Cooking with fresh herbs brings fragrance and color to the table

One of the most delightful things about learning to cook is learning how herbs, which are virtually calorie free, can enhance even the simplest basic main ingredients, helping us achieve ever more kudos from the dear ones in our lives whose lot it is to consume what we've created in the kitchen.

Our store of dried herbs (and we all have them in the pantry) are fine, as long as the bottle they're in isn't decades old. And, indeed, a teaspoon of relatively new dried herbs can do the job of a tablespoon of minced fresh herbs. But when you mince fresh herbs, you're rewarded with those wonderful fragrances and fresh colors that add so much to whatever goodie you're whipping up for dinner.

Problem with fresh herbs is, obviously, their shelf life. And they're expensive, especially if you shell out $2 or $3 and only need a teaspoon or two for the dish you're preparing. Ergo, our exercise du jour is to suggest ways in which you can use up all the goodness of the bunch of whatever you've just bought.

One way, by the way, is to heat peanut oil to about 375 degrees in a wide saucepan. Trim the stems from fresh thyme or oregano or even basil. When whatever you're going to garnish (main dish salad, pan-fried fish, even French fried potatoes) is done, drop the herbs into the hot oil and flash fry them for about 45 seconds, until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon, shake off any excess oil and garnish whatever. Wonderful. The herbal fragrance alone enhances whatever you've fixed about a hundred-fold.

Of course, this is a rather labor-intensive lily gilder that even most restaurants don't do anymore. So save this step for a special dinner you're hosting.

Meanwhile, some suggestions for getting the most out of the fresh herbs you spend big money for.

Fresh herb salad

As always, we begin with the quasi-familiar. You can add warm grilled chicken or steak or fish (e.g., salmon) for a main dish offering.

About 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

About 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided

Freshly ground pepper and sea salt

2 small heads tender lettuce, like Boston, red- or green-leaf (or combination), separated into leaves, rinsed, patted dry

1 small head radicchio, cut into shreds

1 package (1-ounce) each, fresh herbs, e.g. flat-leaf parsley, chervil, tarragon or dill, rinsed, patted dry

12 to 18 slices soft, fragrant cheese, e.g. brie (Saga is yummy) or Camembert

Sliced baguette, for serving

In a large bowl, combine 4 tablespoons of the olive oil with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, freshly ground pepper and a smidge of freshly ground sea salt. Add lettuce and radicchio and toss to lightly coat with dressing. Arrange on 6 chilled salad plates.

In a bowl, toss together the herbs with 2 more tablespoons oil and 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice, plus some freshly ground pepper. Taste, adding more oil or lemon juice if desired. Arrange herbs atop lettuce in salad plates. Arrange 2 or 3 slices cheese and 2 slices fresh French baguette on the side of each plate. Top with grilled meat or fish if desired. Makes 6 servings.

Dill dip

You can make this creamy concoction to serve with crudites and/or crackers. If there's any left over, try it on freshly grilled (or even steamed) fish. Or vice- versa.

1 (8-ounce) package light cream cheese

1 (8-ounce) container reduced-fat sour cream

2 tablespoons finely chopped chives

2 tablespoons snipped fresh dill

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

Milk, if needed

Fresh dill sprigs, garnish

In a medium bowl, with mixer on low speed, beat cream cheese, sour cream, chives, dill, pepper and garlic powder until fluffy. If thicker than you desire, add some milk (a little at a time) to achieve desired consistency. Cover and chill for several hours. Makes about 2 cups.

Tenderloin salad

We give this main dish offering an Asian treatment. And because the bed on which the steak is presented is mostly herbs, we feel a sense of accomplishment vis-a-vis using our produce purchases to their fullest, yummiest extent.

Some Indian bread, e.g. naan, goes well with the salad.

1 1/2 pounds beef tenderloin tips, trimmed

4 tablespoons lime juice

3 tablespoons fish sauce (nam pla)

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon each, freshly ground black pepper and dried hot red pepper flakes

8 cups thinly sliced romaine lettuce

1 1/4 cups thinly sliced red, orange or yellow bell pepper

1 1/4 cups thinly sliced cucumber

1 cup thinly sliced red onion

1/3 cup coarsely chopped scallions

1 large jalapeno pepper, seeded, pith removed, minced

1 1/4 cups tender cilantro sprigs

1 cup chopped fresh mint

Prepare grill. Brush steaks lightly with vegetable oil. Grill to desired doneness, about 5 minutes per side for medium-rare. Remove from grill to a cutting board. Let stand 10 minutes, then cut diagonally across the grain into thin slices. Cover loosely with foil to keep warm-ish.

In a large bowl, combine lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, black pepper and hot red pepper. Add lettuce, bell pepper, cucumber, red onion, scallions and jalapeno pepper and toss gently. Taste for salt and pepper. Add cilantro and mint. Add beef and toss once more. Divide among 6 chilled salad plates. Makes 6 servings.

Linguine with pesto

Who doesn't love basil? The slight licorice flavor in its lovely green scented leaves. Here we combine this herb garden favorite with pecans, instead of the traditional pine nuts. And for a hint of spice, we add peppery arugula.

Don't forget the Italian bread. And add a side of fresh mozzarella slices interspersed with fresh tomato slices and drizzled with balsamic vinegar.

2 cups basil leaves

2 cups arugula leaves

1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves

1/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup reduced fat/sodium chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 pound hot, cooked (al dente) linguine, drained, some of the cooking liquid reserved

In a food processor, combine basil, arugula, parsley, pecans, olive oil and garlic and pulse-process to a smooth paste. Add grated Parmesan, chicken broth, salt and pepper. Pulse just to combine. Place herb mixture in a large bowl, and add hot pasta. Toss well. If herb mixture seems too thick, add some of the reserved cooking liquid, then toss again. Makes 6 servings.

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