By Roben Mounger
I was 12 years old when the groundwork for my obsession with flavor began. Poised with a spoonful in mid air, my great aunt critiqued a recipe by claiming the dish was not properly seasoned. To me this smacked of cardinal sin. Our family knew how to cook. Seasoning was a delicate art and a skill that was genetically encoded.
“Not to worry,” said my mother when I expressed my questionable future as a proper seasoning expert. “Fresh herbs are the ticket – they add sparkle.” While consistently scattering a batch of herb seeds to keep production at full tilt, she harvested parsley by the fistfuls for use in salad, spaghetti sauce and even the occasional flower arrangement.
Herbs are a laid-back proposition with no greater commitment than a drink of water every now and then. The nonchalance of such a concept is comforting. I set my domestic bar to include fresh flavors from the yard.
Our first herb patch, planted against the house and close to the kitchen door, provided low-maintenance landscaping as it does still to this day. Another great perk adds that ancient health practices testify to the power of culinary herbs. Some calm and soothe a body, while others can aid in digestion.
Culinary herbs have consistently managed to assist my cooking efforts. Chopped basil on summer tomatoes, mint in iced tea, minced chives on potatoes, summer savory scattered over roasted corn, eggs with sliced tarragon and parsley, and oregano-infused pasta sauce – herbal launches that bring glory to mealtime throughout the year.
Some say good dining involves a magnificent piece of beef, others hope for a satisfying sweet, but a few freshly cut herbs can improve the flavors of any ingredient. When harvesting, I find a walk around the yard, a calm inspiration and the perfect way to bring a table to life.
Starting out is as simple as the versatile rosemary bush, planted to frame the walkway to your house. The piney scent lingers as you walk past the plants, an invitation to partner in a platter of roasted potatoes or marinated chicken.
Rosemary is a year-round plant that thrives if planted in well-drained soil. This wonderful starter herb will flourish even in mid-winter if protected during heavy frosts. Flaunting a pungent flavor, rosemary is milder during the winter than the summer and is best showcased with meats and sweets.
Surprisingly, friends show up to borrow a stalk or two for their own quick but memorable dinners. I could charge for the produce, but all I want to do is hand over this recipe for rosemary shortbread, the best testimony that I know for a homemade degree in flavor.
¼ cup chopped pecans
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into chunks
½ cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary leaves
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the chopped pecans on a foil-lined cookie sheet and lightly toast in the oven for 3 minutes. Set aside the nuts to cool.
Melt the butter over medium heat. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the confectioners’ sugar, rosemary, pecan pieces and salt. Stir in the flour to form the dough. Use fingers to spread the dough into an ungreased 8-inch baking pan.
Bake for 20 minutes or until lightly golden and firm. Cool the pan on a baking rack for 2 minutes and then cut into 16 squares. Let the cookies cool completely in the pan before removing them.
|Roben Mounger, known as Ms. Cook, has a penchant for searching out locally produced ingredients for her family’s meals. She writes a weekly column about food and people for The Columbia Daily Herald and blogs about eating locally at www.mscookstable.com.|