Fresh herbs are one of the most straightforward and effective ways of elevating simple home cooking into something notable, and I cook with them almost daily. A few snips of chives on scrambled eggs, a shower of torn basil on tomato salads, sprigs of rosemary in the sauté pan for a steak, and a pinch of chopped parsley for the anchovy butter to top it. And let’s not forget a fragrant peppermint stem, gently bruised to release its oils, as a garnish for my gin and tonic.
I grow herbs on my deck, just a step from my kitchen door, so it’s easy to cook this way for much of the year.
But in the offseason — or if you don’t have your own garden — a desire to cook with fresh herbs can cause some supply-and-demand conflicts. Most of the time you’re buying a bunch but perhaps using only a few sprigs. What do you do with the rest?
Fortunately, solving the waste problem can bring joy and deliciousness. The key is to think of herbs — particularly the tender ones — not as accents used in mere tablespoons but rather as star players tossed in by fistfuls and cupfuls. Think of them as leafy greens and use them abundantly, and with abandon.
As opposed to the hardy, tough herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram and sage (which, I think, are good when cooked with food, not eaten raw), the tender herbs are just that: leafy, tender, milder, easy and delicious to eat raw or cooked. The most versatile include parsley, cilantro, mint, basil, dill, tarragon, chives, with less familiar members such as chervil, lemon verbena and lovage.
Tend to your herbs to prolong their life
First, liberate your tender herbs from whatever bondage they arrive in from the store: Take them out of the horrible plastic clamshell and release any rubber bands or twist-ties, which cut into the stems, leading to deterioration and rot. Discard any obvious wilted or yellowed leaves or stems.
For storage longer than a few hours, some people put herbs in a glass with water as you would a bunch of flowers. I don’t find that effective, and it requires counter space or, in hot weather, fridge space and the ability to keep the vase upright, which can be a challenge.
Instead, I loosely wrap the bunch in a barely damp paper towel and seal that in a lidded plastic or glass storage box to create an environment humid enough to keep the herbs moist but not so damp to encourage rot. If you’re not going to use the herbs within two days, do periodic spot-checks and remove newly wilted or yellowed sprigs, and refresh the damp paper towel.
To wash the herbs, separate the sprigs and put them into a salad spinner. Submerge in cold water, soak for a few minutes, and then drain, rinse again, drain again, and then spin them until dry. If you chop wet herbs, you’ll end up with something resembling lawn clippings. If you don’t have a salad spinner, soak the herbs in a bowl, drain in a colander, and then gently pat dry with a clean dish towel or paper towels.
Use the whole bunch
See how many places you can deploy the herbs over the next day or two. Once you get comfortable and committed to not wasting these important ingredients, you’ll find your own delicious destinations as well. As you consider the possibilities, remember: The stems, particularly of cilantro and parsley, are full of juicy flavor. When you chop their leaves, always include some stems, unless you can see that they are damaged or too fibrous. Take a nibble and then decide. Here are a few ideas for using those generous bunches to their utmost potential.
- Go beyond basil pesto. Use nuts other than the pricey pine nuts. Parsley, dill and walnuts are gorgeous together, perhaps with a few crumbles of feta thrown in. Cilantro and almonds are a natural pairing, as are basil and parsley with hazelnuts. Spread a thick layer onto fish fillets and roast at high temperature.
- Add finely chopped herbs to a basic crepe batter, spread some fresh cheese over the crepes and add a good twist of black pepper, then fold or roll. Step it up by adding a thin layer of gravlax or other cured fish.
- Make a frittata with tons of herbs, gently sautéed green onions and crumbles of feta. Serve at room temperature, plain or with a drizzle of pesto.
- Make a smashed potato salad. Boil some new potatoes, drain and crush gently, dress with a combo of butter and extra-virgin olive oil, a juicy squeeze of lemon, and then fold in a big bunch of roughly chopped herbs. Serve at warm room temperature.
- Make a perfect herb salad, keeping the herbs in tender sprigs or whole leaves, and adding a bit of bulk with arugula leaves or thinly sliced endive for texture, if you like. Dress simply with lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.