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Cooking with herbs

Who’s Cookin’ Now?

Welcome to the first edition of my cooking column, Who’s Cookin’ Now? I will be sharing my views and news of food and cooking, providing helpful information and appealing, delicious recipes, along with my favorite cooking tips and culinary techniques. As a chef and culinary instructor, I am convinced that cooking is absolutely essential to good meals and a healthy lifestyle, and it is my intent to inspire you in the kitchen. Whether you’re cooking for two, a large family, or just for dinner guests, I hope to streamline and simplify cooking, making it enjoyably easier via this column.

Each month as you read Who’s Cookin’ Now?, I will look forward your feedback. I know you will be investing your time, ingredients, and energy into any of the recipes that you try, so I will want to hear about successes (and failures if they happen) as well as how you adapt the recipes to make them your own. Suggestions, compliments, and constructive criticism will always be taken to heart and appreciated, and please feel free to provide me with “food for thought” for upcoming column topics – I will love hearing from you.

Now You’re Cookin’,

Chef Alli

Cooking with Herbs: Irresistibly Easy!

Summer’s on its way and I’m thrilled. I’ve been dreaming of home grown vegetables and trips to the Farmer’s Market, while the boys are already asking for pizza on the grill – can’t wait. And, I’m especially anxious to get back into my herb beds to get them in shape for the season, allowing me an escape from purchasing those crazy little packages of fresh herbs in the produce department at the grocery store. Talk about expensive - each one of those packages weighs less than an ounce and costs anywhere from $3-$5 – ouch! Yes, I think they’re worth the cost in the dead of winter, but by now I’m anxious to have access to my herb bed for all my favorite summer recipes.

I have found that not only is raising my own herbs more economical, its great therapy to get out there and dig in the dirt now and then. My beds are home to some pretty common herbs but I like to have several “flavors” within each type. For instance, in my basil family, I like to have purple, Italian, and Thai as well as cinnamon basil. And, since I’m a mojito nut, it’s a must to have lots spearmint growing, but I also cultivate chocolate and orange mint, as well. (Please note – I recommend growing mint in pots ONLY – mint can quickly take over everything in your flower/herb beds!) Oregano, thyme, chives and rosemary are other definite herb favorites, too, and they all have special spots in my beds. I wish I could grow cilantro successfully, since I love to make salsa fresca often, but as of last summer, I’ve not mastered it!

I’m often quizzed about how to use fresh herbs in my cooking classes, so we often spend a great deal of class time discussing all the ways to incorporate them. I think it’s great how the revival of culinary arts and various ethnic cuisines have caused a surge of renewed awareness in herbs. Not only can herbs add great flavor to our dishes, it’s good to know they add nary a calorie, nor one bit of fat – definitely a bonus when your intent is healthy cooking. And though there are no hard, fast rules when it comes to using fresh herbs in the kitchen, here are a few Chef Alli pointers and ideas to get you started:

The more you mince, the stronger the flavor

Let’s say you’re adding cilantro to a salsa fresca and you’re hoping that if you mince it finely enough your picky kids won’t notice it in the mix. This approach will back-fire on you every time because with each cut you make, more essence (oil) is released from the cilantro, intensifying the flavor. Instead, chop the cilantro in larger pieces, which easily allows eaters to move it aside if they don’t care for the flavor. Fresh herbs are not equivalent in measure to dried herbs (spices).

Because fresh herbs are less concentrated in flavor than dried herbs, you are likely to need to add more herbs to your dish. All herbs and spices vary slightly, but a good starting place is this: 1 Tablespoon fresh = ½ tsp. dried. Start sparingly until you become familiar with the herb you are cooking with – aromatic oils aren’t as appetizing if too much is used!

Extended cooking times reduce the flavor of fresh herbs

Add fresh herbs to your skillet or pot just about 15 minutes before the cooking time is to be completed. As an example, when I make Pasta Fagioli for my family, I don’t add the minced oregano until there’s about 10-15 minutes of simmering time left.

Fresh herbs made fragrant bouquets for your kitchen counter.

When I’m not cooking with fresh herbs, I’m at least using them to make my kitchen smell great. Place a large bouquet of fresh herbs into a tall mason jar filled with water; each time you pass by, simply rub the leaves to release their essence into the air – delightful!

Homemade herbal butters and cream cheeses make lovely hostess gifts

One stick of unsalted butter (1/2 cup) or 1 block of cream cheese (8 oz) blended with 1 Tbs. finely minced fresh herbs is yummy! To serve, let come to room temperature for about 30 minutes, then serve on your favorite crackers or toasted baguette slices.

Please be sure to try the recipes I’ve included below. The tomato sauce is very flavorful and so quick to make - you will never purchase store-bought again!

Chef Alli’s Meatballs and Tomato Basil Sauce over Polenta

Tomato Basil Sauce

2 strips bacon

1 small yellow onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

28 oz. crushed tomatoes

1/3 cup minced fresh Italian parsley

1 Tbs. granulated sugar

½ - 1 tsp. red pepper flakes

¼ cup fresh basil, chiffonade

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a saute pan or skillet, cook bacon until crispy over medium high heat; remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. In bacon drippings, cook onion over medium heat until translucent, approx. 6-8 minutes. Stir in garlic and continue to cook another 30 seconds, or just until garlic is fragrant. Add tomatoes, parsley, sugar, and pepper flakes. Simmer 15-20 minutes; stir in basil, then season sauce to taste with salt and pepper.


8 oz. ground sirloin

8 oz. ground turkey

1 egg

1 tsp. dried parsley

¾ cup grated parmesan

½ tsp. fennel seeds

1 slice white bread, torn into small pieces

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup dried polenta

In a large mixing bowl, combine sirloin with turkey, egg, parsley, parmesan, fennel seeds and bread; mix well, then season with salt and pepper. Shape mixture into meatballs approx. 1 ½ -2 inches in size and place into a greased and bake for 20 minutes for in preheated 450 degree F. oven, until nicely browned. Remove cooked meatballs from any fats that have accumulated in the baking dish and place into prepared Tomato Basil Sauce; simmer for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, cook 1 cup dried polenta according to package directions.

To serve, pour sauce over bowls of soft, warm polenta then top with meatballs; garnish with freshly shredded parmesan, if desired.

Who’s Cookin’ Now? I hope it’s you!

Chef Alli

Chef Alli’s, Inc.

PO Box 750664

Topeka, KS 66675

(785) 272-1055

May 24, 2011

Chef Alli — Who's Cookin’ Now?


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