I’m sure you’ve heard about Herbes de Provence. The classic Mediterranean flavour medley consisting of thyme, rosemary, oregano and marjoram.
I get a lot of inspiration from Mediterranean cuisines. Most of the fresh herbs that form the mainstay of our flavouring repertoire are indigenous to the Mediterranean and therefore feature prominently in these dishes.
Meals throughout these cuisines usually begin with a selection of little cooked dishes or salads that are designed to stimulate the appetite. This means the herbal flavours in them can be especially pronounced and daring which is right up any herb cook’s alley.
Croutons are often used to add a zesty element to soups and salads. In the Mediterranean people use fresh herbs for making croutons. Don’t buy sliced bread for this recipe. Slice the bread yourself, and don’t be too precise when cutting. Having irregular sized croutons is part of their charm.
In culinary circles flavoured butters are often referred to as compound butters or beurres composes. Various herbs, spices and other flavourings are added to salted or unsalted butter to add new notes and interesting dimensions to dishes.
Because salt overpowers the natural sweet flavour of butter, compound butter recipes generally call for “salt to taste” or no salt at all.
Once you get the hang of it, you can beat almost anything, from anchovies to watercress, into the butter.
Using the basic pesto-making technique with a wider variety of herbs and added ingredients is very popular with chefs, home cooks and food bloggers. Especially with those that have a herb garden. It makes perfect sense for processing a bumper crop of say rocket, parsley or marjoram.
Almost any fresh herb, nut, oil or hard cheese can be combined in the same fashion to produce a pesto style sauce. Just remember that the fresh flavour of the herbs is intensified when the leaves are pounded. So be careful with those that become bitter or unpleasantly intense.
Your Aims When Making a Pesto-style Sauce
Your primary aim is to produce a balanced, aromatic, full flavoured pesto-style sauce to compliment a specific dish. Choose your flavour combinations wisely and don’t let the pesto overpower the dish.
Your secondary aim is to produce a pesto with a thick pouring consistency. Bear that in mind when you get to the oil.
Substitute the parts with any convenient measure. A ¼ cup measure works nicely for developing new recipes.
When adding garlic, always add in the beginning with the nuts and salt.
Follow the directions for making a machine-made version or the hand-made version.
The ratios are not cast in cement as different nuts, herbs and hard cheeses have varying oil and moisture contents. Play around a bit.
Tip: When choosing an oil to use in a pesto recipe I use the same criteria as for choosing an oil to use in a salad dressing. First of all it must compliment the other ingredients. Next is that I can eat the oil by the spoonful. Simply because, like salad dressing, I love eating pesto by the spoonful.
For starters, the consistency is different. It’s coarser than the blender-made version. At the same time it’s silky and emulsified. The colour is different as well, more of a creamy shade of olive than bright green.
Most importantly it tastes better, having a rounder, fuller more balanced flavour.
“Perhaps the best reason for making pesto by hand is for the pleasure of the process. You’ll see the separate ingredients slowly transform in unctuous sauce. You’ll smell the powerful clove, mint, and licorice fragrances of the basil as it combines with the garlic and cheese. And you’ll listen to the soft pounding and grinding of the pestle instead of the unyielding whir of an electric motor.” – Chef Jerry Traunfeld, author of The Herb Farm Cookbook
Chef Traunfeld is also the creator of this pesto recipe. And just like his machine-made version it makes the best basil pesto we’ve ever tasted. Follow his recipe to the letter and you’ll also end up with a perfectly balanced fragrant and voluptuous basil pesto.
By the way, if you like this recipe, get yourself a copy of The Herb Farm Cookbook. It’s a must have for any foodie or food professional.
Makes about 1 cup, enough pesto sauce for a bowl of pasta for 4
By: Chef Jerry Traunfeld
2 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tablespoons raw pine nuts
¼ teaspoon salt
3 cups sweet basil leaves, gently packed
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Put the garlic, pine nuts and salt in a large mortar. Use the pestle with a gentle downward pounding action to crush the ingredients and start to form a paste.
Coarsely chop the basil leaves on a cutting board with a sharp knife. Add the leaves to the mortar one handful at a time as you begin to rotate the pestle in a circular grinding movement, working mostly at the bottom of the bowl. From time to time use the pestle to pound the mixture with downward strokes. After several minutes it will start to form a paste.
When all the leaves are added, begin to add the olive oil a little at a time, while continuing to use the pestle with the rotary grinding motion. When all the oil is added, the colour will be lighter and the oil will be suspended in the thick spoonable sauce, but you will still be able to see shreds of the basil leaves. Stir in the cheese.
The classic bouquet garni recipe is a quick and easy way to add a new dimension to casseroles, stews, potjiekos, soups, and my personal favourite – oven baked vegetables. And you only need three herbs to make it.
The classic recipe consists of parsley, thyme and bay. Nowadays we also add a twig of rosemary, a stick of celery or a little slice of lemon peel. Fennel leaves will also liven up the taste. But these are all optional additions.
Tip: Try adding a bouquet garni next time you make your own stock and taste the difference. That includes store bought stock. Simply infuse the herbs in the prepared stock.
Now that you know how easy it is to make a bouquet garni, give it a bash and impress your guests with your skillful flavouring of the cooking pot.
Tie up the three sprigs of fresh parsley, one of fresh thyme and one fresh bay leaf (and any other herbs) into a small bunch.
Add the bunch to the dish right from the start to give the flavours time to marry.
Remove it just before serving. This is to prevent your diners from discovering your secret to flavouring your cooking pot. Just joking, but that's what the French used to do.
I prefer to use fresh herbs, but dried herbs are just as successful. Use 1 heaped tablespoon dried parsley, 1 teaspoon dried thyme (I prefer a level tablespoon lemon thyme) and a single dried bay leaf. Tie up the dried herbs in a small bag sewn of muslin. Or grind the parsley and thyme and add to the dish. Add the bay leaf whole and remove before serving.