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The real dill: fresh herbs punch up everyday dishes

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As outdoor temperatures rise safely past the frost and freeze risks, it's time to set out fresh herbs. I'd just purchased some small pots of herbs to add to my kitchen garden, when a timely book came across my desk.

"Cooking with Herbs" by Lynn Alley is a delightful little (about 7- by 7-inch) book packed with sage advice about growing herbs and using them in recipes.

The recipes in "Cooking with Herbs" are fairly simple, the better to showcase the herbs. Alley equates her repertoire of uncomplicated, basic recipes to the little black dress in a well-dressed woman's closet. She says the recipes should be dependable and flexible, allowing for accessories/additional ingredients to dress them up or to tailor for a specific flavor.

Alley defines the difference between herbs and spices. An herb is the green part, or leaves, of aromatic plants. Spices are the woody plant parts and seeds, such as cinnamon (bark) or coriander seed.

This weekend, I made Grits with Smoked Gouda, Sharp Cheddar, Onions, Chives and Parsley to accompany grilled steak. The subtle smokehouse flavor from the Gouda cheese complemented the hearty meat nicely.

The grit recipe is a good example of Alley's approach to gussying up a simple recipe. It starts with a recipe for basic polenta, which she uses for that recipe, as well as Polenta with Marinara, Ricotta Cheese and Basil and Southwestern Grits with Tomatoes, Queso Fresco, Onion, Olives, Cilantro, Avocado and Lime. With names that specific, you can gather your ingredient lists just from titles.

Alley makes her basic polenta in a slow cooker instead of the more traditional stovetop method. I didn't get started early enough to do that, so I just made it on the stove according to the package instructions.

A word about the difference between polenta and grits. They're both made from coarsely ground cornmeal. Grits are usually made from white corn or homily and are served like a soft porridge. Grits were originally considered a Southern breakfast food, but their popularity has spread, both geographically and beyond the morning meal.

Italian Polenta is made from yellow cornmeal. It can be eaten soft like grits or cooled and cut into strips, which are grilled or fried. My mother, who is not a bit Italian, used to make a loaf of polenta, fry the slices and serve it for breakfast with syrup. We called it "cornmeal mush."

Other recipes that I'll try are Yam Rösti with Indian Flavors, which is basically hash browns made with yams, Greek-Style Rice Salad with Dill Dressing and Curry-Cilantro Cream Cheese Spread.

Alley's cookbook calls for 10 fresh herbs: mint, dill, rosemary, thyme, parsley, tarragon, sate, basil, cilantro and oregano. They're all easy to grow and add a lot of fresh flavor without much effort or fat.

"Cooking with Herbs" by Lynn Alley retails for $16.99 and will soon be stocked at Books A Million's Southridge location.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.

 

Basic Polenta - slow cooker method

Serves 4 to 6.

5 cups water

1 cup polenta, or coarsely ground cornmeal

1 teaspoon salt

COMBINE all the ingredients in a 4-quart slow cooking. Cover and cook on low for about 6 hours or on high or about 1 1/2 hours, stirring a few times, until the polenta is creamy and the grains are tender.

 

Grits with Smoked Gouda, Sharp Cheddar, Onions, Chives and Parsley

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or oil

1/2  medium yellow onion, sliced thinly

1 cup grated smoked cheddar or gouda cheese

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

1 recipe Basic Polenta, still hot

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar

MELT the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

STIR the smoked cheddar and chives into the hot polenta. Spoon the polenta into one large serving bowl or four individual bowls. Top with sautéed onion, parsley and sharp cheddar and serve immediately.

 

Yam Rösti with Indian Flavors

Serves 4

2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or vegetable oil

4  large yams

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2  teaspoons coriander seeds, crushed

2 teaspoons cumin seeds, crushed

2 egg whites

1/2 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions

1/2 serrano chile, chopped finely

PLACE the ghee in a large skillet over medium heat and allow the skillet to heat thoroughly, 3 to 4 minutes. It's important not to get the skillet too hot, as the potatoes on the bottom will cook before the insides are done.

PLACE the yams in a large bowl and toss them with salt, pepper, coriander and cumin seeds and egg whites.

PLACE the yams in the skillet and press them down with a spatula into an even layer. Cook for about 10 minutes, rotating the skillet a couple of times to avoid hot spots, until the bottom of the rösti is golden brown.

LOOSEN the rösti on the sides and bottom of the pan with a spatula, slide the rösti out onto a plate, then slide the rösti back into the pan, browned side up. Cook for another 10 minutes, or until the underside of the rösti is also browned.

GENTLY RUN a spatula around the sides of and underneath the rösti and slide it onto serving plate. Top with the yogurt, cilantro, scallions, and chile and serve immediately.

 

Greek-Style Rice Salad with Dill Dressing

Serves 4 to 6

2 cups long-grain brown rice, prepared according to package instructions

1 medium cucumber, peeled and diced finely

2 medium tomatoes, diced finely

1 cup Mediterranean black olives, sliced in half and pitted

1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced finely

1 7-ounce package feta cheese, crumbled

Vinaigrette

3 cloves garlic, pressed

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 tablespoons vinegar

2/3 cup olive oil or mixed oils

2 teaspoons dill seeds

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill leaves

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

COMBINE the rice, cucumber, tomatoes, olives, green pepper, and feta in a large bowl.

COMBINE the garlic, lemon juice and vinegar in the work bowl of a mini food processor and blend well. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then with the processor running, slowly drizzle in the oil. Add the dill seeds, dill leaves, salt, and pepper to taste, then pulse until the dressing reaches your desired consistency.

TOSS the vinaigrette with the salad. Refrigerate for at least an hour or two before serving. Serve chilled, or let the salad come to room temperature first.

 

Curry-Cilantro Cream Cheese Spread

Makes about 1 cup

12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1/4  cup dry sherry (optional)

2 teaspoons curry powder, or more as desired

1/4 cup chopped walnuts, plus more for rolling (optional)

1/2 cup golden raisins or dried currants

1/4 up fresh cilantro leaves

Salt

Crackers or bread, for serving

COMBINE the cream cheese, cheddar, sherry, if using, and curry powder in the work bowl of a food processor and blend well. Add the walnuts, raisins and cilantro and pulse just until mixed. Be sure to leave plenty of texture. Season with salt to taste.

SPOON the mixture into a crock or roll it into a ball and cover it with walnuts, then refrigerate for at least 3 hours before serving on crackers or bread.


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