Now is the time for all good cooks to plan dishes using the bounty of their herb gardens. For although today's supermarkets sell fresh herbs in packages, an herb's flavor is at its peak right after picking.
Once the parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme get started, they grow as abundantly as zucchini. So the challenge is figuring out how to turn out imaginative, herb-flavored dishes every day of the growing season.
Since French chefs really know their way around an herb garden, one good place to look is in "Recipes From a French Herb Garden" (Simon and Schuster, 1989) by Geraldene Holt. The book is filled with suggestions for using fresh herbs to enhance the flavor of foods.
Cook meat with a classic bouquet garni of parsley, thyme and bay leaf. Or try a parsley, chives, thyme and celery combo with poultry; a parsley, bay leaf and basil trio with tomatoes; or a parsley, bay, thyme and orange zest grouping with pork.
Give grilled meats and fish, bread, potatoes and steamed vegetables a flavor boost with herb butters, made by simply creaming butter with lemon juice and chopped herbs such as parsley, garlic, shallots, chives or tarragon.
Use herb vinegar and herb oil in salad dressings. For vinegar, combine about four sprigs of basil, chives, dill, fennel, juniper, lavender, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon or thyme, or four peeled and smashed garlic cloves, with a pint of white wine vinegar and allow it to sit a couple of weeks in a sunny window.
For herb oil, add any of the above herbs to a pint of oil, let sit in a warm place for two to four days and strain. Pair full-flavored olive oil with strong herbs such as tarragon, rosemary, basil or garlic. Combine delicate herbs such as chervil or bay with milder safflower oil. These flavored oils also taste great on raw or cooked vegetables.
And remember herbs when preparing desserts. Layer sugar with angelica, hyssop, lemon balm, verbena, violet, lavender, rose petals or vanilla for a few days. Sprinkle the sugar on custards, shortbreads and spongecake or add it to cake and cookie batters.
And if the bees don't do the job for you, make your own herb honey by soaking the same aromatic herbs used for herb sugar in warm honey for a couple of weeks. Use the honey in cooking, spread it on toast or pour some into a hot ptisan, or herb tea.
Ptisan is made by steeping mint, chamomile, rose geranium, hyssop, ginger, rose hip, verbena or other herbs in boiling water for about five minutes. Then strain and sweeten. Cold ptisan makes a refreshing beverage on sweltering summer afternoons.
The following dish is from "Recipes From a French Herb Garden."
FRESH HERB TART
1 1/4 cups flour
6 tablespoons butter
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon milk
1 clove garlic, peeled
2 eggs and 2 egg yolks
2/3 cup light cream
1 cup mixed fresh herbs (parsley, chives, chervil, tarragon, sorrel), stemmed and finely chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Sift flour and salt into a bowl and rub in butter. Add egg yolk and mix to a dough. Wrap and chill dough 30 minutes. Roll out pastry to fit a buttered, 9-inch tart pan. Prick base lightly and bake in a preheated, 400-degree oven 10-15 minutes until pastry is set but not colored. Remove pastry and reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees.
To make filling, spear garlic on tines of a fork and use fork to beat the eggs with the yolks and cream. Stir in herbs and season with salt and pepper. Pour into pastry and bake on a hot baking sheet 20-25 minutes until filling is set. Serve hot, warm or cold. Serves six.