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How to push fresh herbs beyond the garnish: Use with abundance and abandon

Forget tablespoons and quarter-cup measures. Here's how to use tender herbs by the fistful

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By The Washington Post | July 10, 2019 | Recipes

Martha Holmberg, The Washington Post


Fresh herbs are one of the most straightforward and effective ways of elevating simple home cooking into something notable, and I cook with them almost daily. A few snips of chives on scrambled eggs, a shower of torn basil on tomato salads, sprigs of rosemary in the sauté pan for a steak, and a pinch of chopped parsley for the anchovy butter to top it. And let's not forget a fragrant peppermint stem, gently bruised to release its oils, as a garnish for my G&T.

I grow herbs on my deck, just a step from my kitchen door, so it's easy to cook this way for much of the year. Rosemary and thyme stick with me throughout the calendar, and every spring I plant an assortment of those that don't survive the winter. The line-up usually includes chives, tarragon, dill, marjoram, savoury, some oreganos, mints, a few types of basil and boatloads of cilantro and parsley. When I encounter something unique, such as Cuban oregano, chervil or salad burnet, I give it a try, and if I end up using it throughout the season, it becomes one of the regulars, too.

For just a few dollars and a couple hours of investment, I have a supply of vivacious herbs ready to snip at will.

But in the offseason - or if you don't have your own garden - a desire to cook with fresh herbs can cause some supply-and-demand conflicts. Most of the time you're buying a bunch but perhaps using only a few sprigs. What do you do with the rest? Fortunately, solving the waste problem can bring joy and deliciousness. The key is to think of herbs - particularly the tender ones - not as accents used in mere tablespoons but rather as star players tossed in by fistfuls and cupfuls. Think of them as leafy greens and use them abundantly, and with abandon.

As opposed to the hardy, tough herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram and sage (which, in my opinion, are good when cooked with food, not eaten raw), the tender herbs are just that: leafy, tender, milder (though full of flavour and fragrance, which is why we adore them), easy and delicious to eat raw or cooked. The most versatile include parsley, cilantro, mint, basil, dill, tarragon, chives, with less familiar members including chervil, lemon verbena and lovage, among others.

Tend to your herbs to prolong their life

First, liberate your tender herbs from whatever bondage they arrive in from the store: Take them out of the horrible plastic clamshell and release any rubber bands or twist-ties, which cut into the stems and damage them, leading to deterioration and rot. Discard any obvious wilted or yellowed leaves or stems.

For storage longer than a few hours, some people swear by putting herbs in a glass with water as you would a bunch of flowers, but I don't find that effective, and it requires counter space or, in hot weather, fridge space and the ability to keep the vase upright, which in my jumbled refrigerator can be a challenge.

Instead, I loosely wrap the bunch in a barely damp paper towel and seal that in a lidded plastic or glass storage box to create an environment humid enough to keep the herbs moist but not so damp to encourage rot. If you're not going to use the herbs within two days, do periodic spot checks and remove any newly wilted or yellowed sprigs, and refresh the damp paper towel.

To wash the herbs, separate the sprigs and put them into a salad spinner. Submerge in cold water, soak for a few minutes, and then drain, rinse again, drain again, and then spin them until dry. You don't want to be chopping wet herbs, or you'll end up with something resembling lawn clippings. If you don't have a salad spinner, soak the herbs in a bowl, drain in a colander, and then gently pat dry with a clean dish towel or paper towels.


Use the whole bunch

See how many places you can deploy the herbs over the next day or two. Once you get comfortable and committed to not wasting these important ingredients, you'll find your own delicious destinations as well. As you consider the possibilities, remember: The stems, particularly of cilantro and parsley, are full of juicy flavour. When you chop their leaves, always include some stems, unless you can see that they are damaged or too fibrous. Take a nibble and then decide.

In addition to my Any Tender Herb Rice Pilaf, here are a few ideas for using those generous bunches to their utmost potential.

Go beyond basil pesto

. Use nuts other than the pricey pine nuts. Parsley, dill, and walnuts are gorgeous together, perhaps with a few crumbles of feta thrown in. Cilantro and almonds are a natural pairing, as are basil and parsley with hazelnuts. Spread a thick layer onto fish filets and roast at high temperature. I love this with salmon, in particular.

Add finely chopped herbs to a basic crepe batter

, spread some fresh cheese over the crepes and add a good twist of black pepper, then fold or roll. Step it up by adding a thin layer of gravlax or other cured fish.

Make a frittata with tons of herbs

, gently sautéed green onions and crumbles of feta. Serve at room temperature, plain or with a drizzle of pesto.

Make a smashed potato salad

. Boil some new potatoes, drain and crush gently, dress with a combo of butter and extra-virgin olive oil, a juicy squeeze of lemon, and then fold in a big bunch of roughly chopped herbs. Serve at warm room temperature.

Make a perfect herb salad, keeping the herbs in tender sprigs or whole leaves, and adding a bit of bulk with arugula leaves or thinly sliced endive for texture, if you like. Dress simply with lemon juice, extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Serve with lamb chops, the pesto-coated fish above or on top of a crispy chicken schnitzel.

Any Tender Herb Rice Pilaf. Image: Tom McCorkle

This dish is just the thing to help you use large quantities of whatever combination of herbs that you have on hand, as long as we're talking about tender herbs, not resinous ones such as rosemary. Each combination will have its own character; my favorites are cilantro-mint, parsley-basil-tarragon, cilantro-dill-parsley.

Chicken broth makes a good cooking liquid because it adds a depth of flavor; vegetable broth or plain water will work just fine, and coconut milk makes this dish downright swoony; use one small (5-ounce) can plus 1 cup of broth or water. (If you use a rice other than basmati, use the amount of liquid suggested on the package.)

Serve the rice as a side dish to just about anything, but I'm fond of lamb chops with this.


1 cup lightly packed fresh herb leaves and tender stems (choose one or more from parsley, cilantro, mint, dill, tarragon, basil)

1 3/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth (one 14-ounce can; may substitute any homemade broth)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 medium onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)

1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced (optional)

1 cup basmati rice or other long-grain rice (uncooked), rinsed and well drained



1) Combine the herbs, broth and salt in a blender; process until the herbs are finely chopped and the liquid is flecked with green.

2) Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and the garlic (to taste, if using) and cook, stirring a lot, until fragrant and soft, but not browned at all, about 4 minutes. Stir in the rice so it's evenly coated; cook for about a minute, then add the herbed broth.

3) Once the liquid comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook the rice until all the liquid has been absorbed and the grains are tender, 18 minutes. Remove from the heat.

4) Uncover; gently fluff with a fork to redistribute the herbs. Let the rice sit, uncovered, for 3 to 4 minutes, which will help stabilize its texture. Taste, and add more salt, as needed. Serve right away.

From food writer and cookbook author Martha Holmberg. Tested by Kari Sonde.

Feature Image: Tom McCorkle

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