Green with Envy
Herb infused oils aren't just for chefs
There are some things that always seem better at a restaurant. Restaurants benefit from certain things you just don’t have at home: access to equipment, more ingredients, more space to work, and the all-important division of labour (that is, until the dishwasher calls in sick).
This is why things like salads and sandwiches often taste better and/or are more complex than you would prepare for yourself. You aren’t going to buy 12 different ingredients so you can use a few tablespoons of each in your salad - you’re going to buy 4 or 5 things and may still be stuck with half of it going bad before you can use it all up. Economy of scale isn’t on the side of the home cook.
But as I frequently point out in this newsletter, much of professional cooking is about technique, and the techniques themselves aren’t really very difficult. Technique is, as often as not, about finding new ways to use the same ingredients. And when it is not, it’s about finding ways to stretch an ingredient to wring every last bit of value from it. You can make one truffle flavour a hundred meals if you apply yourself.
So squeezing a nickel is the origin story of so much culinary technique. Waste is almost a criminal offense and there is no excuse for letting something go bad because you couldn’t find a use for it. And when it comes to waste produce is one of the most frequent victims and the tender leafy herbs a common casualty.
How often have you chucked half a bunch (or more!) of herbs in the bin? Yellowed parsley, blackened basil, dripping cilantro? If you have a garden you have bushels of them in the summertime but most of the year tossing herbs in the compost is a pricey proposition.
But once you’ve made pestos, green sauces, and filled your salads and soups with your greenery you might still have some left, and you wouldn’t be alone in thinking “now what?”
Herb oils are usually the preserve (see what I did there?) of fancy restaurants. Like fruit coulis or balsamic reduction and their similar cousins, they are usually on the plate in dramatic dots, drizzles, and swooshes, providing contrast of both colour and flavour. They are cool, but very cheffy.
But like most things, herb oils are not particularly complicated once you understand the technique. I don’t expect you’ll make them all the time but they are a neat trick when you’re looking to add a little flourish to a dish or to use up one more handful of green stuff.
The only caveat with this is that you do need a blender. If you’re a smoothie aficionado you have likely discovered the joys of a high-horsepower blender, but even the 20+ year old clunker you have in the cupboard will suffice, though imperfectly. The blender with the higher speed with extract more colour and flavour, but you can make a perfectly decent oil with a little extra blending and patience.
Want to give it a whirl?
Knife or scissors
Tongs (or a fork)
Clean dish towel
Fine mesh strainer
2 cups fresh tender herbs like parsley, mint, basil, dill, cilantro, or tarragon, stems included. (I’m using flat-leaf parsley and mint)
3/4 cup olive oil or neutral oil of your choice
Salt (a couple of tablespoons for the blanching pot)
Ice cubes (for chilling the herbs)
Bring about 6 cups of water to a boil in pot. Season with salt much as you would pasta.
Tie herbs into a bundle with twine.
Combine ice and water in bowl.
When pot comes to a boil, add bundle of herbs and blanch for 15 seconds.
After 15 seconds, plunge herbs into ice bath until chilled (around 1 minute).
Drain herb bundle and wrap in kitchen towel. Squeeze dry, then squeeze a little more. Water is not your friend here.
Snip away string and add herbs (including stems) and oil to blender.
Blend for 3-5 minutes, stopping to scrape sides occasionally.
Stop blender when herbs and oil are a smooth puree.
Scrape herb mixture into coffee filter-lined strainer set over bowl.
Allow mixture to strain undisturbed (no squeezing!) for at least 2 hours, and as long as overnight.
Pour herb oil into covered container and refrigerate until ready to use. The oil keeps about a week.
Blanching the herbs ensures that you have a bright green oil, and letting the oil filter naturally ensures that it’s clear and not cloudy. The process does take a little time, but it does produce a striking result.
And what to do with your fancy cheffy oil? It doesn’t taste like much by itself because it lacks both salt and acid, but when you drip or drizzle it over something that has plenty of both? Oh my! Fresh summer tomatoes with a sprinkle of salt and a crack of pepper are divine with my parsley and mint oil. Steak, chicken and fish would love a drizzle, as would scrambled eggs or avocado toast. You can probably come up with more ideas. Just don’t cook with it. The delicate herb flavour and colour won’t survive the heat.
But don’t let a little technique dissuade you from using up your bundles of herbs. Fancy tricks like herb oil are well within your reach. Don’t let chefs have all the fun.