will also offer fresh salad recipes with ingredients discovered during my European travels. And I’ll give you some of my favorite recipes to make when traveling—whether by land or by sea. Bon voyage!
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