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A sprinkling of herbs peps up plain, simple foods


Let's hear a big hurrah for herbs. This is the time of the year when lucky home gardeners are still picking from luxuriant bushes. Even apartment dwellers with pots on the windowsill are snipping away at the aromatic greens and adding an extra snap to their cooking.

Herbs are at their flavorful peak when fresh. All the culinary impact of herbs is stored in the oils that are released when crushed or cooked. There are a few exceptions, like bay leaves and oregano, that get stronger when dried.

Now is the time to take full advantage of these marvelous greens, before autumn's chill assaults them.

If you want to follow the trendy crowd, make a selection of herb-infused vinegars. Just put two large sprigs of tarragon, chives or basil in a bottle of white wine vinegar. Put aside for two weeks, then splash onto steamed vegetables or add to sauces instead of cream or butter.

But the most fun in using herbs is to see how their fresh, lively flavor changes the characteristics of foods. Stir snipped chives, basil or tarragon into scrambled eggs, or sprinkle over the top of poached or fried eggs. Chives and dill added to yogurt or buttermilk make a snappy and low-calorie sauce for steamed potatoes. No wine sauce should be spooned onto meat, chicken or fish until it has had a good scattering of parsley, sage or rosemary.

To taste the full impact that a single herb can bring to a simple vegetable, try this easy-to-do and delicious pairing.

Steam-baked zucchini

Makes 8 servings.

8 medium or 16 small zucchini

2 cups fresh basil leaves

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

approximately 3/4 cup virgin olive oil

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut off root and stem ends, and place zucchini on large sheet of aluminum foil. Seal edges of foil to make an airtight package. Place foil package on baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, or until zucchini are soft.

Meanwhile, put basil leaves, garlic, salt and pepper into food processor or blender. Process in short bursts to chop leaves and reduce their volume. With motor running, slowly add oil in thin stream. Makes about 1 1/2 cups pesto. The sauce can be made in advance and refrigerated. Bring back to room temperature before serving. Serve steamed zucchini whole; each guest splits it in half lengthwise and garnishes with pesto.

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