Sunday, April 5, 2009

New Uses for Old Herbs

The feast for Nana's birthday left behind some great leftovers, which sustained me for at least the first half of this past week, but it also left me with a lot of uncooked ingredients languishing in the refrigerator, their dank holding cell, where they lay wilted and guilty in anticipation of their inevitable landfill death sentences (yes, I know I should both compost and avoid metaphors that don't map very well, but now's not the time). The ingredients whose sentences I was most eager to appeal were the fresh mint, parsley, dill, and chives, all expensive and all quick to spoil.

I have heard you can freeze herbs, but, knowing my kitchen habits, the freezer would simply act as a maximum security prison to the fridge's holding cell, both leading to the same imminent death at the trash heap gallows (there I go again). I had to act quickly and, ideally, with delicious results.

While I understand that grocery stores are businesses and need to make money, the cost of fresh herbs nonetheless usually sends me into mild shock. Of course, they are also pre-packaged in such a way that one is forced to buy far more than one ever needs. I know, I should just grow my own, just as I should compost, and I intend to when the weather gets warmer. But this wouldn't necessarily solve the problem of too much herb, not enough time. In my rather limited herb-growing experience, the mint in particular spreads like the smallpox, but wipes itself out before you can say "More iced tea?"

The herbs whose fates I was now debating were too wilted at this point to pass off as a garnish for pasta, soup, or salad. However I was going to use them, I needed to fully incorporate them into the dish in attempt to mask their ages, which, mind you, were not that old, but certainly old enough. I succeeded with the following two recipes -- and have enough tasters (speak up, you guys!) to prove it.

These recipes would be handy for other aging herbs, too. Hummus, especially, is a great "canvas," to quote Sanders, for creative experimentation. In place of the mint and parsley, you could use basil, cilantro, dill, chives, scallions, lemongrass, rosemary, tarragon, and probably some others I haven't thought of. For the bread, I would avoid using the leafier herbs, which might not stand up to all that baking, and stick with the heartier ones like rosemary, thyme, and of course dill and chives. Sage also could be interesting.

The bread and hummus work wonderfully as a pair, but if you already have some antique pita bread, I suggest toasting that and making pita chips as well. The whole point here is to use up old ingredients and avoid buying new ones, so I've included lots of ideas for substitutions where appropriate.

Recipe: Orange-Mint Hummus

Most store-bought hummus is bland, but my homemade hummus is just like me: nuanced, mysterious, sophisticated, exciting, tan in color. Okay, not like me at all. Anyway, this hummus has depth. You might think, "Mint? How strange!" -- but don't worry, it does not make the hummus taste a thing like toothpaste. The mint is subtle, as is the orange juice and zest. You could definitely use lemon juice and zest, which is more traditional; I happened to have only half a lemon, but also a whole orange that had been sitting on my countertop for too long, and the orange makes this hummus even more unique.

1 can chickpeas, drained, or 1 and 1/2 C dried chickpeas, soaked overnight, simmered for about an hour and a half, and drained
1/3 C tahini
1 t salt
1/4 t soy sauce (optional -- feel free to use additional salt instead, or none if you prefer)
3 cloves garlic
1 t cumin
2 T chopped shallots (not essential - I just had half a shallot I wanted to use up)
juice and zest of one large orange (or juice of two lemons, plus zest of one lemon; leave out the next ingredient -- more lemon -- if you go this route)
juice and zest of half a lemon (I was also trying to use up half a lemon; consider this ingredient optional)
2 T water
2 T olive oil (feel free to add more to get a consistency you like)
1/4 C loosely packed mint (or use whatever amount you have, though probably no more than a quarter cup)
1/4 C loosely packed parsley

Pulse everything together in the food processor till well-blended. Makes about 3 cups.

Recipe: Dill and Chive Almost-No-Knead Bread

The basis for this recipe comes from the mad scientists of America's Test Kitchen; only they could've figured out how to improve on a Minimalist phenomenon. I first sampled it at the home of my friends Danny and Miriam (check out Miriam's fantastic blog about cooking on a grad student budget) awhile back, and Danny kindly sent me a scanned PDF of the recipe from Cook's Illustrated. I am pretty sure they added rosemary to their rendition of this bread, which we dipped it in olive oil as a delicious appetizer. It's pretty easy to make -- I don't think I even followed all the steps correctly (typical) -- but it still turned out really well, with a nice, crispy crust and a light, chewy inside. With the time allotments involved, this is definitely a bread best made on a weekend. You need a Dutch oven that can withstand 450-degree heat, and if you don't have one, consider making Cuban bread and adding the herbs before you leave the dough to rise. The advantage of Almost-No-Knead Bread is, quite obviously, that it requires minimal kneading.

3 C all-purpose flour, plus extra for work surface
1/4 t rapid-rise or instant yeast
1 t salt (I like a bit more, and next time I will add another half teaspoon)
3/4 C water, room temperature
1/2 C mild-flavored beer, room temperature (this is not in Mark Bittman's No-Knead-Bread, but is added here for extra flavor. If you do not have beer, consider following the Bittman version)
1 T white vinegar
2 T minced chives
2 T minced dill
Vegetable oil spray (I do not have this, so I lightly brushed vegetable oil over the parchment and the bread)

Whisk the flour, yeast, and salt together in a large bowl. Fold in the water, beer, vinegar, and herbs with a rubber spatula till the dough comes together and looks "shaggy" (not my word, but you will know it's ready when it begins to resemble Snuffy from Sesame Street, texturally). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for at least 8 hours, or up to 18 hours.

Lay an 18" x 12" sheet of parchment paper inside a 10-inch skillet (or 10-inch shallow bowl) and spray with vegetable oil spray (or brush with vegetable oil). Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand to form a smooth, round ball, 10 to 15 times. Shape the dough into a ball by pulling the edges into the middle with floured hands. Transfer the dough, seam-side down, to the prepared skillet.

Mist (or lightly brush) the dough with vegetable oil and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let it rise at room temperature until doubled in size and the dough barely springs back when touched, about 2 hours. About 30 minutes before baking, adjust an oven rack to the lowest position, place a large Dutch oven and heat the oven to 450 degrees (although the original recipe says to heat the oven to 500 degrees, I was nervous about my pot, and kept it at 450. The bread still turned out well.).

Lightly flour the top of the dough and score it with a knife. Carefully remove the pot from the oven and remove the lid. Pick up the parchment and the dough and lower them into the hot pot, letting any excess parchment hang over the edge. Cover the pot, and place it in the oven, reducing the heat to 425 degrees, and bake covered for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to bake until the center of the loaf registers 20 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and the crust is deep golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the bread from the pot, transfer to a wire rack, and let cool to room temperature, about 2 hours, before serving.


Sara M. said...

Hoo boy, I love a good Snuffy reference! I also just bought some yeast this weekend with the intention of whipping up some no-knead bread. Amazing coincidence!

Mike said...

Another thing you have in common with the're both zesty!

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