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Chefs Tap Fresh Herbs to Enhance Dishes

Sage advice from the pros: It’s thyme to make the most of flavors and aromas from the garden.

It’s a typical night at in Troy and Chef Ed Takacs is wowing diners. In his arsenal of special ingredients are a few that stand out like paprika on mashed potatoes: fresh herbs.

“Let’s say I’m making a pasta dish,” he said. “Right before serving it, I’ll chiffonade (slice thin) some basil and place it right on top of the hot pasta. It then releases an herb scent throughout the whole restaurant. People go nuts. The pores of the basil open and, it’s just great.”   

Like many great chefs and home cooks, the herb-happy Takacs, who lives in Attica near Lapeer, knows that herbs can make all the difference in whether a dish is so-so or whoa.

So, he grows his own herbs at home.

“What self-respecting chef wouldn’t have fresh herbs growing at home?” he asked with a laugh. Takacs grows four types of basil, mint, oregano, cilantro, sorrel, rosemary and thyme.

“Mint is great for drinks,” Takacs said, including the restaurant’s new “spa-tinis.” One in particular, the “Lean and Green,” features muddled mint leaves. “And I like to use real mint for a mint cheese cake that I make at home,” he said.

Takacs suggests that if a recipe calls for, say, a tablespoon of mint extract, muddle up five mint leaves in a little water until you get a tablespoon.

“Fresh is always better,” he says.

And don’t forget the garnish. Takacs is likely to top the cake with a couple of verdant, green mint leaves. “Food should look as good as it tastes.”

Chef Lynn Miller of Bloomfield Hills agrees.

Miller, who runs a cooking school called Curious Cooks and is the author of Flavor Secrets: Back to the Basics, grows oregano, basil, chives, pineapple sage and thyme at her home.

“I like pineapple sage for its pretty mottled leaf, which is green and yellow,” she said. “I use it for plate garnish.”

Miller believes that food presentation is important, even if you’re serving it to your own kids.

“Herbs are great for garnish as well as for flavoring,” she said. “It makes people feel special when you take the time to garnish, and really, it’s not a lot of effort, but looks like it is.” 

When the growing season is past, Miller buys many fresh herbs at Plum Market in Bloomfield Township and West Bloomfield and market in Troy.

Mix with flowers

Anne Reeves of Troy also appreciates herbs.

“I love to grow and use herbs,” said Reeves, a veritable Martha Stewart who’s passionate about great food, decorative living and nature’s bounty. She owns Ana Designs and is the author of Moments of Delight, a book brimming with photos, design tips, and her insights on beauty. She recently launched her new book, PARIS: Delight in the City of Light. 

This year I planted different varieties of basil (classic, cinnamon, lemon) in one pot and rosemary, pineapple sage, orange mint and chocolate mint in another,” she said. Reeves likes to use herbs in floral arrangements.  

“Like salt in cooking, herbs enhance the scent of the flowers and, in addition to their beautiful green leaves, bring an added element to a bouquet,” she said. “Mint enhances the scent of rose. And I love using pineapple sage with yellow roses because the scent of pineapple reinforces the color yellow, as pineapples are yellow.”      

As for cooking, Reeves uses basil in pasta sauces, lavender or mint in lemonade.

"Herbs are definitely part of my daily life,” she said. 

They play an important role in Rachel Zimmerman Schechter’s kitchen, too.

“There’s nothing like fresh basil in a frittata or a pasta with marinara sauce,” says Schechter, a mother of three and graphic-design specialist who lives in Huntington Woods. “Or I’ll chop sage and add it to olive oil with salt and pepper and mix with pasta. And I also love to throw fresh dill in my salads.”

Freeze for year-long enjoyment

Wendy Rose Bice of Bloomfield Hills likes to enjoy her in-ground herb gardens’ flavors throughout the year.

“I make pesto every summer from my basil plants and then freeze it and enjoy it throughout the year,” says Bice, associate director of the West Bloomfield-based. She typically uses the sauce for pasta.

Bice grows sage and thyme. 

“I’ll use sage in a stock," she said. "I used to freeze sage in the summer and use it during other parts of the year.”

Bice is crazy about mixing thyme with eggs and local smoked fish. If she’s Up North at her cottage, she buys her fish at Carlson’s in Leland.

“My favorite thing to do with fresh thyme is to use it with some shallots and fresh fish in scrambled eggs or an omelet,” she said.

Rick Carmody, owner of Au Courant Interior Design in Ferndale, takes his penchant for great design into the kitchen, using herbs like adornments, but also enjoying their flavors.

"I buy fresh herbs all year long — more so in the summer as they are readily available and less expensive," said Carmody. "How can you not add basil, rosemary or oregano to any food? Now that tomatoes are coming into season, don’t we love gazpacho?"

Eat your vegetables

If you’re not confident about cooking with fresh herbs, you may consider a cooking class with folks such as Chef Lynn Miller (Curious Cooks). Or, mark your calendar for Aug. 16. That's when Chef Dawn Bause, who travels the world for inspiration on cooking with herbs, will present her We're Talking Gourmet Veggie Dishes class at in Birmingham.

Carrots with shallots, sage and thyme; white beans with roasted tomatoes and fresh basil; and basil and broccoli rabe with sweet Italian sausage star on the class' line-up.

“And you'll finish the evening with a sweet treat that features herbs, ” said the owner of Cooking with Dawn

She'll also share some herbal culinary surprises she's discovered on her European cooking tours.

"In Italy, they deep-fry sage leaves in olive oil and eat them as an appetizer,” said Bause. “They’re amazing.”  

More herb tips, recipes from the pros

  • Put fresh herbs into dishes like soup, stew or stock toward the end of cooking time, said Chef Ed Takacs. “The flavor will be more predominant that way. You don’t want to cook fresh herbs too long.” If using dried herbs, you can throw them in at the beginning, he added.  
  • Consider fresh thyme and oregano (and a little salt and pepper) when making baked white fish, said Chef Takacs. “Mix herbs right in with the bread crumbs (or Panko, a coarser, Japanese-style bread crumb).
  • “Pesto has lots of uses — a cracker dip, garnish, a pasta or fish sauce — and it keeps for weeks in the refrigerator," said Chef Lynn Miller. Just be sure to keep it covered with oil so the basil doesn’t turn brown. When you are ready to use it, spoon it out from under the oil or pour off the oil. 

Chef Lynn Miller’s pesto

  • Basil leaves (8 to 10 large stems)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
  • ¼ cup pine nuts
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ teaspoon mixed pepper
  • 3 to 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Fill food processor (equipped with the knife blade) with all ingredients except the olive oil. Pulse until all ingredients are chopped. With the machine running, add the olive oil a tiny amount at a time until the pesto is the consistency of a thick sauce. Store in the refrigerator.

Chef Dawn Bause’s Italian orzo salad

  • 1 (1-lb.) package orzo pasta
  • Salt
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 6 ounces feta cheese, roughly crumbled
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata olives pitted, halved
  • 4 ounces fresh baby spinach
  • 1/4 cup chopped red onion
  • 1 (13.75-oz.) can quartered artichoke hearts, roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon fresh chopped basil
  • 1 teaspoon fresh chopped tarragon
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add salt, then add the orzo pasta. Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and rinse under cold water. Take half of the spinach and purée it in a food processor or blender, adding one tablespoon of the olive oil. Roughly chop the other half of the spinach. In a large bowl, mix the spinach purée with the cooked orzo until the pasta is well coated with the purée. Then gently mix in the chopped spinach, artichokes, red onion, feta cheese, pine nuts and olives.

In a separate small mixing bowl, combine the balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, mustard, basil and tarragon. Slowly whisk in the remaining olive oil until the dressing combines and thickens. Pour dressing over pasta salad and gently mix in until well incorporated.

Refrigerate and allow to marinate for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Makes eight servings.

Libby Turpin August 01, 2011 at 03:01 AM
I just heard about infusing olive oil with lavender, then using it to cook with filets. It sounds yummy. I would have never thought to use it, but it makes sense to use such a light but potent herb with a heavy meat.

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