North Fork Chef: Herbs are at the heart of these recipes

Are you goin’ to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there,
She once was a true love of mine.
Excerpt from ‘Scarborough Fair’ by Simon and Garfunkel

Simon and Garfunkel captured the rhythm and the warmth of fresh herbs, but it takes a chef to capture the aroma and the flavor they impart to food. It wasn’t long ago that the only herbs available to the home cook were either dried or those you grew yourself. That has changed, along with the notion that fresh is best. Now we can purchase a wide assortment of fresh herbs at any supermarket, usually all year long. While that little touch of flavor and aroma added at the last moment may seem extravagant or not worth the money, herbs used properly can transform a mundane dish into a masterpiece.

Parsley: Although parsley has been grown around the Mediterranean since before recorded history, the ancient Greeks and Romans did not use it in their cooking. Instead, like many herbs, it was used for medicinal purposes. In more recent times parsley was the one herb always available in fresh form but, ironically, used mostly as a plate garnish that was rarely eaten. Today we’ve learned that its palate-cleansing taste and scent of spring, especially in the flat Italian variety, can be delicious. One of the best ways to enjoy the flavor of parsley is in the Argentinian chimichurri sauce served with grilled steaks.

Chimichurri Sauce
Coarsely chop 4 cloves of garlic and 1 medium-sized shallot. Place them in a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add 2 cups coarsely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley and pulse until finely chopped, but not puréed. Transfer to a bowl and stir in 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon lime juice, 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt and a pinch of hot red pepper flakes. Serve with char-grilled flank steak, skirt steak or chicken breasts.

Sage: This fresh herb with its strong, woody smell and fuzzy leaves has been around for thousands of years, both in cooking and as a medicine. We commonly associate it with stuffing for turkey or pork, but one of its finest expressions is in the Italian dish saltimbocca.

Veal Saltimbocca
Purchase 1 pound of thin veal cutlets, 1/4 pound of thinly cut prosciutto ham and a package of fresh sage. Place the cutlets between plastic film and pound them out as thin as possible. Cut them into uniform sizes so that they can be placed on top of one another to make 4 portions. Cover the bottom slice of veal with a thin slice of prosciutto and 2 sage leaves. Lay the matching slice of veal on top and press them firmly together. Repeat for all 4 portions and dust them in flour. Put a small folded piece of prosciutto on top along with 1 sage leaf and secure them with a toothpick placed on an angle through the whole cutlet.

Heat a sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil. When the butter foams, add 4 sliced cloves of garlic and 4 fresh sage leaves. When the garlic begins to brown, remove it with the sage leaves with a slotted spoon and set aside. Immediately add the veal cutlets and brown on each side for about 3 minutes at medium heat and remove.

Add to the hot pan 3/4 pound sliced cremini mushrooms, cook until brown and remove. Deglaze the pan with 1/2 cup of marsala wine, lower the heat and add back the veal cutlets, the mushrooms and the toasted garlic and sage.

While this simmers at low heat, boil 1 pound whole grain linguine until just cooked, and drain. Divide this between 4 plates and serve the veal and all the juices on top of the linguine.
Serves 4.

Rosemary: This herb, with sturdy leaves that resemble pine needles, is very aromatic and strong enough to stand up to long roasting periods at high heat. It is native to the Mediterranean but also grows in cool regions around the world. It is often used in marinades due to its powerful flavors and is especially good when combined with garlic and lemon.

Whole Roasted Chicken with Rosemary, Garlic and Lemon
Remove the giblets from a whole 4-pound chicken and rinse under cold water. Soften 2 tablespoons of butter and add 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, the zest from 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Mash these ingredients together and slip them under the skin of the chicken, being careful to not tear the skin.

Coarsely chop 1 onion, 1 stalk of celery and 1 carrot. Place this mirepoix in the bottom of a roasting pan and place the chicken on top. Quarter 1 whole lemon, crush 6 cloves of garlic and cut 1 large sprig of rosemary in half. Push these seasonings into the cavity of the chicken and tie the legs together with string. Add 1 cup chicken broth to the roasting pan and brush the chicken with 1 tablespoon melted butter. Place it in a 325-degree oven for 55 minutes. Raise the heat to 425 degrees, basting the chicken with the pan drippings. Let it cook another 25 minutes until golden brown, with an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Remove from the oven and set the chicken on a sheet pan covered with foil for 20 minutes.

Place the roasting pan on the stove and add 2 tablespoons flour. Stir over medium heat and add 1 more cup of chicken broth. Scrape up any drippings on the bottom of the pan and transfer all to a saucepan. Bring the sauce to a boil and add 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Strain into a bowl, skim the fat and check for seasoning.
Cut the chicken up into pieces (or carve) and serve with the sauce.
Makes 4 portions.

Thyme: Used for embalming by ancient Egyptians, as incense by the ancient Greeks and as a gift to give warriors courage in the Middle Ages, thyme finally became a culinary ingredient in modern times. It is essential in the classic French “bouquet garni,” which consists of thyme, bay leaf, leek and parsley stems, but I think it is really good in its fresh form with mildly flavored fish such as cod and flounder.

Roasted Cod with Thyme and Lemon
Portion 2 pounds of fresh cod into 4 pieces and remove any bones. Place 1/4 cup canola oil in a small saucepan and add 4 sprigs of fresh thyme. Slowly bring to a boil and shut off the heat. Let the oil cool and remove the thyme after 15 minutes. Mix the juice and zest from 1 lemon into the thyme oil along with 1/2 teaspoon sea salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Place the cod fillets in the marinade and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Place the cod on a sheet pan. In a small bowl, mix 1/2 cup panko crumbs with 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves and 1 teaspoon lemon pepper seasoning. Sprinkle this mixture on the cod fillets and drizzle with any of the extra thyme oil. Roast in a 400-degree oven until fish is opaque, about 15 minutes. Serve over wilted spinach or swiss chard.
Serves 4.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected].