As we transition into autumn, not only does the weather change but so does my palate. A plateful of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese or a big bowl of watermelon doesn’t look so appetizing to me anymore. Instead, my mouth waters at the sight of caramelized onions and butternut squash, steaming Cinnamon-Scented Applesauce, and hearty vegetable stew.
You know what else has me drooling this season? Autumn herbs like thyme, rosemary, sage (my personal fav), and fennel seed. I do not call them autumn herbs because they are only available in the autumn. You can find them in markets all throughout the summer months as well. The reason I term them autumn herbs is because they complement the foods of fall so perfectly. Over the summer I used parsley, dill, oregano, and basil by the fistfuls because they all pair well with the lighter fare of warm months. But autumnal foods–such as baked chicken, roasted root vegetables, soups and stews, and pots of whole grain pilafs–can all stand up to an earthier, more robust herb with deeper flavor.
I didn’t start using fresh herbs as liberally as I do now until about a year ago. I guess I was always afraid that I would use too much on something or the wrong type of herb and it would ruin the dish. This is a legitimate concern and I have certainly been caught in it’s trap a time or two. But with a little practice and some experimentation in the kitchen, I’ve discovered that herbs are nothing to fear! I’ve also learned what they pair well with, when to opt for dried instead of fresh, and how to store them to maximize their shelf life.
So I bring to you today a handy-dandy Autumn Herb Guide to jumpstart your journey in the world of fresh herbs. Tack it to your bulletin board or clip it on your fridge so that whenever you’re feeling herby but are unsure of what pairs with what, how long it will keep, and if you really need to buy the fresh herb over dried, you’ll have answers at your fingertips.
AUTUMN HERB GUIDE
Characteristics: hearty, earthy, robust, strong, woodsy
What to use it for: add chopped fresh rosemary to any meat-based stew for deep, earthy flavor; sprinkle on chicken breasts or turkey breasts before roasting them in the oven; toss a few tablespoons minced rosemary with carrots, Yukon Gold potatoes, and leeks before roasting them with olive oil and garlic.
Shelf Life: store in a zipper-top bag with a damp paper towel in the fridge for 5-7 days.
- When to use dried: I stay away from dried rosemary because the texture tends to be sharp and needle-like. If you do use it, add it to “wet” foods like soups, stews, or braises while they cook to reconstitute the herb with water.
- Characteristics: floral, earthy, delicate, lemony
- What to use it for: thyme pairs great with lemon in vinaigrettes or as a marinade for chicken. One of my favorite uses for thyme is a few tablespoons minced and mixed into softened butter. Use the herb butter on toasts, atop baked fish, or on baked potatoes. It freezes great and will last 3 months stored in an airtight container in the fridge. Add some lemon zest (or orange) to the butter for sweeter, more zesty flavor.
- Shelf Life: store in a zipper-top bag with a damp paper towel in the fridge for 5-7 days.
- When to use dried: any time I have substituted dried thyme for fresh, it has worked well. Since dried herbs are stronger than fresh, just use slightly less than you would of the fresh herb.
- Characteristics: rich, buttery, woodsy, sweet
- What to use it for: sage and root vegetables are a match made in heaven. Toss a few minced tablespoons of sage with roasted butternut squash or mix into squash puree and top with toasted walnuts for a decadent side dish. Also great with roasted meats of any kind. Check out this recipe for a killer Sweet Potato Soup with sage.
- Shelf Life: store in a zipper-top bag with a damp paper towel for up to 5 days in the fridge.
- When to use dried: dried sage tends to be rather crumbly, cakey, and almost “lint-like” in my opinion. In stuffings made with bread or a savory bread pudding I think dried sage would be okay, or perhaps in a stew or braise. But, for the best texture, I usually use fresh.
- Characteristics: sweet, licorice-like, peppery, spicy
- What to use it for: fennel seed is a perfect complement to ground chicken/turkey/beef and, when paired with crushed red pepper flakes, creates the flavor of Italian sausage. Also complements braised cabbage or bok choy. Use a bit of crushed fennel seed in shortbread cookies as well. Or steep in boiling water for 5 minutes and then strain for a fennel seed tea that aids digestion.
- Shelf Life: fennel seed is only available dried, so it will last for a good 3-6 months before the flavor begins to fade. Actual fennel bulbs available in the produce department are far more perishable and will last in the fridge for 3-5 days.
(Note: this post is part of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays.)