IT’S EASY TO grow herbs. If you’ve ever planted mint, you know just how easy. But how best to use these aromatic plants beyond floating a leaf of lemon verbena in ice tea or chopping basil into pesto?
I sought advice from a chef on Whidbey Island known for his fresh, vegetable-and-herb-rich cooking. Vincent Nattress grew up in Coupeville, trained in the south of France, then cooked in California for 16 years. He describes his cooking as olive oil-, garlic- and goat-cheese-based rather than inspired by the butter-and-cream French model. Several years ago, Nattress brought his wife, Tyla, and two daughters back to Whidbey, where he runs the catering company Cultivar.
“If you’re not seeing the farm, then what does farm-to-table really mean?” he asks. Not a problem for this busy chef; his family’s white farmhouse sits in the midst of a bustling farm. Sheep, chickens and turkeys, 2½ acres of vegetable gardens and an orchard are all just outside the windows.
Which herbs does he consider necessary for everyday cooking? “The perennials like rosemary, sage and bay . . . you can harvest from them nearly 12 months of the year.” He uses these woody, resinous herbs in long cooking preparations, where they infuse the food with flavor.
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Keep in mind that to actually be perennial in our climate, rosemary, sage and bay need full sunshine and the best drainage you can provide. Soggy roots, even more than winter cold, are a death sentence. But these perennials make up for their Mediterranean nature by performing as beautiful landscape plants as well as culinary herbs.
Thyme is Nattress’ favorite perennial herb, and the one he considers most abused. “Thyme is for finishing food and should be added at the last minute,” he says. “Chicken needs thyme, sprinkle it over pizza or finish a tomato sauce with it,” he advises. He grows four varieties and considers the common Thymus vulgaris to be “the mother of all thymes.”
When it comes to annual herbs, Nattress ticks off basil, summer savory, chives and parsley (parsley is a biennial, usually grown as an annual because it tends to bolt to seed the second year).
“Chives are so underrated. They’re the most delicate, herbaceous form of an onion,” Nattress says. He describes a mouthwatering salad that combines chopped chives with red jasmine rice, toasted pecans, fennel and oranges.
Nattress is a huge fan of summer savory, which he describes as “weird-looking, with needlelike leaves.” He says it’s heady scattered over fresh-from-the-vine, sliced tomatoes.
He treats basil, too, as a finishing herb, slicing the leaves into a chiffonade. “It loses its basil-ness if you cook it,” Nattress explains. “The most you’d ever want to do is a 20-second blanch, then ice it, so it keeps its bright green color in pesto.” He also prefers parsley raw, except for its stems, which he tosses into the stockpot.
Of course, I can’t leave without asking for a recipe. Nattress describes how he uses rosemary to flavor baby red or fingerling potatoes. Cut the potatoes in half and blanch them. Brown them in olive oil, cut side down, in a saute pan. Once the potatoes are golden, toss and coat them in the rosemary and some minced garlic. The potatoes end up crispy and infused with the scent and taste of rosemary. Nattress says, “My daughters call these ‘the good potatoes.’ ”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.