By Camille Cody
This time of year it may seem that all our local produce, while bountiful and nutritious, can get a little, well . . . boring. Our palettes crave freshly dug beets, potatoes and carrots and just-picked lettuce leaves, juicy tomatoes and tender eggplant during the winter months, but inevitably after so many (albeit short) weeks of vegetables, we may lose inspiration for finding a variety of ways to prepare them.
Are your taste buds starting to grow dull? Excite them again with the power of herbs!
Herbs and spices are what define ethnic cuisines, add health-boosting properties to our foods and invigorate our senses in the cooking process. What would enchiladas be without cumin and oregano? What would dolmas be without garlic and mint? What would rye bread be without caraway?
Though many spices require tropical climates to grow, many herb mixtures can be concocted right here on the peninsula, from both foraging and farming alike.
The French flavor combinations, Fines Herbes and Bouquet Garnis are two such blends.
Fines Herbes takes herbs in their fresh form and tosses them into a dish at the last minute so that just a hint of their essential oils are released in the heat of cooking.
Take any combination of these herbs, finely chop them with a sharp knife and sprinkle atop a side dish of veggies, or even sprinkle on a fresh salad to perk up the senses. Think zucchini, peppers, or corn just off the grill; freshly steamed or sauteed broccoli, carrots, radishes or green beans; fresh out of the oven potatoes, beets or turnips. The key with fines herbes is delicate freshness. You would not want to make this blend ahead of time — chop the mixture fresh at each meal. One exception is that you can flavor vinegar by letting the cut fresh herbs steep at room temperature in red wine vinegar for a couple days before straining.
Bouquet Garnis is the layered and hot-steeped counterpart to the fresh Fines Herbes. Often dried (but just as good fresh), bouquet garnis is used to flavor soups, stews and sauces, often thrown in at the beginning of the cooking process and left to steep anywhere from a few hours to overnight.
Either bundle together and tie the herbs still on their stems (traditionally tied with leek leaves) or roughly chop herbs and place in a muslin or cheesecloth bag, tied off coffee filter, or a mesh tea ball. Toss into the crock pot when making vegetable stock, chicken soup or marinara, or infuse a bottle of olive oil by steeping up to 1 month. The mixture is removed before serving, but after imparting its complex balance of savory and earthy flavors to your bowl. Bouquet Garnis can be made with dried herbs ahead of time, stored in cheesecloth or muslin and wrapped in a plastic baggie to preserve flavor and essence.