Chef Foster: There’s a place for dry herbs, but with fresh now abundant, take advantage of the season

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Ever so subtly the seasons are changing. Yes the trees mostly have leafed out, and I’ve cut the grass more than a few times.

But for me, the real changes occur at the farmer’s markets and in my own gardens. My sage and oregano have once again revived from their winter slumber and now threaten to take over large patches of my front and back lawn. Mint, which is always overwhelming has crept back into everything that is growing, providing a huge green backdrop to the kitchen garden at The Sage Rabbit.

And late this week we put out the baby basil plants that my wife nursed through the sprout process, hopeful that they will take hold and prosper.

All this leads to a change in direction for your cooking. I find that I’m using more fresh herbs again, looking for ways to bring them into almost every phase of my creativity and onto the plates themselves. Where during the winter I might have used dried herbs for some things, the minute the fresh arrived I was right back into the groove.

Fresh herbs signal new levels of flavor and color, and in certain cases it can alter the texture of the sauce simply by how it’s applied. For the record dried herbs represent the bulk of most kitchen’s cooking herbs. The flavor is concentrated to the point that it would take three times the amount of fresh herbs to properly equal the power of dried.

While there is a time and pace for dried herbs, don’t forget what lies outside your kitchen window (Photo from The Sage Rabbit)

There is very little waste in dried herbs, they are shelf stable for the most part, and usually don’t require anything other than a cool dry place to store them. What they do lack is color and texture, and where they may fall short is in our reluctance to regularly rotate our dried herbs that may have lost their punch or become rancid from poor storage.

Fresh herbs in marinades and sauces provide many positives to the works in progress. Leg of lamb in a fresh rosemary, garlic and cracked black pepper rub, needs only time and a little lemon to work beautifully on the grill. A reduction of fresh tarragon, shallots, and vinegar is the backbone of a great béarnaise.

Folding it into the hollandaise and then straining and adding more fresh tarragon has no match in the dried herbs world. An herb vinaigrette, by its very nature should have a floral feel to it. The chosen herbs should complement each other and blend well with red or white wine vinegar, garlic, and strong aromatics like cracked black pepper and red chili flakes.

The use of a packet of dried herbs is convenient but the resulting flavor is flat and more importantly the texture becomes an issue. Dried herbs like other dried products will never fully recover fresh texture, so dried herbs will soak up the vinegar and oil, impart flavor and then remain straw-like in their texture.

There are many reasons we have an herb garden both at Sullivan and at The Sage Rabbit. It’s renewable, versatile in the number of herbs that are available, and the herbs end up being an element that is often lacking in finished dishes. A bit of fresh herb tossed in a finished pasta is another layer of flavor that is fresh and bright.

Fresh sprigs of soft herb like parsley and mint can take a salad in a different direction, providing new texture and a burst of mint. Consider what a traditional caprese salad would be like with dried basil….not good.

Fresh herbs are the back bone of Thai curries, South American chimichurri, and Middle Eastern grain salads like tabbouleh. These dishes count on the bright green colors to accent the other mostly earth tone ingredients. The herbs also balance heavy proteins like grilled beef or chicken with acid and spice.

Chimichurri is a blend of fresh parsley, lemon, chilies and garlic. It works well with the grilled meats because it cuts through the heaviness, accents the mineral qualities of well raised beef, and freshens up the char of the grill so it doesn’t over power the meat. A well-made chimichurri will also present a bright green finish to a deep dark grilled cut of meat, striping the plate in a bold bright ribbon to provide definite eye appeal.

Thai curries, similar to their Indian cousins, combine many different ingredients into a deep, complex flavor mix which can span cross the spectrum of meats, seafood and vegetables. They use fresh ingredients that are left raw or cooked very lightly.

Mint, parsley, cilantro are a few of the green herbs that provide most of the color and a large part of the flavor profile of Thai food. Add in aromatics like ginger, garlic and shallots and the resulting curry is clean and fresh. To try and accomplish that with dried herbs would completely change the end product.

For me, most of all, the use of fresh herbs denotes a change in season. For the next six months we will enjoy the peak seasons for vegetables and herbs. Our choices expand with each warm week, and even into the cold late fall and early winter some of the mainstays will still be available.

Taking advantage of these herbs when fresh makes all the sense in the world to cooks and chefs alike. While there is a time and pace for dried herbs, don’t forget what lies outside your kitchen window.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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