Fragrant herbs for every culinary occasion

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Each spring brings the chorus of birds, the buzz of bees and the soft flush of new green leaves in a garden of herbs -- signals that another growing season has arrived. The appearance of perennial herbs and the tender shoots of just-planted herb seedlings hold the promise of fragrance and flavor for countless dishes.

An herb garden is generous beyond the heat of summer. Chervil is in its prime in the cooler months. Dill seeds, sown in spring, can also be planted in late summer for a new crop in the fall. Even in winter, when herbs are at rest, their bright flavors are preserved in oils, jams and dried herbal blends.

Herb gardening is linked to a culinary history rich in both legend ++ and practicality. Many of the herbs grown in contemporary gardens have been planted since ancient times and are being used today to flavor foods in much the same manner that they were used in the past.

Even if you do not have a garden plot, you can still have the pleasure of cooking with herbs. A windowsill garden for apartment dwellers, a community garden on the roof or in a nearby empty lot, a container herb garden on the patio or a few herbs tucked in among the foundation plantings are all possible in the city or suburbs.

The key to cooking with herbs is to infuse foods with just a suspicion of herbal flavor, to give foods complexity and body but not to dominate them. A cook puts his or her own stamp on a dish by selecting the best herb or herbs to complement its main element.

These recipes call for certain herbs that are our personal choices, but our suggestions are just that. There is room to explore when cooking with herbs, so if you become partial to certain herbs or are curious about others, by all means substitute, mix, match and experiment.

Carrot Soup With Onion and Dill Cream

The bright sweet flavors of the carrot soup contrast beautifully with the dusky flavors of the onion and dill cream.

Makes 4 servings

1 cup half-and-half

2 (3-inch) sprigs fresh dill

2 (3-inch) sprigs fresh Italian parsley

4 cups coarsely chopped carrots

2 cups finely chopped yellow onions

2 tablespoons oil

1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped

2 to 2 1/2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade or canned low-sodium broth

salt, freshly ground black pepper

sprigs of fresh dill or Italian parsley, for garnish

Heat 3/4 cup half-and-half in small saucepan until small bubbles form along edge of pan. Add dill and parsley sprigs and immediately remove from heat. Set aside to steep about 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

Place carrots on steamer rack over gently boiling water. Cover and steam until tender, 15 minutes. Set aside.

Saute onions and oil in small skillet over medium-low heat until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and saute 1 minute longer. Transfer mixture to food processor or to blender and puree until smooth. Remove 1/2 cup onion puree and set aside.

Add steamed carrots to onions remaining in food processor and puree until smooth. Scrape mixture into medium saucepan. Stir in 2 cups chicken stock. Simmer over medium heat 1 minute. (Soup may be prepared up to this point and then covered and refrigerated up to 1 day before continuing.)

Stir in remaining 1/4 cup half-and-half. Heat to serving temperature. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If soup is too thick, add as much of remaining 1/2 cup chicken stock as necessary to achieve correct consistency. Keep warm but do not allow to boil or soup may curdle.

Strain reserved dill and parsley cream into small saucepan and discard herb sprigs. Place over low heat and stir in reserved 1/2 cup onion puree. Heat to serving temperature, but do not allow to boil or it may curdle.

To serve, divide soup evenly among 4 individual shallow soup bowls. Carefully ladle 1/4 cup onion-cream mixture into center of each dish. Garnish with dill sprig in center of onion-cream mixture. Serve immediately.

Rosemary Focaccia

Here, rosemary is used to flavor a traditional Italian flatbread, but other herbs, both fresh and dried, can be used, including sweet basil, tarragon, oregano, chives and thyme. If you like, top the oil-brushed bread

with olives, garlic slices and/or pieces of oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes before it goes in the oven.

Makes 2 (9- or 10-inch) rounds.

1/4 cup lukewarm water

1 package (1 tablespoon) active dry yeast

1 1/2 cups cool water

2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus salt for sprinkling on top

2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

4 to 4 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Pour lukewarm water into bowl of heavy-duty stationary mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Sprinkle yeast over lukewarm water and stir until dissolved. Let stand until creamy, about 5 minutes. Add cool water, 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, rosemary and 3 cups flour. Beat until flour is absorbed, about 2 minutes.

Replace paddle with dough hook. With mixer set on low speed, knead in remaining 1 to 1 1/4 cups flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, adding only as much flour as needed to form workable dough. Knead 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Gather dough into a ball.

Alternatively, to make dough by hand, dissolve yeast in lukewarm water in large mixing bowl. Then, using wooden spoon, beat in 3 cups flour, oil, salt and rosemary until dough pulls away from sides of bowl. Turn out dough onto lightly floured board and knead 20 minutes, working in enough of remaining 1 to 1 1/4 cups flour to make dough elastic and not sticky. Gather into a ball.

Place dough in oiled bowl and turn dough to coat with oil on all sides. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or clean dish towel and set in warm place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.

Punch down dough and turn out onto lightly floured board. Knead briefly, then divide in half. Oil 2 (9-or 10-inch) pie pans. Using floured rolling pin, roll out each dough half into 9- or 10-inch round. Place each in prepared pan. Cover with clean towels and let rise 30 minutes. Using fingertips, make a few indentations 1/2 inch deep in surface of each round. Cover dough with lightly dampened kitchen towels and let rise until doubled in bulk, 2 hours.

Thirty minutes before dough has risen fully, heat oven to 400 degrees. Just before baking, brush surface of rounds with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt. Place breads in oven. For crispy crust, spray tops with water mister every 3 minutes during first 10 minutes of baking. Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Immediately invert breads onto cooling racks.

Salmon on the Rocks With Dill and Shallot Butter

Here, the heat from a bed of salt cooks the salmon gently and evenly, and the dill and shallot butter permeates the fish as it steams in its own juices.

Makes 4 servings

1 pound rock salt or kosher salt

1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 tablespoons finely minced shallots

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill

1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

dash cayenne pepper

sea salt

1/2 salmon fillet, center-to-tail cut with skin intact (about 2 pounds)

4 lemon wedges and several sprigs fresh dill or yellow dill flowers, for garnish

Place rock salt in large cast-iron skillet and heat, uncovered, over medium-high heat until salt feels hot to the touch, 35 minutes.

Meanwhile, make dill and shallot butter. Using wooden spoon, cream together butter, shallots and dill in medium bowl until well combined. Stir in lemon juice, cayenne and sea salt to taste.

Using sharp knife, lightly score skinned side of salmon on the diagonal. Cut salmon crosswise into 4 equal pieces. Dry top of each slice with paper towels, then spread with dill and shallot butter. Place salmon, skin side down, on bed of heated salt and cover with tight-fitting lid. If cast-iron skillet has pouring lip, plug it with piece of aluminum foil. Cook salmon over medium-high heat until salmon is opaque and slightly firm, 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove lid and, using wide spatula, carefully remove salmon to 4 warmed plates. Garnish each serving with lemon wedge and dill sprig. Serve immediately.

Rosalind Creasy and Carole Saville are authors of the newly released "Herbs: A Country Garden Cookbook" (Collins Publishers San Francisco).

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