There are so many food shows, foodie experts, food bloggers, chefs and just plain folks out there extolling their all-time favorite, no fuss, must have, or grandma’s secret recipes. At some point it all becomes white noise. Especially for the urban woman with a busy work and social life. Writing down a recipe, let alone remembering where they heard it, is not usually a top priority. We often, hear them and like them, but don't remember what's in them or how to make them. When it's time to shop, cook and create, we can find ourselves at a loss for ideas. “What did they say about this? How did they make that? What were the ingredients again?” We stand there, staring blankly at the market or farm stand thinking, “I know I saw a recipe for something with that ingredient.”
Well, here are a few secrets for the modern Chicago woman, who is, and can continue to be, “everything” she wants to be. These will perk up almost anything you eventually make and it does not need a recipe. Just remember this buzz word - FRESH HERBS! Seriously. I’m not suggesting you need to have a roof top city garden. If you do, fantastic, but most of us do not. In fact, we are lucky if we even have a balcony. But all of us have windows, and we can grow fresh potted herb plants, like basil, tarragon, chives, oregano, cilantro, and mint that can turn an ordinary dish into culinary artistry. Let me share a few ideas:
Fingerling potatoes, beautiful in color, flavor and texture. When roasted and tossed in FRESH TARRAGON, butter or olive oil and topped with volcanic sea salt, a good dish become a fabulous dish in less than five extra minutes. Fresh snap peas can be treated the exact same way. The subtle licorice and citrus hints of the tarragon brighten your palette.
FRESH BASIL, which we all know and love, can be used in so many dishes. Add julienned basil to beautiful flavor filled tomatoes, a sprinkle of salt, grind of black pepper, your favorite olive oil and balsamic vinegar drizzle. That's summer! With fresh mozzarella and some young peppery arugula (also very easy to grow), you've created an incredible meal!
Toss that same basil into your hot pasta with some olive oil, sea salt, fresh ground pepper and Parmesan cheese, then top with just a little of your favorite marinara sauce and you will look like a true Italian chef. If your basil is very plentiful, pesto is an incredible sauce to create, and it can be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Pesto is just amazing on pasta, pizza, and as a dip with vegetables. It is naturally gluten free, and is as easy as putting basil, olive oil, garlic, Parmesan and pine nuts in a blender and flipping the switch.
If you want to get a little more sophisticated, FRESH THAI BASIL is a game changer for those who cook stir fry or teriyaki or any variety of Asian dishes. You can even add just a bit to your favorite take out, it adds freshness and even more of that delicious Thai flavor.
FRESH CILANTRO brightens every dish from classic American, Indian and Asian, to Mediterranean, Mexican, and South American cuisine. It's incredibly flavorful and really versatile. You can use it on fresh fish tacos, sushi, ceviche or poke, Indian Chana masala, Japanese teriyaki, or fresh grilled seafood. Adding cilantro leaves to steamed jasmine rice makes it burst with bright color and zesty flavor. Chimichurri, made mostly of cilantro, is one of the most delicious toppings for grilled meats. Feels like summertime in the city! This Argentinian classic can be rough chopped as a relish or puréed into a smooth sauce. (Just a little foodie side note: if you're entertaining for others, some people actually have an allergy that makes cilantro taste soapy in their mouths. So, if you’re not sure, ask your guests in advance if they like the taste of cilantro.)
FRESH CHIVES are so often overlooked. A member of the onion family, yet much more mild in flavor than other onions, chives add green color and a lift to your dish in a way that your palette will crave. Chives are brightening yet subtle, so work with dishes that don't usually call for onion. Try it not just on a baked potato, but on mashed potatoes or your favorite mac and cheese. Just a sprinkle of chopped chive goes a long way in flavor development on lots and lots of dishes.
FRESH MINT is sometimes overlooked as just a garnish for desserts. You can use mint on fruit with honey, or just with hot or iced tea. Make sauces with mint, like a yogurt cucumber mint sauce for lamb or other grilled meats. Add fresh mint when cooking lentils or other beans. Cucumbers and mint make a wonderful side salad that lightens even those heartier dishes.
One more tip, and it’s a biggie. Remember I mentioned we all have windows? Instead of buying expensive fresh cut herbs in packets, try buying the potted plant. Place the pot near your big window and they usually grow like weeds. A daily drink of water is all it needs to grow. This way, you can snip a little when you want them, and they grow back fresh for the next day.