Cooking With Herbs Personal chef Kevin Weeks sets out to tantalize taste buds with a light menu featuring a cornucopia of fresh herbs from appetizer to dessert.

Cooking With Herbs

About The Author

After working as editor of various computer magazines, Kevin Weeks is now a personal chef in Knoxville, Tenn. He specializes in cooking with a Mediterranean accent, filling plates with the flavors of southern Europe and northern Africa. Weeks also teaches cooking classes and blogs at Seriously Good.

It was an offer I couldn't refuse: Cook a fundraising luncheon for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, highlighting fresh herbs — the kind of cooking I like — for a good cause. It didn't stop there. Kathy Mihalczo, who owns Erin's Meadow Herb Farm in Oak Ridge, Tenn., would pay for all the food. All I had to do was feature her herbs.

I've been teaching classes on herb cookery at the herb farm for three years, and it's my favorite teaching venue. Mihalczo installed a kitchen in a greenhouse, and in the spring and fall, the kitchen is filled with natural light and open to air thick with the scent of fresh herbs — the piney notes of rosemary, the sweet bitterness of basil and the licoricelike odor of tarragon. That the location is an excuse to play around with the best and freshest herbs in the Knoxville area is just an added bonus.

Food Lover's Companion defines herbs as "the fragrant leaves of any of various annual or perennial plants that grow in temperate zones and do not have woody stems." The most popular herbs in American cooking are of Mediterranean origin — rosemary, oregano, thyme and basil, for example. In the Mediterranean region, they can be found growing wild on the hillsides.

Cilantro and lemon grass are herbs native to Southeast Asia. In Africa, the leaves of the baobab tree are used to thicken stews. The banana plant is classified as an herb, and so is marijuana. ("Herb" has been a slang term for marijuana.)

There also are exceptions to the nonwoody stem rule. Bay leaves come from a tree, and if you've grown rosemary, you know that it's actually a shrub. Lavender leaves and blossoms are regarded as herbs. Other herbs provide spices in the form of roots or seeds, such as dill seed and cilantro seed (also known as coriander). Generally, though, herbs are leaves. Seeds, dried roots, dried fruit (think chili peppers), flowers and bark are considered spices.

My mother often cooked with herbs, but I learned to use them myself by making a dish, smelling it, and then going through my jars of dried herbs looking for complementary smells. I'd add a bit of the herb, give it a few minutes to release its flavor, then taste the dish. There are certainly classic combinations such as tomatoes and basil, lamb and mint, or pork and sage. If I'd stuck with the standards, however, I wouldn't have discovered the affinity peaches have for rosemary, or that a tiny pinch of cayenne pepper boosts the appleness of an apple pie.

For a while, I was gung-ho on always using fresh herbs. And if I have them, I still use them first, but there have been times when I didn't have the location or sunlight to grow herbs — even in pots — and had to buy them all. That's an expensive proposition at $2 a package. However, I have found that if the herbs are being cooked for more than three or four minutes, most of that wonderful fresh flavor cooks off and you can get the same results from dried herbs. So these days, I use fresh herbs when they'll stand out, and otherwise use dried. The exceptions are a few herbs that don't retain much flavor at all when dried, such as chives or parsley.

For the fundraising menu, I would use only Mihalczo's fresh herbs. Since it was a luncheon, the meal needed to be light. Yet I wanted to seduce my eaters, to persuade them to eat just one bite more than they might ordinarily, and still allow them to push the plate away, satiated but not overfilled. Herbs were perfect for this.

The menu began with cherry tomatoes stuffed with chevre and basil, and peppers stuffed with feta and dill as appetizers. Then I served a course of chilled asparagus and sorrel soup. For the entree, I made roast pork tenderloin dusted with dried sage and dressed with a rhubarb-sage compote. I also made pureed cauliflower garnished with fried sage leaves. The bread was rosemary-grape focaccia. For dessert, I offered my father's buttermilk-pineapple sherbet with mint.

With one exception, all of the dishes feature raw or just barely cooked fresh herbs and celebrate their fresh flavor. The exception is the focaccia, which cooks for 30 minutes. However, rosemary is a tremendously robust herb that can stand the heat. Besides, dried rosemary is like eating a collection of dull needles, so fresh rosemary was the best choice even then.

The morning before the luncheon, I drove out to the herb farm and returned with bags of fresh herbs that filled first my car and then my kitchen with wonderfully appetizing smells. The luncheon itself, with its cornucopia of fresh herbs from appetizer to dessert, was a complete success and brought in much-needed funds for the symphony. I hope it also had the effect of encouraging the guests to bring herbs into their kitchens.