In the days when salt and pepper formed the core of the American spice rack, parsley probably was the most exotic fresh herb to be found at most grocers.
Today, produce sections are flooded with fresh herbs, from now-ubiquitous offerings such as basil and oregano to more esoteric items, such as fresh turmeric root and edible flowers.
While the availability of these herbs marks a serious culinary leap forward for the nation's palate, home cooks shouldn't reflexively reach for fresh herbs just because they are available.
Whether to use fresh or dry depends on the type of herb and how you plan to use it.
For example, many tender summer herbs, such as basil, chervil, chives, cilantro, lovage, parsley and tarragon, warrant "fresh only" status because they lose so much flavor once dried.
However, heartier herbs with woody stems and strong aromatics, such as thyme, savory, sage, oregano and bay, retain their flavor once dried and do well in either form in cold-weather dishes, such as roast poultry and hearty vegetables. If fresh is available, go with it. But often, dried versions of these herbs are nearly as good.
Many spices, including turmeric, coriander seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel seeds, cumin and curry blends, also are well — and sometimes best — suited for use dry. Fresh versions of these also can be rare.
So here are a few basics on using and storing fresh and dry herbs:
• Dried herbs should be replaced every year, says Ellen Ecker Ogden, author of "From the Cook's Garden." She grinds up the remnants of old herbs with salt to create a multi-purpose seasoning.
• Store dried herbs in sealed jars away from heat and direct light. Fresh herbs can be stored upright in a bit of water (trim the stems first) like flowers, or wrapped in a damp paper towel and placed inside a plastic bag.
• Fresh and dried herbs require slightly different cooking techniques and ratios. Use two to three times more fresh herbs than dried, which have more concentrated flavor than fresh.
• Fresh herbs are best added toward the end of cooking, or should be used to garnish. This prevents them from losing their flavor, explains Frank Terranova, a culinary instructor at Johnson & Wales University.
• Dry herbs should be cooked or simmered longer to release their flavor and rehydrate them.
RICE PILAF WITH HERBS
This herbaceous dish can be adapted to whatever fresh green herbs you have handy. Use it alone as a meal or omit the chicken and serve alongside poultry or fish.
Start to finish: 45 minutes
1/4 pound butter
4 ounces uncooked angel hair pasta, broken into small pieces
26-ounce container vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup basmati rice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, sage, parsley or other savory herbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup shredded cooked chicken (optional)
In a large saute pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the pasta and saute until pasta just begins to brown. Carefully stir in the vegetable or chicken broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Add the rice, herbs, salt and pepper.
Cover and cook until the rice has absorbed the liquid, about 30 minutes.
If desired, stir in shredded cooked chicken, heat through and serve with a parsley garnish. Recipe adapted from Margaret Ellmore's version in "The Herb Society of America's Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs," Louisiana State University Press, 2007
Fresh rosemary and thyme can be found at most grocers throughout the year. Their classic flavor — blended here with spicy bay — perk up almost any type of poultry.
Start to finish: 24 hours (25 minutes active)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 whole bay leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, rosemary and salt.
Place chicken breasts in a large zip-close plastic bag, then pour in the marinade. Seal and refrigerate for 24 hours, gently shaking the bag occasionally.
When ready to cook, preheat the broiler to high.
Remove the chicken breasts from the bag, reserving the marinade. Place the chicken on a broiler pan or a baking sheet lined with foil. Broil the chicken for 8 minutes. Flip the breasts, baste and grill for another 7 minutes. Recipe adapted from Jane Thomson's version in "The Herb Society of America's Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs," Louisiana State University Press, 2007.