Fresh, fast and flavorful

Fresh Herbs

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

I just love being outdoors during the summer months.  I read the paper and have my morning coffee out on the deck most mornings. I spend every free moment gardening and, when it comes to dinner (despite the sighs from some of my family members) I prefer dining al fresco. Because all that time outside cuts into my time inside, I switch gears in the kitchen and focus on easy dishes that are fast and savory. The flavors come from quick-to-fix relishes, pesto sauces and vinaigrettes. And the added bonus: the basics are easy to make with ingredients from your pantry such as oil, vinegar, wine and dried herbs and spices.

Simply adding chopped fresh garlic and onions makes a basic relish, pesto sauce, or vinaigrette even more flavorful. Toss in a handful of fresh herbs or vegetables from the market or your garden, and substitute one of the exciting vinegars and oils, and you will transform a tasty dish into a sublime one. Better yet, the basic methods remain the same regardless of ingredients, and you will be out of your kitchen in record time.  

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While there is nothing wrong with simply broiled chicken, drizzling that same chicken with an olive-caper relish magically alters it. The relish can be prepared ahead of time and the dish can be assembled in minutes.  Served with mélange of marinated grilled vegetables and grilled potato slices, the chicken becomes the centerpiece of a lovely meal suitable for a special dinner party.

Homemade relishes are simple. They are zesty combinations of one or two fruits or vegetables (such as tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, mangoes, or papayas) with vinegar and a variety of herbs and spices. Once made, most of them can be stored in the refrigerator for a week or two or preserved in jars for longer shelf life.  A little bit of relish goes a long way to add flavor to cooked beef, chicken, and fish. And as a sandwich spread, a relish transforms an ordinary roast turkey or cheese sandwich into something extraordinary.

Pesto sauce can be made from a wide variety of herbs and vegetables such as spinach, basil, arugula, mint, parsley, sun-dried tomatoes, or cilantro. Finely chop one or more of these with fresh garlic, oil and spices in a food processor or pound the ingredients together in a mortar with pestle. You can use the resulting pesto sauce to flavor cooked meats and vegetables or you can toss it with fresh cooked pasta. Mixed with some mayonnaise, pesto is great on grilled vegetable, chicken or turkey sandwiches.  I make my pesto sauce in large batches and spoon the sauce into ice-cube trays. Once frozen, the cubes can be transferred to a freezer bag and remain frozen for a few months. Because of the high oil content, the cubes will thaw quickly and are ready to use in no time. The sauce can also remain refrigerated for 5-7 days.

Most of us have used vinaigrettes to dress salads or as a marinade for raw meat, chicken, or vegetables.  But they also taste great drizzled over simply grilled, broiled, or poached chicken, beef, fish, or lamb. The basic vinaigrette is a combination of oil, vinegar, lemon juice, or wine, and various herbs and spices.

The flavors can be radically altered based on the types of oils and vinegars used.  Olive and vegetable oils mix well with stronger vinegars like balsamic and red wine. Other oils, such as walnut, sesame, and fruit oils, are best combined with milder vinegars, such as white wine and rice. Adding fresh or roasted garlic and minced shallots adds depth to vinaigrettes.  Mustard, soy sauce, and Worcestershire sauce create more assertive flavors. Honey, maple syrup, and other sweeteners balance the acidity of the vinegar making them less astringent. Vinaigrettes can be seasoned with dried or fresh herbs. Those made with fresh herbs should be used the day they are made.

If you plan to use your vinaigrette to marinate raw foods, follow these guidelines to ensure food safety and maximum flavor:

• Beef, chicken, fish and lamb should marinate in the refrigerator, not at room temperature.  Remove them from the refrigerator 15 minutes before cooking.

• Do not reuse marinades once they have come in contact with chicken, meat, or fish. If you would like to serve the marinade as a passed sauce, be sure to boil it for at least 5 minutes to kill any bacteria.  

• Fresh cut vegetables can marinate at room temperature for up to one hour.

• Raw chicken can be marinated for up to two days.

• Beef and lamb can marinate overnight.

• Fish should be marinated no longer than 30 minutes; otherwise it will begin to “cook”, which is the process used to make ceviche.

 Tips for easy ways to maximize flavor:

• Balsamic syrup: Place 1 1/2 cups balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan and bring to a light boil.  Continue to boil until vinegar is reduced to about 1/3 of a cup, or becomes the consistency of syrup.  Allow syrup to cool and use it to drizzle over cooked pizzas, salads, cooked beef or chicken, or a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with fresh strawberries. The syrup can be stored in the refrigerator indefinitely.

• When adding garlic to a marinade, crush the unpeeled garlic clove lightly with a knife.  Add it to the marinade with the skin, which now holds all that potent garlic oil.

• Use your sharpest knife to chop fresh herbs. Otherwise, those luscious herb oils remain on your cutting board rather than in your condiment.

• Fresh herbs can be torn rather than chopped.

• To make a chiffonade, simply pile 5 or 6 larger fresh herbs such as basil leaves on top of one another and roll them up, width-wise. Cut the roll into thin slices with a sharp knife and sprinkle on top of a dish as a flavorful and attractive garnish.

• Before adding marinades and vinaigrettes to raw meat, remember to set some aside in a small bowl to drizzle over cooked food.  

• A splash of fresh citrus juice or a teaspoon of grated zest adds great flavor. Mix one-third cup lime juice with one-quarter cup olive oil, one minced garlic clove, a bunch of chopped cilantro (mix lemon juice with parsley) and a dash of hot sauce and you now have a dynamite chicken marinade.

Here are some recipes to get you started.  And remember, the focus is on fast and easy ways to create flavorful dishes that celebrate the season and satisfy the palate.  “Summertime, and the living is easy.”

 Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of two.  A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].

Spinach-Arugula Walnut Pesto Sauce

1 1/2 cups tightly packed fresh spinach, stems removed

1 cup lightly packed arugula, washed and patted dry

3/4 cup walnuts, toasted and cooled (chop nuts if

making pesto by hand.)

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place fresh spinach in a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds, drain, rinse in cold water and drain again. Squeeze spinach to remove excess moisture. 

Put spinach, arugula, walnuts, and garlic into a food processor container.  Process mixture until just combined.  With machine running, add olive oil. Scrape pesto into a bowl and stir in cheese. Season mixture with salt and pepper to taste.

Place a dollop of pesto onto broiled or grilled chicken or beef or toss with 1-1 1/2 pounds cooked and drained spaghetti noodles.

Refrigerate, covered tightly, for up to 3 days. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.


Soy-Ginger Vinaigrette

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger

Pinch of dried crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon water

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-high heat.  Boil for 2 minutes.  Set aside to cool.

Drizzle vinaigrette over any broiled or grilled light fish such as cod, tuna, or swordfish.


Charmoula Sauce

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

5 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

Pinch of cayenne pepper

1/3 cup olive oil

Mix all ingredients together in a medium bowl. Spoon mixture over raw, mild white fish fillets such as cod, haddock, or tilapia, and bake in a 425- degree oven until fish flakes, 12-20 minutes.


Sweet and Spicy Vinaigrette

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste

1 teaspoon honey

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup vegetable oil

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves

Place vinegar, garlic, red pepper, honey, salt and pepper in a blender. Blend until smooth. Transfer mixture to a small bowl and whisk in oil until mixture has thickened.  Stir in chopped cilantro leaves.  Use vinaigrette to top broiled or grilled flank or skirt steaks.


Grilled Vegetables

1 cup olive oil

1/2 cup dry white wine

4 garlic cloves, unpeeled and lightly crushed

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil

Grated zest of 1/2 lemon

1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut into large chunks

1 sweet onion, peeled and cut into eighths

1 colored pepper, trimmed, seeded and cut into eighths

1 large portabella mushroom, stemmed, cleaned, and cut into eighths

Combine oil, wine, garlic, basil, lemon zest, salt and pepper in a small bowl.  Transfer mixture to a strong plastic bag and add all the vegetables.  Set aside to marinate at room temperature for up to one hour.  

Drain marinade and grill vegetables to your liking.  Serve immediately or refrigerate vegetables to use as the filling for a sandwich or for topping lightly-dressed salad greens.

Makes 4 side servings.



Olive-Caper Relish

1/4 cup pitted chopped green olives

1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 1/2 tablespoons drained chopped capers

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

2 fresh plum or Roma tomatoes, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine olives, garlic, parsley capers, mustard, vinegar, tomatoes, and olive oil in a small bowl. Season relish with black pepper, to taste.  Place a spoonful of relish over broiled or grilled chicken pieces, or use as a condiment for chicken sandwiches.