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Want to know a secret to transforming standard fare to ooh-la-la good? Think herbs, oils and vinegars.

Charlottetown chef Cherie Burns says the best reason to use herbs in cooking is the wondrous ways they can transform a dish. "Fresh herbs enhance dishes in a way that isn't achievable with their dried counterparts," says Burns, who works at the Culinary Institute of Canada and is starting a small catering service.

And replace the salt with herbs, oils and vinegars.

Want to know a secret to transforming standard fare to ooh-la-la good? Think herbs, oils and vinegars.

Charlottetown chef Cherie Burns says the best reason to use herbs in cooking is the wondrous ways they can transform a dish. "Fresh herbs enhance dishes in a way that isn't achievable with their dried counterparts," says Burns, who works at the Culinary Institute of Canada and is starting a small catering service.

Karen Mersereau readily agrees. The chef of the widely acclaimed Hotel Paulin in Caraquet, NB, has three raised beds in her waterfront kitchen garden. "I do not like using any dried herbs in my cooking," she says. "I prefer to use frozen pastes that I make from my garden before the frost sets in. You cannot replace the subtle delicate taste of fresh herbs if they are used appropriately in recipes."

"More fragrant and flavourful, herbs can aid people in cutting salt consumption in their diets," Burns says.

She says all herbs have oils that affect the palate in different ways and exploring the many varieties and combinations not only imparts exciting new ways to enjoy food, but also helps to reduce the amount of salt you have to use, and are even used in sweet applications to help with sugar consumption.

Another bonus is that herbs have medicinal purposes, from which, with just a bit of research, anyone can benefit. "The same goes for oils," says Burns, "many oils also have health benefits, meaning not all fats are bad, a common misconception." Some oils are better suited to cold cooking applications, such as dressings, as excessive heat may remove some of these benefits. Oils with a high smoke point are best because cooking on a higher heat for less time means less fat is absorbed by the food, she says.

Oils and vinegars are a key way to carry flavour into food, says Chef Calvin Burt, chef/proprietor of the highly touted Shipwright Café, an intimate dining room housed in a restored 1880s farmhouse in Margate, PEI.

"They are really good flavour carriers," says Burt, who tends almost three acres of on-site organic vegetable, fruit and herb gardens, and last year led a course on the subject at PEI's Fall Flavours, the island-wide fine food festival.

He suggests puréeing fresh herbs and then adding oil or vinegar. Chef Burt says one can also make an assortment of salts this way. Simply place the herb in a food processor and purée with your salt. The mixture can then be used in soups and stews and even as a flavoured salt.

Neutral oils such as canola or vegetable, and regular vinegar - all readily available in grocery stores - work best since you don't have to work to mask their flavour. And, voila! With not much effort, you've created a pureéd basil oil or a chives oil certain to add oomph to your cooking.

Getting Started

But how do you get started? How can you incorporate more herbs and oils into your cooking? The best introduction is to begin with your own garden, Burt says. "That's the best way to really start. You get them fresh. People will start using them more when they have on them on hand. Things like dill grow amazingly easily. Summer savoury, dill, and thyme all do really well here."

He says herbs, much like growing vines for wine, don't like a lot of attention and they don't like a rich soil. In essence, the harder the vine has to struggle, the more intense the flavour. New gardeners can get started by buying seeds from companies such as Halifax Seed Company or Vesey's in PEI, or buying plants from their local nursery. Thyme, chives and basil are all a good choice for beginners, Burt says. The herbs do really well in pots, traditionally placed outside the kitchen door for ease of access, or in the backyard garden. Some are perennials and will come back every year.

Burt says he's pleased to see more people are getting into growing edible ornaments; growing things that they can use.

He says it's best to plant in June, after the risk of frost has passed. An exception to this standard rule is garlic, which is best planted around November. The plant, like a tulip bulb, goes dormant, to reappear in spring. To make the most of the bounty come harvest, Burt says the best way to preserve herbs is to throw them in the freezer in a Ziploc bag or freeze on a tray and then package. That way, in the cold days of winter, you can pull out some mint to tuck under the bottom of a lamb as it roasts in your oven, or add a herb or two to flavour stews, roasts, gravies, sauces and stews. To enjoy the taste of garlic year-round, Burt likes to purée the garlic with olive oil, put in mason jars and freeze.

An old-fashion Acadian method of preserving herbs, Mersereau says, is called Herbs Salée and is one that she uses today. "They layered herbs between coarse sea salt in a crock. They did this as a means of survival, with the long, severe winters," she explains. "Before the frost sets, you harvest the remaining herbs and vegetables from your garden in whatever mix to suit your needs, and place them in salt. These are great for soups and stews. The Acadians and Quebecois would often mix green onion, celery, carrot, parsley and leeks."

Classic Pair-Ups

The key to cooking with fresh herbs is to know what foods to put them with, says Mersereau. Combinations she does include:

  • "Basil with everything! Especially lobster!"
  • Summer savory with chicken, pork, "and of course the Acadian chicken fricot"
  • Sage with oven-baked beans and garlic
  • Roasted potatoes with rosemary, saffron and garlic.
  • Lemon thyme and lemon balm in lemon bread.
  • Anise in anything seafood; she says it is also great in salads, especially the root; she also uses anise in her fish fumes.
  • Cilantro with crab and shrimp.
  • Mint in salads.
  • Chives in eggs, smoked salmon, salad dressings, hollandaise, and butter.

Mersereau also does herb and wine jellies, beet juice and herb jelly, herb oil and vinegars. Other classic pair-ups include sliced tomatoes drizzled with basil oil; mint and lamb are popular soulmates and chives go really well with fish, says Chef Burt.

For Chef Burns, food/herb combinations she likes include tarragon or dill with seafood, while rosemary goes well with beef, pork and chicken and is very fragrant. "Basil and oregano are essential in most Italian dishes. Summer savoury and sage conjour up thoughts of Thanksgiving and Christmas and the fresh punch of cilantro always brings a coolness to the spicy dishes usually associated with the American southwest."

She says her best advice is to "use your nose" and explore the many ways to use herbs: for example, fresh chives on or in potatoes for the flavour of onion without the pungency or texture, a fresh pesto sauce added to a simple vegetable soup, or fresh mint in a lamb instead of poor cousin mint jelly.

Chef Burt says the market offers an increasing amount of herb choices such as pineapple and chocolate mints, lemon thyme and lemon, and spicy Thai basils.

"Experiment with your tastes and food," he says. "I encourage people to get growing fresh herbs outside their door. There's no end to what you can do with them."

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