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Fresh herb oils, vinegars, and butters perk up age-old recipes

A well-chosen herb can subtly and deliciously vary a favorite recipe. Not only do herbs perk up your cooking, but they are also easy and satisfying to grow. They require no special treatment and can be grown successfully indoors. Well-drained soil in a sunny location is the basic requirement for an herb garden, with the exception of the mints, which prefer shade. If growing herbs in pots, keep soil evenly moist and never let it completely dry out. The plants will need at least five hours of sunlight each day, up to 14 if grown under plant lights.

Since the flavor of the herbs is in the volatile oils, plant care is concerned with keeping the oils concentrated in the leaves. Overfertilizing will reduce these oils, as wil allowing the herbs to flower.

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Gather leaves just after the dew has dried in the morning, before the sun diffuses the oils. Be sure to pinch off part of the stem with the leaves on it to encourage new growth.

Fresh herbs can be used in an endless variety of combinations for any dish, hot or cold. Use about one tablespoon of fresh herbs for each teaspoon of dried indicated in a recipe. Dried herbs are stronger because the oils are concentrated when the herb dries. Wash herbs only if absolutely necessary (to avoid bruising) and be sure they are completely dry before chopping.

Herbs are divided into two flavor groups, robust and mild. Robust herbs keep their flavor while cooking and usually become stronger the longer they cook, as more oil is released. Robust herbs include thyme, tarragon, sage, rosemary, coriander, summer savory, garlic, and sorrel. They should be used carefully to avoid overpowering a dish. Stews, soups, and roasted meats can benefit from these hearty flavors.

Mild herbs combine more readily than robust, and mellow while cooking. Basil, dill, parsley, chervil, bay, and marjoram are mild herbs. They are excellent choices for salads and dishes requiring a short cooking time.

Herb oils and vinegars are easy to prepare and can be kept up to a year without losing their flavor. Use corn or safflower oil for the milder herbs, and a good-quality olive oil for the stronger robust varieties. Chop herbs and place in a glass jar, then cover with oil. Keep in a warm, dark spot for three weeks, strain into a clean bottle, label, and store. Basil, tarragon, bay, and garlic make excellent herb-flavored oils.

Herbs must be completely dry before used in herb vinegars. Water dilutes the vinegar. Crush herb slightly to bruise sprigs. Place in bottle and cover with vinegar. (Use glass bottles because of the high acidic content of vinegar. Metal or plastic containers might trigger a chemical reaction with the vinegar.) Place in the sun for up to three weeks, strain, then store in a dark place. If vinegar is too strong, dilute with plain vinegar. Add a sprig of herb used for easy identification. Basil and tarragon are popularly used flavorings. Oregano, mint, thyme, rosemary, dill, savory, garlic, and marigold can all be successfully used for herb vinegars.

Herb butters are wonderful melted over vegetables, spread on bread, used to saut'e fish and omelettes, and mixed in sauces. Cream together equal parts softened butter and minced herbs. Refrigerate until it holds its shape, form into a stick, wrap well, and freeze. Experiment with small amounts of single herbs or combinations, and make larger portions of favorites. Some good combinations are dill and parsley; tarragon, dill, and chives; and mint and lemon juice.

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It's almost impossible to make a mistake when cooking with herbs, so don't be afraid to experiment. The worst that can happen is that the flavor will be overpowering; avoid this by using small quantitites and adding more if needed. Here are a few suggestions:

Tarragon enhances fish and poultry; saut'e leftover vegetables, rice, and fish or chicken in chicken stock and flavor with tarragon; vegetables that benefit from an addition of tarragon are peas, cauliflower, and spinach.

Dill can be added to quiches, cheeses (especially cottage cheese), and eggs; for a switch from boiled corn on the cob, rub corn in butter, place a sprig of dill on top, wrap in foil, and barbecue.

Use thyme in fish soups; add liberally to chicken and turkey stuffings; it will hold its flavor in sauces and stews; add to minestrone soup for extra flavor.

Combine basil and garlic for spaghetti sauces; drench tomatoes in basil-flavored olive oil; freshen tomato juice with basil.

Add mint to pea soup, boiling peas, fruit salads; use with lamb; eggplant dishes improve with mint; sprinkle on chocolate ice cream.

Rosemary stands up well in stews; mix into deviled eggs, cream cheese, omelettes; use with beef and lamb.

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