Cast off culinary shyness with herbs

Seattle-area chef encourages a bold approach with the fragrant leaves

Not too long ago, parsley was the only fresh herb you could buy. If you didn't grow your own basil, rosemary, thyme, or other culinary herbs, your soups and stews went without. Or you'd reach into your cupboard for a clear glass jar of dried herb flakes and give them a shake into the pot. Now, thanks to increased demand for fresh foods, such limitations are almost ancient history.

No one is more pleased with this trend than Jerry Traunfeld. For the past 10 years, as executive chef at the wildly popular Herbfarm restaurant outside Seattle, he has enchanted guests with his herb-infused cooking. Every one of the nine courses featured in his signature dinners - from appetizers such as Tomato and Fennel Soup or Roasted Asparagus Salad With Fresh Sage to desserts like Lemon Verbena Sorbet and Lavender Shortbread - is made with just-picked herbs from the surrounding kitchen gardens. Even beverages, such as sparkling sodas or the restaurant's much-imitated Rosemary Lemonade, are infused with the fragrant plants.

Mr. Traunfeld's culinary background includes training at the California Culinary Academy and a stint at Jeremiah Tower's award-winning Stars restaurant in San Francisco, but it wasn't until he began buying herbs from a farmer on Washington's Vashon Island that his passion for culinary herbs really caught fire. "She grew the most gorgeous and unusual herbs," he recalls. It was then that he began his first herb garden, and has been growing dozens of herbs ever since.

Herb enthusiasts who can't get to Seattle can now make Traunfeld's dishes, thanks to "The Herbfarm Cookbook" (Scribner, $40), which features recipes for more than 200 favorites from the restaurant as well as a useful source list and tips for selecting, growing, and drying fresh herbs. For example, under the heading "Scented Geraniums," Traunfeld explains: "It's tempting to grow them all, but there are only two 'flavors' of geranium that I think are essential for the culinary herb garden - rose and lemon."

When he's not cooking at the restaurant in Woodinville, Wash., or tending his own garden on a small Seattle lot, Traunfeld is teaching others how to infuse meals with garden-fresh herbs. He is savvy about the needs of the home cook, and his recipes reflect that. For the sake of convenience or just variety, most dishes in his cookbook feature herb substitutions. For example, his recipe for Roasted Shrimp With Marjoram includes a note that one could substitute 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped English or lemon thyme or rosemary for the marjoram.

Traunfeld wrote "The Herbfarm Cookbook" to inspire greater confidence among home cooks. "Many people are too timid when they cook with fresh herbs," he explains. "Most of us learned to cook using measured pinches and teaspoons of dried herbs, but fresh herbs lend themselves to a much freer use. Their flavors are complex and vibrant, yet not as concentrated. Generous snippings and small handfuls are often appropriate. Of course, you never want to overpower other ingredients, but don't be afraid to allow the herbs to be noticed."

Getting noticed is certainly not a problem for Traunfeld's cooking. Reservations at the Herbfarm restaurant have been called the "most coveted in the country." But fame doesn't seem to affect him. What really excites Traunfeld is the opportunity to cook with such glorious ingredients. "Whenever I brush up against a rosemary shrub," he says, "roll a basil sprig between my fingers, or cut a bunch of chives, I feel like I have the best job in the world."

Rosemary Lemonade

1/2 cup sugar

6 cups water

6 (4-inch) sprigs fresh rosemary

1/2 to 3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Bring the sugar and 2 cups of the water to a boil in a small (1-quart) saucepan. Add the rosemary sprigs, cover, and remove from the heat. Let the syrup steep for at least 30 minutes.

Strain the syrup into a pitcher. Stir in 1/2 cup of the lemon juice and the remaining 4 cups water. Taste and add more lemon juice if necessary. Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Makes about 1-1/2 quarts.

Herb substitutions: In place of the rosemary, use 2 tablespoons fresh lavender buds, 8 scented geranium leaves, 1/2 cup fresh mint sprigs, or 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves.

Green Goddess Grilled Chicken Salad

2 cups Green Goddess Dressing (recipe below)

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 cups mixed young salad greens, or commercial mesclun mix, also called field salad or spring mix

1 ripe avocado, quartered, peeled, and sliced

2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, cut into 8 wedges each

Optional garnish: tarragon sprigs, snipped chives, or edible flowers such as mustard, arugula, scarlet runner bean, or nasturtium

Prepare the dressing as much as 2 days ahead and store tightly covered in the refrigerator.

Start a charcoal fire in an outdoor grill or preheat a gas grill to medium-high. In a mixing bowl, toss the chicken breasts with the oil, garlic, mustard, salt, and pepper. Adjust the grill rack 4 inches from the fire. When the charcoal is ashed over and medium hot or the gas grill is preheated, lay the chicken on the grill and cook uncovered until the underside is well marked, about 4 minutes. Turn and cook the other side until the chicken is firm to the touch and no pink remains, 4 to 6 minutes. The chicken breasts can also be broiled in the same manner. Let the chicken cool slightly while preparing the greens.

Wash the salad greens by swishing them in a deep basin of cold water. Lift them from the water and spin dry or pat dry in a clean towel. In a large mixing bowl, toss the salad greens with 1/2 cup of dressing until they are well-coated. Divide the greens among 4 dinner plates. With a thin-bladed slicing knife, slice the chicken breasts 1/4-inch thick on a diagonal. Arrange the slices of chicken on top of the greens in a fan shape and arrange the avocado and tomatoes beside it. Spoon additional dressing in a band across the chicken. Garnish if desired with tarragon, chives, or edible flowers. Serve the salads right away. Pass the remaining dressing at the table. Serves 4.

For a seafood variation, substitute 12 ounces cooked peeled shrimp or 12 ounces fresh crabmeat for the cooked chicken.

Green Goddess Dressing

3/4 cup (gently packed) fresh French tarragon leaves

3/4 cup snipped fresh chives

3/4 cup (gently packed) fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

6 anchovy fillets

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 cup regular or low-fat sour cream or plain whole-milk or low-fat yogurt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Puree the herbs, anchovies, lemon juice, and salt in a food processor or blender. With the machine running, add the oil in a slow stream. Scrape down the sides. Add the sour cream and pepper; process until smooth. Store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Makes 2 cups.

From 'The Herbfarm Cookbook,' by Jerry Traunfeld

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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