By P. Allen Smith | Photography by Jane Colclasure, Mark Fonville and Karen Segrave
I was sitting in my kitchen earlier today putting together menus for the upcoming holidays. I try to create meals that combine some of my family’s classic traditional recipes – think Reverend Smith’s Holy Duck Gumbo and Aunt Jamie’s Cookies – along with a few new dishes that will hopefully dazzle the crowd.
One thing most of my holiday menus have in common is the use of fresh herbs. You can’t get around the enhanced flavor and improved presentation that you get if you have the opportunity to cook “fresh.”
You can usually find fresh herbs at the grocery store, but if you’re really lucky, you’ll have your own herb garden on a windowsill or bright corner of the kitchen. There’s something special about being able to say, “Thanks, I grew it myself.” (This is reminding me of an occasion when I served fresh lemon squares to friends and was able to say that, in addition to baking the dessert, I also “…grew the lemons myself.” A boast I was thrilled to make!)
There are several herbs I try to always keep on hand this time of year because so many recipes call for them, and not just main dishes, either, but also appetizers, desserts and even cocktails. In addition, herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage look good on the kitchen counter or dinner table as part of a bouquet.
Here are a few of my favorites, along with some ideas about how you might work them into your dinner (and dessert) repertoire.
Rosemary – This is an exceptionally versatile herb that you can use to season fruit salad, lamb, chicken, pork, and stews, soups and sauces. Because it has such a strong flavor, most cooks will add it to dishes sparingly, then build up the taste as needed. I have a favorite Rosemary Cookie recipe that uses a butter or sugar cookie recipe as its base, combined with two small-but-mighty teaspoons of chopped fresh rosemary. Serve them to guests with some hot tea or coffee and be a hero.
Thyme – As popular in the kitchen as a microwave oven, fresh thyme can enhance nearly all meats and vegetables. It’s a true utility player. You can sauté some cubed butternut squash in a pan with some butter and chopped thyme – the clean simplicity of this dish is elegant and filling, as well.
Parsley – I hardly need to say it, but parsley is the cornerstone of the herbal kitchen. Flat-leaf (or Italian) parsley is what you’ll find listed in most recipes as an ingredient, with its curly-leafed sibling most often playing the role of a garnish. But this herb can be so much more than just a dash of color. Its light, fresh peppery and anise flavor complements most dishes. I recommend chopping up a cup or two and adding it to any salad for a boost of vitamin A and folic acid.
Sage – This herb is the one most often associated with the holidays because its a matchmaker’s dream with turkey and dressing. In addition, it works well with roasts, stews, and many meat and dairy dishes. It can also be a surprise ingredient in a before- or after-dinner cocktail, like the delightfully named Sage Bee’s Knees Cocktail, which includes honey, gin, freshly squeezed lemon juice and fresh sage leaves. Even though I like sage, I’d try that cocktail based on the name alone.
Just thinking about some of these ingredients has inspired me to up my game in the kitchen this holiday season. Wouldn’t it be fun to have an herb-inspired meal where every course, including cocktails, features dishes with fresh herbs? I’m going to add that idea to my entertaining list, and I hope you do, too.