Herbs, the flavorful rewards of spring

Chives, dill, tarragon and chervil make dishes come alive

click to enlarge Herbs, the flavorful rewards of spring
Photo by Ashley Meyer
Chicken with tarragon sauce

After months of comforting cold weather cuisine, the arrival of fresh spring herbs can add some much needed freshness to mealtime. Even early in the season those lucky enough to have established plantings of herbs in a sheltered spot may already be enjoying some of the most flavorful and nutrient-dense rewards of spring. Chives are usually one of the first to emerge, often in late winter followed by mint, tarragon and parsley. Their ability to survive Illinois' harsh winters can be improved by a two- to three-inch layer of mulch. Indeed, I thought my lovely big tarragon plant hadn't lived through this past winter, but as I gently removed the layers of leaves that covered it last fall, I discovered fleshy shoots making their way up to the sunlight.

Parsley and chives are the culinary workhorses of the herb garden and combine well with most other herbs. Together with tarragon and chervil, which has a fresh anise-like flavor, they are known as fines herbes, a flavoring combination widely used in classical French cooking. Tarragon has an especially delicate flavor and pairs particularly well with fish, chicken and egg dishes. It's also a classic combination with Dijon mustard.

Perennial herbs that are too tender to overwinter in our climate, such as rosemary, oregano and thyme, need to be brought indoors over the winter. They can, however, withstand a light frost and therefore are ready to move outside now so they can take advantage of bright sunlight air movement. More tender annual herbs like basil, cilantro, marjoram and dill will do better outside once nighttime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees. However, April is a good time to start those herbs from seed in a south-facing window. They'll be ready to head outside full time in mid-May, once the danger of frost has passed.

I love to use fresh herbs in abundance and as an ingredient in their own right, not just as a garnish. Mint and dill in particular add interest and pop to an array of dishes from salads to grilled meats. Cooked and cooled couscous becomes a beautiful and satisfying main course salad when combined with handfuls of chopped mint, parsley and chives, along with grated carrots, thawed frozen peas, chopped pistachios, crumbled feta and a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice. Beautify your next cheese board with a simple herbed goat cheese log. Mince dill, chives, parsley and lemon zest together with a generous grating of fresh black pepper, then roll a log of cold goat cheese in the chopped herb mixture and serve with toasted baguette. This is especially pretty if you have some of the purple chive blossoms, which are also edible, to add to the mixture.

Herby Egg Salad

6 hard-boiled eggs
cup quality mayonnaise
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 heaping tablespoon each minced parsley, chives and dill
¼ cup minced celery
2 tablespoons minced red onion
A squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and black pepper to taste

Peel and dice the eggs. Combine the eggs with the remaining ingredients and gently mix to combine. Taste for seasoning. Chill until ready to serve.

Spinach and Herb Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Tarragon Cream Sauce

This dinner party showstopper was one of my catering standbys. The filling can be adjusted to suit a variety of tastes and can incorporate an array of fillings such as sautéed mushrooms or cheese. The chicken breasts can be assembled and refrigerated up to one day ahead as well as the sauce.

For the chicken:
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons minced shallots
2 each tablespoons minced chives, parsley and tarragon
5 ounces frozen chopped spinach, squeezed dry
Salt and pepper to taste
4 boneless skin-on chicken breasts

For the sauce:
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup minced shallots
1 bay leaf
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup unsalted chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced tarragon, plus additional for garnish

Combine the butter, shallots and chopped herbs in a mixing bowl and season generously with salt and pepper (use less salt if using salted butter).

Place the chicken skin-side up on a cutting board. Gently loosen the skin on one side of the breast and spoon about 1/4 cup of the butter mixture under the skin and tuck the sides down around the breast, forming a neat little parcel. Arrange the filled chicken breasts in a greased baking dish. At this point the chicken can be refrigerated, well wrapped, for up to one day.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the chicken in the preheated oven for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown and the internal temperature registers 160 degrees on a meat thermometer. Remove from the oven and allow to rest 20 minutes before serving.

Once the chicken has rested, slice the breasts on the diagonal into half-inch-thick slices and drizzle with the tarragon cream sauce, below. Serve with additional chopped tarragon.

To make the sauce, heat the butter in a saucepan. When hot but not brown, add the shallots along with a small pinch of salt and sauté until just softened. Add the wine, bay leaf, tarragon and pepper and cook until the wine has almost evaporated. Add the broth and simmer until reduced by half. Add the cream and simmer, stirring frequently as the sauce bubbles up in the pan. Reduce to one cup. Keep warm or refrigerate until ready to use.

About The Author

Ashley Meyer

Ashley Meyer has been cooking as long as she has been walking. The daughter of beloved former Illinois Times food columnist, Julianne Glatz, Ashley offers a fresh, inspired take on her mother’s culinary legacy. Ashley studied winemaking at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand and recently achieved the...

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