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Herbs as the main event

Submitted by on June 2, 2009 – 6:42 pmOne Comment


This gorgeous summer roll recipe uses a cup and a half of herbs

This gorgeous summer roll I made is from a recipe that calls for a cup and a half of herbs

It occurred to me last summer–when faced with several window boxes bursting with my surprisingly healthy and robust herb garden–that using a sprig here and a sprig there wasn’t going to make a dent in my short-lived seasonal bounty.  I needed to figure out some ways to enjoy my herbs by the handful, not the pinch.

Even when I’m not growing my own, buying a bunch of herbs from the supermarket feels like a ticking time bomb sometimes.  The bunches are almost prohibitively big–and inevitably when I did take the plunge and buy a bunch, I’d find myself using it once or twice to garnish a dish, and then having to toss the rest that went bad before I could finish it.

But there are plenty ways to use up every last leaf of those herbs, and plenty of nutritious reasons to do so.  So now that it’s planting season, what better time to get your recipes lined up in anticipation for the herb rush?

Herbs are vegetables, too

Which means that when you eat them by the handful, they count toward your daily goal of at least 5 a day. Most culinary herbs are a good source of and Vitamin K (for blood clotting and bone health).  Others are good sources of Vitamin A (basil), or Vitamin C (parsley).  But even better, the unique oils in many common culinary herbs have all sorts of other health-promoting effects, like antioxidant functions, antibacterial properties, and anti-inflammatory benefits; this makes them helpful allies in the fight to keep your heart healthy.    And like other green leafy vegetables, they’re virtually calorie-free.  Bargain!

Making them last

herbsavor1The very clever people at Prepara heard our collective cries over wilted bunches of cilantro and invented the ingenious Herb Savor for us.  When I use it properly (like trimming the stems of the herbs before putting them in, and changing the water every week), my beloved Herb Savor keeps a bunch of cilantro alive and kicking for about 3 weeks. When I think of how much I used to spend on herbs that wound up in the compost heap, I believe that my $30 investment was well worth it.  Consider this a non-celebrity endorsement of a great product from someone who has no financial stake in the company.

Making herbs the main event: some ideas  

1.  Vietnamese Summer Rolls

This is a relatively new recipe in my repertoire, but it’s so delicious and impressive-looking that it’s already blog-worthy.  Plus, it uses a full cup and a half of fresh herbs: 1/2 cup each of basil, mint and cilantro. It’s from the May, 2009 issue of Gourmet magazine (scroll down to the bottom of this posting for full recipe… unfortunately, the magazine hasn’t posted it online, so I can’t provide a link).  The dipping sauce calls for Hoisin sauce, which almost always contains wheat gluten.  (However, I recently found a gluten-free hoisin sauce made by a company called Premier Japan... you can order it online or look for it locally.)  Alternatively, you can make it gluten-free by substituting Plum Sauce for the Hoisin Sauce, as the former is usually safe (but just check the ingredient list of the brand you buy, just to be sure).  Also, if you don’t/can’t eat tofu, do what I did: make a sweet Japanese-style omelet (think tamago–the sweet egg custard served atop sushi rice) to cut into strips in lieu of the tofu strips.  (See below for instructions.)  I’ll concede that this is a slightly labor-intensive recipe, but it’s fun as a two-person job, and makes a very impressive dish to show up with at a pot-luck summer party.  Plus, it’s a nice alternative to salad.

2. Pesto

It may not be original, but it’s still one of the best ways to make use of copious amounts of herbs.  My favorite pesto-making approach is a mix-and-match formula I learned from Sarah Foster’s “Fresh Every Day” cookbook (Random House, 2005), where you can use any combination of herbs and any kind of nuts that suit your fancy.  Here’s how it works:

2 1/2 cups of packed herb leaves, washed, drained and dried well (e.g., basil, spinach, cilantro, arugula, mint, flat-leaf parsley or any combo thereof)

note: the standard recipe would be 2 cups basil leaves and 1/2 cup parsley

4-8 garlic cloves, to your liking

1/4 cup olive oil (or less, depending on whether you like it more like a spread or more like a paste)

1/4 cup nuts (pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, or any combination thereof)

2/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

Sea salt and black pepper to taste

Blend the leaves in a food processor first.  Then add oil slowly while motor is running, stopping periodically to scrape the sides.  Next, add nuts, cheese, salt and pepper and keep blending until smooth.

Personally, I like to make a thick, paste-like pesto to mix into still-hot penne pasta (gluten free in our house, natch), or to toss with blanched fresh green beans that have been cut into 1-2″ pieces.  You can freeze pesto in ice cube trays, and then remove them from the tray once frozen to store in a freezer bag for future use.  A thinner textured pesto makes a delightful sauce for grilled fish or chicken.

3. Herb Frittata or Fresh Herb Risotto

These two beauties both come courtesy of the NY Times Recipes for Health.

The first is for a *gorgeous* frittata, and it uses 2 whole cups of mixed herbs.  It’s a perfect brunch or lunch dish, or you can cut it into pieces, stick some toothpicks in it, and make it a fancy passed hors d’oeuvre.

The second is for a super-summery Fresh Herb Risotto, which calls for 4 cups of fresh herb leaves (or 2 cups chopped).  Can’t you just picture this accompanying a few sweet, seared scallops and some grilled asparagus?  


Recipe: Vietnamese Summer Rolls (Original recipe from May, 2009 issue of Gourmet magazine, adapted by yours truly to be gluten-free with a tofu-free option)

2 oz dried bean thread noodles (cellophane noodles) … do yourself a favor and buy the ones sold in 1-oz sized ‘nests’ rather than in  a whole huge tangle

1 small carrot, cut into thin matchsticks (~3/4 cup)

1 small cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into thin matchsticks (~3/4 cup)

1 small fresh jalapeno, cut into thin matchsticks

1/4 cup rice vinegar (not seasoned)

1/4 tsp sugar

I TBSP plus 3/4 tsp lime juice, divided

16 rice paper rounds (aka- Spring Roll Skins or Galettes de Riz)… about 8″ in diameter.  Plus extra in case some tear.

4 romaine lettuce leaves, each torn into 4 pieces

10 oz packaged baked tofu, cut into 3 x 1/3″ inch sticks… OR in lieu of tofu, substitute tamago as follows: (4 eggs+2 TBSP sugar + 1 tsp wheat-free Tamari, beaten together and cooked in the smallest omelet pan you have until just firm, but not too brown.  Cut the omelet into strips and use in place of the tofu.)

1 cup fresh bean sprouts

1/2 cup EACH of: torn basil, mint and cilantro leaves (1 1/2 cups total)

1/3 cup gluten-free hoisin sauce OR plum sauce (note: a few brands of plum sauce will contain wheat, but I’ve found plenty that do not… just be sure to check the labels)

2 TBSP chunky peanut butter

2 TBSP water


  1. Soak noodles in a medium bowl of boiling-hot water 10 minutes
  2. Meanwhile, blanch carrot in boiling water until softened, about 45 seconds.  Drain.  Rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, then transfer to a small bowl along w/ the cucumber, jalapeno, vinegar, sugar, 1 TBSP lime juice and 1/4 tsp salt.  Let stand 5 minutes.  Reserve 2 TBSPs of the liquid, then drain the now-pickled vegetables.
  3. Drain noodles and rinse under cold water.  Drain and pat dry.  Toss noodles with remaining 3/4 tsp lime juice and snip w/ kitchen shears 5-6 times.
  4. If substituting the tamago (egg custard omelet) for the tofu, make the omelet now as specified above and cut it into strips.
  5. Fill a shallow pan or pie plate with warm water.  Soak 2 rice paper rounds until they begin to soften, about 30 seconds, then let excess water drip off and stack soaked rounds on a work surface so that they overlap by all but 1″ on either side.  (Note: don’t use a wooden cutting board as your work surface or the rice paper will stick!  I had good luck directly on a clean, smooth, countertop.)
  6. Put 2 pieces of romaine on bottom third of round.
  7. Top with: 1/8 of the noodles (about 2 TBSP), tofu or tamago (4 sticks), bean sprouts (~2 TBSP), herbs (3 TBSP) and pickled vegetables (3 TBSP).
  8. Roll up *tightly* around filling, making sure to fold in the sides early in your rolling process for maximum tightness.
  9. Make 7 more rolls in the same manner
  10. To make dipping sauce: combine hoisin or plum sauce with peanut butter, water and the reserved 2 TBSP of pickling liquid.  


Note: rolls and sauce can be made 4 hours ahead and chilled… rolls covered in damp paper towels and then plastic wrap.

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