Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Legal herbs, and a great big pile of vegetables

I’ve been thinking a lot about herbs lately. The legal kind, mind you; leave it to me to daydream about thyme and basil instead of the illicit, much more devious derivative of hemp.

Needless to say, when you live in an apartment, the closest thing you can get to growing your own produce in time for summer is a nice little indoor herb garden. I think I might start my own, and soon, before it becomes too late. Summer produce can hold its own all season long, but herbs always just make everything a little brighter – they function like little taste boosters, the well-meaning accomplices in whatever you happen to be cooking up.

Under some great spell of luck, the owners of the restaurant where I work took a chance on me and my very green culinary aptitude last summer, when I was allowed to work in the kitchen. Among close calls with open ovens, too many band-aids and burned fingers to count, and cheesecake recipes done four times over, there was also the invaluable experience of getting to know the garden that we harvested almost all of our produce from. I especially enjoyed this; not only because it proved a much less dangerous task than honing my knife skills on buckets of onions, but because I became familiar with a world of new vegetables, flowers, and of course, herbs.

After a few weeks of being sent out back with little direction other than “grab a few golden beets” or “we need kohlrabi,” I gradually started becoming efficient. I would no longer bring back weeds when asked for dill or stand in the middle of two rows in the garden, desperately staring, trying to will any and all French breakfast radishes to appear before me. The herbs in the greenhouse, as you can probably imagine, proved to be the most deceiving of all: the scheming plants all looked identical to my untrained eye, all just a general sweep of little green sprouts.

Things improved drastically when I started taste testing. I quickly recognized the familiar flavors like basil, dill, and parsley, and got to know some herbs that strayed from the kitchen classics. One such herb, that I have since found to be quite underrated, is tarragon. It smells only slightly of licorice, and has a flavor that is both bit bitter and earthy all at once; it also happens to work quite will with mushrooms, which is exactly what I decided to do – since I promised you a great bit pile of vegetables to brighten things up around here.

I based my dish loosely on Epicurious’ “Asparagus with Morels and Tarragon,” but I found myself missing quite a few ingredients (and the thick wallet to buy morels), so what resulted is more of a suggested ingredients list:

As much asparagus as you can possibly eat (white or green, or both)

Mushrooms (I would recommend using varieties with slightly more flavor, like Shitake and Porcini, but the plain old button mushrooms would certainly do the trick)

Shallots, minced

Olive Oil


Fresh Lemon Juice

Fleur de Sel and Cracked Black Pepper

I started by trimming the asparagus and cutting it into 2-inch sections, and then I blanched them in a great big pot of boiling salted water. (The more salt, the better – it should smell like the ocean, but not quite as nostalgic.) From there, all that is required is sautéing the shallots in oil until translucent, tossing in your mushrooms, and at the last minute, adding your asparagus and seasoning. I bet this would be even more lovely finished with a touch of cream, or perhaps a poached egg on top.

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