Fresh herbs for Rosh Hashanah

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Just as sure as apples and honey will be part of our Rosh Hashanah meal, so will the many dishes that are part of each family’s heritage. Be it roast chicken, brisket, gefilte fish, noodle kugel, or chicken soup with matzo balls, these traditional foods provide a powerful link to earlier generations. And while I would never propose anything that would undermine those traditions, I offer this suggestion: Consider adding fresh herbs to some of your standard recipes. The herbs will infuse your holiday meal with exciting new flavors, be a healthy alternative to excessive salt, sugar, and fat, and, perhaps, gastronomically tweak tradition.

Too often herbs are relegated to garnish status. We scatter a few sprigs of parsley or rosemary on a platter of brisket or top a glass of iced or hot tea with a sprig of fresh mint and think this is culinary genius.  But if instead we added that chopped fresh parsley or rosemary to the pot of brisket just before it is finished roasting or the chopped mint to the tea just before it finished steeping, the flavors of both the brisket and tea would be elevated and enhanced.

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Laura Silver, mother of nine-year old twins, understands the benefits of using fresh herbs.

“I began growing herbs in my garden about five years ago,” said Silver of Olivette, who is a trustee of the Jewish Light. “I grow parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, three varieties of basil, chives, mint, and oregano. I go to my herb garden daily when it’s time to start thinking about what to make for dinner. The herbs give me inspiration and, of course, they make everything taste great.”

In preparation for Rosh Hashanah this year, Silver has decided to try infusing jars of honey with some of her sage, rosemary, lavender, and thyme.

“I plan to use the honey in a honey cake, as a dip for the challah and apples, in making an apple crostada, and for an apple-pear salad with field greens,” she said.

Felicia Wertz came to the United States in 1971 from an orphanage in Wyszkow, Poland. She learned to cook by watching Julia Child on television. She sharpened her culinary skills while a member of a faculty gourmet club at Washington University.

“I love the flavor that fresh rosemary adds to my baked lamb,” she said. “I have also found that adding fresh parsley to any dish made with raw garlic helps balance the sometimes sharp, bitter flavor of garlic.”

“Dill is another fresh herb I love to use,” Wertz continued. “I mix it into my potato salads and cucumber salads and add it, along with sliced raw onions, to my sliced herring in oil. The dill gives everything such a flavor boost.”

Indeed, fresh herbs are all about flavor. A classic salsa verde (recipe below) can be used to build flavor both before cooking and afterwards. A dollop of herb paste atop unadorned cooked meats, chicken breasts, or fish will transform an ordinary meal into a memorable one, a meal that awakens your taste buds and inspires your palate.

Better yet, fresh herbs are good for your health. Many are high in antioxidants, aid in digestion, and stimulate appetite. Some herbs may even relieve congestion, boost your immune system, and soothe an insect bite.

So what are you waiting for? Elevate your 2012 Rosh Hashanah feast by adding complexity and splendid flavor to your food with fresh herbs. Think about adding a tablespoon or two of chopped dill, parsley, chervil, or thyme to your matzo ball mix. Your matzo balls will sing with flavor, and the green herb flecks will be stunning.

When roasting your whole chicken, consider stuffing the cavity with a cut lemon and a large handful of fresh herbs, such as parsley, rosemary, thyme, sage, and basil, alone or in combination. Loosen the skin over the meat and massage onto the meat a tablespoon or two of salsa verde or a pesto made from basil, garlic, salt, pine nuts, and olive oil. The roasted chicken will be tender, fragrant, and delicious.

To add flavor to potatoes, toss cut potatoes with some olive oil, coarse kosher salt, and a coarsely chopped handful of your favorite herbs. Turn the mixture out onto an oiled baking pan and roast at 425 degrees until potatoes are tender and browned.

To bake carrots, whole or sliced, toss them with olive oil, a handful of thyme sprigs, and coarse kosher salt. Roast in a 425-degree oven until carrots are tender. To sauté carrots, heat olive oil over medium heat and add carrots to pan. Season with salt and pepper and add two tablespoons of water or broth to pan. Simmer until carrots are just tender and liquid is evaporated. Add a handful of fresh thyme leaves and toss.

Here are some important guidelines:

If your recipe calls for a teaspoon of dried herbs, you can safely substitute 3 teaspoons, or about a tablespoon, of fresh chopped herbs. Taste and add more herbs, as desired.

Rinse fresh herbs and pat them dry with a paper towel. Chop them just before using.

To store fresh herbs, wrap stems only in a damp paper towel, set the wrapped herbs in a zip-lock plastic bag, and seal. Place the bags near the top of your refrigerator. The cooler air at the bottom of your refrigerator will hasten their demise, darkening them and making them limp.

Hardier herbs like basil and sage can be placed in a cup of water, with only the stems immersed, and kept at room temperature for a few days.

When chopping fresh herbs, use a very sharp knife or a kitchen shears. If neither is available, chop the herbs coarser. Or stack larger leaves like basil, one on top of the other. Roll the stack and cut the leaves into thin slices. This will produce ribbons, referred to as “chiffonade.” Finely chopping herbs with a dull knife will bruise them and make them shed their flavorful oils onto your cutting board rather than in your food.

For a mellower flavor, add herbs at the beginning or in the middle of the cooking process. For more assertive flavors, add herbs a few minutes before dish is finished cooking, toss them in just before serving, or scatter chopped herbs on the top of a dish before serving.

To flavor a pot of soup with fresh herbs, for example, wrap the herbs in a piece of cheesecloth (available at the grocery store), tie with some kitchen string, and immerse in the soup while cooking. Before serving, remove the herb packet. This will provide flavor without the presence of limp leaves.

Tie the softer stems of fresh herbs together in a bundle and immerse them in soups, stews, or chili for added flavor. Remove herb bundle before serving.

Wrap woodier herb stems like rosemary in heavy-duty foil, puncture packet, and place packet directly on charcoal or gas grill briquettes for added flavor. Also, they can double as skewers for grilling vegetables, chicken, or beef.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of three.  A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks.