November 1, 2011
Last week I was hitting the elliptical and watching Chopped, the Food Network show, which I think is sophomoric but I can’t stop watching it—along with everyone else who watches reality TV. My guilty pleasure was justified when I learned this simple tip that befits my passion for cooking from the garden. The contestants were given rose petals as an ingredient to cook with and one of the chefs, who had worked for famed chef Jean Georges, used his technique of drying herbs in the microwave. Genius!
Post-workout, I headed out to the garden, inspired. I picked some lavender, lemon verbena, Mexican tarragon and got to work. I didn’t wash them but simply dusted them with a damp towel. I stripped the buds/leaves from the stem first and then nuked away! My first try was ten lavender buds on a microwave-safe plate for five minutes on high—yeah, that was too much time. The kitchen smelled of burnt/fried greens, kinda like Barbie being roasted in a campfire.
Next, I tried three minutes on high and that worked splendidly. No pungent smell, just an amazing aroma of lavender. Three minutes did the trick for the lemon verbena leaves and Mexican tarragon too. I was excited recently when I dehydrated figs in my oven on low heat over eight hours, so this three-minute thing was absolutely thrilling for me. It’s the simple things in life, right?
I’m not too big on cooking with dried herbs (fresh is best! is always my mantra in the kitchen) and I hardly ever use my microwave, so this experiment was my version of stepping out of the box. Can you handle my wild streak? So, after my microwave adventures I was left with a big question—what to do with the dried herbs? I decided on flavored sugar with the lavender and lemon verbena and used the tarragon to make flavored salt.
The result is a pretty and practical hostess gift and the potential to elevate the tastes in your own holiday cooking. The salt is fantastic on roasted cauliflower or radicchio (popcorn too). The sugars are a lovely touch when sprinkled on sugar cookies, lemon tarts or bars, or even over buttered toast.
From left: lemon verbena sugar; lavender sugar; Mexican tarragon salt.
Cook the lavender blooms on a microwave safe plate for three minutes on high. Once cooled, break them apart and add to the sugar. Before using, store in an airtight container for a week; the flavors of the lavender will penetrate the sugar and the result is really beautiful. For the lemon verbena version, after it’s cool, crush with a mortar and pestle before mixing with the sugar.
Mexican Tarragon Salt
1/2 cup tarragon leaves and flowers
1/2 cup sea salt
Cook the leaves on a microwave safe plate, two to three minutes on high. When the leaves have cooled, break apart with your fingers and mix them with the salt. Store in an airtight container; the flavor will intensify over a few days.
You can use this technique with any herbs from your garden.