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Chef John Foster: Herbs, an acquired joy of cooking; used fresh or dry, they matter (fresh is best!)

Let’s be honest here, no one expected snow to fall before Halloween. True, there wasn’t much in the way of accumulation, but the fact that it got cold enough to see the flakes fall literally sent shivers up my spine. I’m not ready yet to give up on fall and slog through an early winter, but as is always the case with Mother Nature, it seems she has other plans. Now we may be left with hustling to bring in the last of our plants, crops and herbs before we lose them entirely.

In our haste to glean quickly there may be lots of unintentional casualties, plants that could go a bit longer, herbs that don’t mind a bit of frost. Of course it’s always a crap shoot at this time of year, and to clarify my decision making process it usually comes down to what needs to look best on the plate and taste best to the palate. Some farmers say that a bit of frost is good for spring and fall greens that is jump starts the sugars in the leaves. Root vegetables and hard squashes will shrug off that first snow, and usually not suffer until the cold settles into the actual soil. Tomatoes wilt, chilies wither, and herbs, fall somewhere into the grey area.

It’s herbs I worry about the most.

One of the acquired joys of cooking, is the growing realization as a young cook to experienced chef, of the use of fresh herbs. Once I only concentrated on speed and quantity, fresh herbs were my kryptonite then as I struggled to stop, clean, and chop enough herbs to equal what would have been the dry equivalent. Three times the fresh herbs to dry is the standard ratio, so imagine a young, impatient cook automatically reaching for one cup of dried basil when he would have needed three cups of chopped fresh herbs.

The result was often quick enough, but never really good enough. While dried herbs are essential for rubs and some marinades, the tendency for some cooks to use them at all times, and for every recipe speaks to the issue of ease over impact. When weighing whether or not it makes sense to use fresh herbs, those two opposites should never be the deciding factors. Rather you should plan your prep to utilize the full benefits of each product. And in doing so realize that sometimes, even if it puts you behind, the benefits of fresh herbs are worth the trouble.

Take for example the question of texture. Most of the time we pick the leaves from the fresh herbs and ignore the stems. On certain herbs like oregano, rosemary, savory and thyme that is a given. These herbs are far hardier and have a woody stem that is best discarded or used as an additive to a sachet or wood chips that might be used to smoke a product. In parts of Asia the entire herb is used, stem and all to enhance texture and give more moisture to the dish. The stem also carries flavor, and can be included in vegetable stocks to enhance the standard mire poix. One of the elements of a classic sachet for French stock making is parsley stems, full of the fresh greenness missing from a dried parsley flake. Using dried herbs for our stocks presents less of a problem than using them for a finished sauce. Because the dehydration process firms up the herb by removing the moisture it is almost impossible to completely soften the herb. Placed in a sauce in the same way as a fresh herb might be it gives flavor but also an unyielding texture, something the palate will not appreciate.

When comparing the flavor of the two types of herbs the difference is just as striking. Dried herbs by virtue of their drying process will concentrate the flavor. That in no way means that fresh herb flavor is not concentrated, but that it takes more of the fresh herb to “equal” that of the dried. I put that term in quotation marks to highlight what I believe to be a subtle but important difference; our ideas of flavor. Imagine dried cilantro in a fresh salsa and then again, with fresh. Doesn’t the fresh cilantro pack a punch? Doesn’t it add to the moisture and the color and even the texture? Fresh parsley in a tabbouleh salad adds those same elements, something which dried parsley would fall flat on.

So, is there a time and place for each to be used?

Being the snob that I am, I often tell people to toss out their dried herbs if they’ve had them past a month. Given that most companies package herbs in containers that could last a year, this is not unreasonable, but is unrealistic. After spending a small fortune on dried herbs and spices, you’d like to think you’ll have them for a while. I advocate some simple ground rules for the use of fresh and dried and it begins with the seasons. For approximately 7 out of the 12 months here in Kentucky, most herbs can be found fresh.

Use them. Use a lot of them and the plants will continue to give. Cilantro goes quickly to flower and seed so stay on top of those leafy herbs. Parsley and mint are volunteers, popping up in patches all over an untilled home garden. Basil is a warm weather herb, but it’s ability to produce many times its area in fresh herbs makes it an ideal tri-season plant. Once the first real cold hits though, basil blackens and gives up. Oregano, sage and thyme should all winter over, provide we cut them back at the frost and in extreme cases cover them until the worst of winter is over. What to do with the trimmings? Dry them of course! Here is a direct line from your garden of farmers market to the container in your kitchen. Harvesting and drying your own herbs is far more efficient and satisfying than a container from the supermarket. Date your containers, keep track of the rotation so the herbs stay relatively “fresh” and use them on a regular basis.

Still confused? Here’s a tip. Use fresh herbs with fresh foods (salsas, potato salads, pasta salad, etc.) and to finish a dish. Use dried at the start, if it sits, or if it’s dry. This way you play to the strengths of both types, allowing them to do the work they were meant to. Get out of the habit of reaching for the dry, and diversify.

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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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