going heavy on the herbs, with ali stafford
MAYBE YOU BROUGHT home herb seeds or plants from the garden center in spring, with visions of an invigorated cuisine dancing in your head. But now what? You’ve got mountains of some herbs, while others are bolting—going to flower or even seed before your eyes, even though some of the vegetables they were meant to invigorate aren’t ready yet. Uh-oh.
Alexandra Stafford, who creates AlexandraCooks.com and wrote the cookbook “Bread Toast Crumbs,” recently shared creative ideas for using herbs, with lots of recipe links of her own and from cookbooks she admires. I’ve added ideas for storing them for offseason use. We also fill you in on which ones it’s not too late to sow again right now, this summer (even up North where I garden), and at the bottom of the story: links to get you to another whole directory of herb recipes Ali has compiled to accompany this conversation, herb by herb.
Read along as you listen to the August 7, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below (or at this link). Enter to win a copy of Ali’s book “Bread Toast Crumbs” in the comment box at the very bottom of the page.
cooking with and preserving herbs: a q&a with alexandra stafford
Q. Are you up to your neck in herbs?
A. Not quite; I need your help.
Q. OK, so I’ll give you that if you give me a little advice on how to get more confident and use more fresh herbs.
We all use basil in pasta sauce and know you can put cilantro in salsa. But one observation I would have about average home cooks like myself compared to culinary professionals like yourself is that I don’t feel confident, especially about mixing herbs in a recipe, and often skip them or underdo it. If you were to roughly recall a week’s worth of recent meals, give us some idea of where herbs fit in.
A. This past week has been kind of rainy and cold up here, so I have been making a lot more soup than I usually do this time of year. And the local sweet corn has also arrived, so I have been cooking with a lot of corn.
A. I know, I love her vegetarian recipes, too. That one calls for a fair amount of cilantro [above, soup photo by Ali Stafford].
Another corn soup recipe that I have been really liking is from Samin Nosrat’s cookbook, “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” which has been getting a lot of attention. The soup itself is very simple—it’s corn, butter, onion. You make a stock using the stripped ears of corn. It tastes fine; it’s a little bit sweet, but when you swirl in this herbed salsa that she has you make, it just completely transforms. [Below, corn soup prep and herbed salsa with soup; photos by Ali Stafford.]
It becomes bright and fresh and the earthiness of the herbs and the lime just balance out the sweetness of the corn and the onions. I can’t imagine now making that soup without making this herbed salsa.
I’ve been making Melissa Clark’s corn pasta, in which you similarly strip the ears of corn and you make this sauce. It’s like a creamy sauce, but there is no cream in it; you just puree the kernels. You toss it with cooked pasta, and it’s delicious, but until you add that handful of basil at the end, it’s just missing something.
Before it got cold I was making chilled soup—a cucumber and green grape gazpacho that’s loaded with dill [photo by Ali Stafford at top of page]. Oh, and Greek salad—we’ve been making Greek salad also loaded with dill.
I said I wasn’t up to my eyeballs but I do subscribe to a CSA and we’ve been getting plenty of basil, and dill, and parsley and cilantro, so I’m always throwing in anything—salads, pastas…
Q. There are some cuisines and some restaurants that I go to, and herbs are a main part of the cuisine—not just a little part of something. They’re much more lavishly presented, like in little rice paper rolls with herbs and maybe glass noodles.
A. If you go to a Vietnamese restaurant, you get a plate and it’s loaded with mint and Thai basil and cilantro, and every roll you make you load it with these herbs, and it’s so fresh. And it would be nothing without those herbs.
Q. Your cookbook is “Bread Toast Crumbs,” and we can infer from that that bread is an important part of that—but it goes much further. You and I have done a whole show about it. Do you use herbs in any variation of your basic, easy and by the way very delicious peasant bread?
A. There are a couple of recipes in the book that call for herbs. There is a Rosemary Pine Nut Semolina Bread, and another version that has been on my blog for a long time, and it’s the same master recipe but you just add a couple of tablespoons of chopped thyme and divide the dough into muffin tins, so you get these beautiful little golden thyme dinner rolls. It’s a really simple thing you can do and it just transforms the bread, and gives it a new flavor.
Q. I have to confess I think butter is one of the four food groups [laughter]…
A. I love it too.
Q. …and I also love dipping good bread in olive oil, and then there are all kinds of soft cheeses, and we could invigorate those, too, couldn’t we?
A. Definitely. I love herbed ricotta, too. If you make homemade ricotta, it’s delicious on its own, but then is you add some thyme, chopped chives, parsley, dill—again, it just kind of transforms. [Photo of Endive and Fava Tartine with Herbed Ricotta from “Bread Toast Crumbs” by Eva Kolenko.]
Q. It makes the piece of bread more like a sandwich, a whole meal—it’s so flavorful.
OK, so let’s maybe go through some ideas herb by herb, I guess—you hinted at how you use dill, for instance. So for example: cilantro, you mentioned, and I suspect some people as you did that went, “Eeewww, cilantro!” I know that some people have a disposition where it’s a difficult taste for them and tastes soapy. But beyond that is it an herb that when used well can be fabulous, and when overdone it can be a real wrong number, even for those who don’t have that genetic issue.
A. People of course know you can throw it in tomato salsa, or really any kind of salsa, but it’s wonderful in bean salads, grain salads. I really like it—and this is from Tamar E. Adler, she gave a recipe in I think what’s called “The New Greenmarket Cookbook”—and it’s for sweet potatoes.
I had never given sweet potatoes this treatment, but she dresses them with lime and cilantro and chiles, and that totally made my appreciation for sweet potatoes grow. I find it to be such a great way to eat them, and then if you toss the sweet potatoes with beans, you kind of have a meal.
And that same sort of treatment I love to do with all the fall squashes. I love roasting ‘Delicata’ squash, and tossing that with cilantro and lime and chiles. And spaghetti squash—mashing it up with those same flavors. And a chickpea salad, I love dressing up with cilantro and lime [below, photo by Ali Stafford]. And if you don’t like cilantro, and have that reaction where it tastes soapy, parsley is a great substitute.
Q. I agree, and the thing about parsley, though all the green herbs are good for you, is it’s so good for you, so full of nutrition. And it’s easily available and pretty easy to grow—it’s not unusual or hard to find even in a supermarket. It’s everywhere.
A. And you get a big bundle of it, not a tiny clamshell box. [Laughter.]
Q. [Laughter.] The thing about cilantro—and I’ll interject a little horticulture—it doesn’t last in the garden. This is what we do with a lot of crops when we are beginning to garden: We think we planted in the spring, and we think we’re going to harvest and harvest and harvest. But cilantro wants to become coriander; it wants to flower and then set seed. It bolts, as we say, very fast—especially if it’s warm, in the summertime.
So the wisdom would be to make a small planting, maybe one foot-long row or 2-foot row at the most, like maybe even six plants—and plant a little amount every 10 days or two weeks. So by the time you’ve cut row Number 1 a couple of times, and have enjoyed it for a week or two, the next one’s coming along and there’s Number 3 after that and Number 4 after that.
Just a little bit, over and over and over again from spring till quite late in the summer, and you’ll have lots of nice fresh cilantro. You could let the last ones turn into coriander, and those fresh buds, before they are seeds are quite amazing [and you can even enjoy the edible flowers]. [Cilantro photo by Ali Stafford.]
A. This makes so much sense because I don’t know from how many people I have heard that they have never been able to grow cilantro. They do—and I’ve done the same thing—plant it once and think, “I’m done.” And then it doesn’t work and I get frustrated and I don’t think, “Oh, if I just replanted.” That’s great news.
Q. And it’s true with a lot of things: If you planted lettuce once, you’d have this bitter, nasty, white-sap-filled plant by about summertime. We wouldn’t expect our lettuce to keep providing after maybe two cuttings, but why should we expect our cilantro to?
They have been breeding to develop cilantro varieties that resist bolting a little longer, but it doesn’t mean super-long, so again I think a short row every two weeks is a good idea.
A. This is so encouraging.
Q. There’s hope, Ali, there is hope. [Laughter.]
A. All we grow are tomatoes, because if we try to do too many things we will just fail at all of them. But the tomatoes for us come so late, so I still have time to try and grow cilantro.
Q. It’s only three or fours weeks to harvest, to that fresh leafy stage, so if every 10 days you sow and little more, you have plenty of time for a couple of more sowings. So that’s the good news.
You mentioned this cookbook “Salt Fat Acid Heat.” I just wanted to double back. What else have you gotten out of there? It seems like something that cilantro should be in.
A. It’s a wonderful book; I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s very whimsical—there are no photographs; it’s all illustrated. The illustrations are unbelievable.
You can tell as soon as you open it that she is just a teacher—she wants to teach people technique, and method, so that theoretically you don’t actually need recipes. But she then provides a number of recipes in the back. The sauce chapter I think is really interesting, and there are a lot of sauces that call for herbs that I haven’t explored enough—but what am I saying? I made her cucumber salad, loaded with cilantro.
Q. Well that’s something that’s definitely in season—both cilantro and cucumbers. Good. [Photo of the Vietnamese-style salad by Ali Stafford, below.]
A. It’s delicious. It’s peanuts, and jalapenos, and lime, and it’s so fresh. We took it on a picnic recently. I’ve made that, and the other recipe I have flagged to make next is a carrot salad, because we get a lot of carrots in our CSA. It’s also loaded with herbs, and I think that one maybe has parsley. A lot of great recipes.
Q. We were just talking about cilantro and I was saying plant it, plant it, plant it over and over like you would your lettuce. You’ve mentioned basil a couple of times, and basil is one that can become almost a big, shrubby thing and you can keep cutting and cutting from it, but I think that’s another one where you can plant fresh basil—sow new seeds—a couple of times, and have fresher, more tender young leaves, and have an enduring supply.
You mentioned your tomatoes, and I don’t know if your basil and your tomatoes are at the same life phase. Do they look like they will match up at harvest time? Sometimes my basil looks like hell when the tomatoes are coming in.
A. I would love it to be tender and fresh, and just sprinkle it over the tomatoes and not even have to chop it. I love this idea of planting in stages.
Q. Have you been picking from your basil plants, and using some of it? What do you do?
A. I have been. Typically in the first part of the CSA, if you subscribe, you get all the lettuces, and I’ve just been throwing the basil in salads—either coarsely chopping them or tearing them, and throwing them into green salads, and it’s delicious. Or making a pesto, or throwing it into a pesto salad. But it would be great to have some fresh.
Q. Ideally here in the North I would have already sown some later basil seeds in a cellpack or a flat. Not direct sown in the hot, dry soil outside—though that would work, too, as long as you kept them watered while they were germinating. I would have done it a couple of weeks ago, ideally [end of June or mid-July], but I could do it now, too—but I won’t get a super-tall basil plant [by frost time], so I might not pick the huge basil varieties that get to the largest plant and takes the most days to do that.
I might pick one of the ones with the smaller leaves, which they sometimes call Greek basil, or bush basil. I think those can be as short as 55 days to harvest from seed, so that’s a lot shorter—like 15 days or so, two weeks shorter—than the big, statuesque ones. And that’s a good tip with other things, too, to look for varieties that are a slightly shorter time to harvest as we get later in the season.
But I’m almost tempted to go home after talking to you and try it—to put some basil seeds in a cellpack and see what happens. I wouldn’t mind having a lot of tender young leaves, even if I didn’t get the full growth of the plant and it didn’t go to flower. And also, it’s not a bad thing right now in midseason if you have a big basil plant that’s getting woody, maybe cut it back by a third—don’t let it go to flower, but give it a haircut and get a flush of more growth. Reinvigorate it.
A. This just speaks to how bad we are as gardeners, but we get all of our tomatoes at the very end of October. [Laughter.]
Q. No, I get it.
A. If I were to plant now, the basil would be tender and perfect for those tomatoes.
Q. I think I’d do it in a cellpack, and transplant them when they were a few inches tall.
I’m crazy about dill, as I said before and you mentioned it, and that’s another one we can plant even quite late. It’s maybe 45ish days to the leafy stage; if you wanted big heads of seeds to pickle with, that’s later, like maybe three months or 90-95 days. But the ‘Fernleaf’ types or ‘Greensleeves’ is another variety—those are just bred for their leafiness, so in a month and a half you’re going to get more, so you can keep having dill dill dill if your other plants are starting to be too big and sparse.
That’s something you mentioned; I love it in bean salads, in dinner salads.
A. And I was just thinking about that my Mom makes this potato and cabbage soup, and I wrote about it on the blog many years ago. It’s one of my favorites, and you can go as heavy as you like with the dill. I love that. It’s more for fall and late winter, but if I were to plant now…
Q. Keep the dill coming. And what about things like making tabbouleh and grain salads—it’s not technically a grain salad [if you make it with cous cous instead of bulgur], but…?
A. Yes. I love grain salads. They keep well in the fridge, and they’re so healthy. My Mom is Greek…
A. She was born here, but she is 100 percent Greek, and she made tabbouleh for us growing up all the time, just loaded with cherry tomatoes and cucumber and parsley. I don’t think she maybe went as heavy—I have the “Zahav” cookbook out from the library recently and I was reading about his tabbouleh salad, which I think is 2 cups of parsley.
Q. Oh my goodness.
A. So it’s a ton of parsley, but it’s delicious, and I had made kind of a variation of his tabbouleh salad in the fall with pomegranate seeds and apples and walnuts. You can kind of change up what you add, but still load it with herbs. [Ali’s photos of her regular tabbouleh, and the fall variation, above left to right.]
Q. I promised I’d give some tricks for preserving the herb bounty, because sometimes it comes at a time when you’re not using all of it, and just too much comes.
A lot of the ones we’ve been talking about you can make pesto cubes of. I don’t mean with Parmesan cheese and walnuts or pine nuts, but with the herb plus just enough water—or my preference would be just enough oil to puree them in your food processor or blender, and with that thick slurry, put it in ice cube trays.
I have special ice cube trays that I just use for this, because they can get a little herby. [Laughter.]
Q. Or you can put garlic in with the oil as well if you want. You can do that with dill, parsley, basil, you could have done it with garlic scapes, you can do it with rosemary, sage…It’s almost like having a spice cabinet in the freezer, as long as you label them, since all of the green cubes look exactly the same—which is a disaster.
Q. You label them and you have a bag of sage cubes, or parsley cubes or whatever, and if you are making a soup or a stew, instead of 2 teaspoons of the dried herb, which are not as pungent or as bright green in color, these are fabulous, right? So that’s one way.
A. I love that idea.
Q. And some, like the dill, I just sort of take tons and tons of the foliage and press it down into a plastic freezer bag, and press it down into a flat mat or thin brick, kind of, and press out all the air. And then when I need dill in the winter I take that thin brick out of there and chop some on my chopping board and put the rest back in the bag.
I do the same with parsley—I make what I call parsley rolls, stuffing the leaflets down into the bottom of a freezer bag until it’s about the size of a quarter or half-dollar in diameter. I roll it really tight in the bag and then put rubber bands around it, and then I just chop off a medallion or 10 medallions of parsley as needed.
Before we run out of time: sauces, like with yogurt. What are some of the things I can put in yogurt? I always mean to do that—speaking of Deborah Madison, who does that a lot. What are some good ideas?
A. Again: My family’s Greek, so my mother was always making tzatiki for us. I love that with dill, but you could use parsley, you could use basil if you wanted to. Mint is of course classic. And you can add cucumber—I think a lot of people think tzatiki has to have cucumber, but it doesn’t traditionally. If you like the texture, you can add cucumber.
more ideas with herbs
- Ali Stafford compiled an herb-by-herb collection of her recipes (plus the Vietnamese cucumber salad one) to accompany this interview
- Ali’s bread baking 101 (to which you can then add herbs!) but be forewarned: her peasant bread is outrageous, and outrageously easy (read: addictive)
- My tips for freezing herbs
- How I even freeze garlic for use all the way through next spring and summer, when the clove would otherwise sprout in storage
enter to win ‘bread toast crumbs’
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Where do herbs figure into your garden or cuisine? Any hints or favorites to share?
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the August 7, 2017 show right here.You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).