Today is ‘More Herbs, Less Salt Day’. While Salt is a wonderful all-purpose seasoning that would be hard to do without, Herbs play another role in our culinary efforts. Herbs impart wonderful flavor, each one distinctive from another. Even the different herbs in the same family have different distinctive flavors and aromas.
My favorite all-around Herb is Basil. There are dozens of varieties of Basil, but of all the ones that I have encountered, Sweet Italian Basil is my favorite. Here are just some varieties of Basil that are available in local nurseries in Southern California. Varieties will vary throughout the country and throughout the world.
African Blue Basil – blue hue to the leaves and has purple flowers
Greek Basil – small green leaves – lasts long into the Fall
Italian Sweet Basil – large green leaves (probably the most popular)
Lemon Basil – small leaves with slight lemon scent
Thai Basil – smaller leaves with some purple hue to them – purple flowers, slightly spicy
The Varieties of Basil above are listed in alphabetical order. The Greek and Sweet Italian are probably the most popular and used most frequently in Italian and Greek Cuisine.
The Thai Basil is used in South Eastern Cuisine and does have a distinctive taste, somewhat sharper than the sweet varieties.
I prefer to use the Sweet Italian most of the time just because it is easier to clean and mince because of the size of the leaves. I also use the African Blue, but usually just use the whole leave as they are small.
I use Thai Basil in all my Asian Cooking. I really love the Thai Basil and if you don’t grow it you can easily find it in Asian markets.
Oregano –The second most popular Herb is probably Oregano. I planted Oregano when we first moved into this house and the same plant is still growing. It sometimes freezes in the Winter but always comes back in the spring. It is an essential in Italian and Greek Cuisine and is of course used in other types of cooking as well.
Pineapple Sage – normally I don’t like Sage, but the Pineapple variety is another story. It actually smells like Pineapple when you tear a leave or water and does impart the flavor of Pineapple to your dishes. I planted a tiny plant several years ago. This plant is now huge in spite of being constantly cut back. I have also endowed many of my friends with a shoot from this plant. All you have to do is stick a piece in water and let it root, then plant it. The result eventually will be as pictured here in this blog. One of the assets of this Sage plant is the Red Flowers which attract Humming Birds to our yard.
Mint – is popular in mixed drinks, desserts and in South East Asian Cuisine. This too grows like crazy and is easy to root. We have mint that comes over from our neighbors yard and I constantly have to pull it out. I sometimes will wash it and then steep it in hot water and make a mint fusion which can be used for drinks or mint jelly. Mint also comes in several varieties, such as Spearmint, Peppermint and my favorite, Chocolate Mint.
Lemon Grass – an essential in South East Asian Cuisine, especially Thai and Vietnamese. In fact, there is a restaurant named after this Herb on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. This too grows like crazy. I just planted a small plant and this is the result.
Chives – part of the Onion Family – frequently served as a topping for Baked Potatoes – but beware! those Chives in the Restaurants are more frequently Green Onions or Scallions which are thicker and less flavorful (but stronger) than the Chives. Chives are very thin and it is best to cut them with scissors. Chives make a nice flavorful addition to many vegetable and meat dishes.
Try some Herbs today and you will find that you don’t need to use too much salt in your food!
My Stepdaughter was scheduled to come over our house for a belated Birthday Dinner Tuesday Night, but Monday afternoon at about 3:45 Tina called and said she had forgotten that she had concert tickets for Tuesday Night and that she was working all the rest of the week. (She works 12 hours day in the Emergency Room of our local hospital) Could she come over tonight instead? She had requested Lasagna for dinner along with Chocolate Cake for dessert. My plan was to spend most of Tuesday baking and cooking and I was going to make home-made pasta for the Lasagna.
Well, plans got shifted dramatically. Fortunately, I had done the shopping for dinner on Monday except for the Lasagna Noodles which my husband went out to buy. At 4 in the afternoon I started cooking Lasagna (usually an all-day project) for dinner at 6:30. Here is how it went.
This was going to be Mushroom Lasagna and I had purchased 4 different kinds of Mushrooms for it. We had:
Crimini (Baby Portobello
I put on a big pot of Water so that it would be ready when my husband returned. I then diced an Onion and started sautéing in Olive Oil in my Dutch Oven.
While the Onion was sautéing, I cleaned and sliced the Mushrooms. The Brown Crimini were first. While they were sautéing, I then cleaned and sliced the Lobster Mushrooms. The Lobster Mushrooms are named, not because they taste like but Lobster, but look like Lobster Meat. These Mushrooms are somewhat denser and tougher than the Brown ones and need to cook for a bit longer.
Next came the White Mushrooms and then the Oyster. Again, the Oyster are named for their appearance. They have the shape of an Oyster and when growing are clustered together almost like Oysters do in the Oyster bed. I did salt the Mushrooms while they were sautéing. Salt not only adds flavor but tends to pull out the excess moisture from the Vegetables.
Next I crushed some Garlic and added it to the Mushrooms. To this I added some Marsala Wine and cooked it on high heat to reduce it down to just its flavor. To all this, I added 2 cans of Crushed Tomatoes. You want to use a good quality of crushed Tomatoes (or use fresh and crush your own). Lesser quality Tomatoes will be watery and you want to avoid this. I turned the heat down to simmer and let it cook while I prepared the rest of the ingredients. The time now was about 4:45. At the end of the cooking period I added some fresh minced Basil. Fresh Herbs should always be added at the end so that they do not lose their flavor.
Usually I will make a Béchamel Sauce (White Sauce) as a vessel for the Ricotta Cheese but today I did not have time, so I just added two Eggs to 1 lb. of Cheese and thoroughly mixed them in.
Then I shredded the Parmesan Reggiano and cut up the Mozzarella. Usually I will chop the Mozzarella in the Food Processor but the Cheese I had purchased this time was sliced, but sliced too thickly so I had to cut it up into small pieces.
The Water had come to a boil and my Husband had returned with the Pasta. I put a good portion of Salt into the Water (this was a big pot) and added the Pasta. Salt not only adds flavor to the pasta but also helps to increase the temperature of the water and therefore shorten the cooking time. This particular Pasta took about 10 minutes to cook. I recommend using Italian Pasta for all your Pasta dishes, unless you prefer to make your own which in that case is the ‘best’.
While the Pasta was cooking I washed the package of Asparagus that I had purchased and cut off the bottoms to save for Cream of Asparagus Soup. I then placed them in a oven-proof baking dish and sprinkled with Sea Salt and Olive Oil. Over this I added a package of Beech Mushrooms, diced Tomatoes and African Blue Basil Leaves. You can use any kind of Basil. The African Blue has small leaves and does not need to be snipped or crushed to use. I covered this with Aluminum Foil and set it aside to put in the oven when the Lasagna was half-done.
Next I drained the Pasta into my largest Colander and rinsed it just enough to keep the pieces from sticking together. Next oiled my Pasta Baking Dish and started assembling the Lasagna. First came a lengthwise layer of Pasta which was then topped with the Ricotta Cheese Mixture. Next came a layer of Sauce topped with Shredded Parmesan and Mozzarella.
On the next layer the Pasta was laid cross-wise (this makes it easier to cut the Lasagna when serving) with a layer of Ricotta, Sauce, and Parmesan. The next layer repeated the first except that no sauce was added. Layers one & two were repeated with Mozzarella being on top. I could have gone another layer but there were only four of us for dinner and I didn’t want to have too much left over.
I then set the Lasagna aside to prepare the Salad. The time now was 5:15.For the Salad I had a mixture of different types of Organic Baby Salad Greens. Added to this were diced Home-Grown Tomatoes & Cucumbers. The dressing was a Balsamic Vinaigrette which was added just before serving.
Since this was a Spur of the Moment Dinner, Appetizers were re-heated Vegetable Tempura from the night before (Mushrooms, Carrots and Home-Grown Asian Egg Plant.
The Bread that was served was an Olive Bread that I made from leftover Pizza Dough. Purchased Olive Salad was spread on the Pizza Dough that had been rolled out to a thin rectangle and then rolled up Jelly Roll fashion. It was baked at 400 degrees until the bread was well-browned. About 30-40 minutes.
Dessert could not be the Chocolate Cake that was planned for today, but we did have Chocolate Brownies that I had made the day before and since this was the cake version of Brownies, they worked perfectly for dessert.
Out Beverage was home-brewed Iced Tea. All in all, in spite of the short time notice, dinner turned out very good and everyone loved the Lasagna, especially my Step-Daughter for whom the meal was made. I figured this could be a rehearsal for a Cooking Competition Show in which the contestants have a limited amount of time to prepare their dishes. Watch out guys! I may give you some competition!
Even though our normally very abundantly producing Apple Tree has had a smaller than normal crop, we still have enough Apples to more than meet our needs. Our needs are specifically baked goods to store in the freezer to be ready when an occasion arises, such as visiting family or friends or just the desire for baked goods loaded with Apples for a scrumptious breakfast. Our tree is a ‘Beverly Hills Apple’; one that was developed for the area we live in. No, not Beverly Hills but close enough to be within almost touching distance. (As the crow flies, that is)
The Apples produced by our tree are green with blushes of red stripes and are tart when picked early and much sweeter when allowed to remain on the tree until late August or early September. This year, there is no chance remaining on the tree to sweeten as they have decided to fall off before fully ripening. In order for us to have some Apples before the Rabbits get them all, I do have to pick them before they fall.
Already in the freezer is a batch of Apples, sugared with Cinnamon and thickener ready for our Thanksgiving Apple Pie. All I will have to do is to drain off the liquid (freezing makes the cell walls break down and cause them to liquefy) into a saucepan and cook it down to the desired thickness. This will prevent the pie crust from getting soggy. And of course, I will have to make the Pie Crust, roll it out and ease it into the pan. Add the Apples and top Crust, Bake and Voila there is the Apple Pie all ready to serve and eat.
Enough about Apple Pie. The last batch of Apples that I picked, we decided that Apple Strudel would be in order. If you are ambitious and want to spend several hours making your own Strudel Dough, that is fine, but if not, purchased Phyllo (sometimes spelled ‘filo’) works very well. If fresh Phyllo is available in your neighborhood (usually at a Middle Easter Market) that would definitely be superior. If not, frozen work well too. Just be sure and buy a good quality frozen dough and defrost it in your refrigerator overnight.
Phyllo Dough is very thin and fragile and requires careful handling. When your filling is ready and you are ready to wrap the fruit up in it do the following:
On your work surface or a large sheet pan, place a damp clean kitchen towel. On top of the damp towel, place a clean dry kitchen towel.
Carefully unwrap and unfold the Phyllo Dough and place on the dry towel.
Place another clean dry kitchen towel on top of the Dough and then place a clean, damp kitchen towel on top of the dry towel. (This procedure will help to keep the dough from drying out and tearing – if it does tear slightly, don’t worry. Just wrap another layer of dough around it)
To make your strudel, prepare the fruit. Apples are the common fruit for strudel but other types of fruit such as Apricots or Peaches may also be used. Since we do not use pesticides on our trees, our Apples usually have worms that are attracted to the fruit. If this is the case with your homegrown Apples, do not let that deter you. If the worms are there, the Apples are probably pretty good. Just be prepared to cut away the worms (probably dead) and any debris that may be inside.
Traditional Apple Strudel usually contains Walnuts and/or Raisins in addition to the Apples. While I do like Raisins but not Nuts, I usually do not put them in. Since we like the taste of the Apples so well, I usually also leave out the Raisins. Save them for something else! So, here is the procedure that I followed in making my Apple Strudel:
Select the Apples you are going to use and then wash and dry them. Even if you plan to peel them, I always wash them first, especially if they just came off the tree.
Next peel the Apples and then cut them into quarters. Remove the seeds and any blemish portions there may be (including worms), then rinse them again with cold water and dry them well withpaper towels.
After the Apples are peeled and quartered, slice each quarter into 3 to 4 pieces.
Sauté the Apples in melted Butter along with Sugar (I use Brown Sugar) and Cinnamon. Once the liquid has been released from the Apples, cover with a lid and cook for 10-15 minutes or until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Our Apples contain very little moisture so it only took about 5 minutes to cook out most of the liquid. Even though I make Apple Pie with raw Apples, Apples Strudel should always be made with cooked Apples. The reason for this is that the Strudel Dough is very thin and fragile and soggy apples will just make the Strudel soggy.
Place the cooked Apples on a non-reactive tray and allow to cool. Melt your Butter (unsalted Butted – at least 1/4 lb) and place it next to your prepared Phyllo Dough. You will need a flat surface to place the Dough(a large pastry board is perfect).
Have all your ingredients and equipment close by, once you are ready to assemble your Strudel.
- Carefully place two sheets of Phyllo Dough on your work surface and gently brush with the melted Butter.
- Add two more sheets of Phyllo and brush again. (Notice that there are slight tears in the dough – these will be covered up when you wrap the Apples in the Dough.
- Spread the filling along the length of the dough about 3 inches from the edge; leave at least 3” at either end free. (DO NOT OVER-STUFF THE DOUGH – YOU WILL PROBABLY HAVE ENOUGH APPLES FOR AT LEAST TWO STRUDEL. IN THE RECIPE I USED, I MADE 4 MINI-STRUDEL AND 1 FULL-SIZE ONE)
- Fold the 3” piece over the filling and then fold the whole thing over until all the dough is completely wrapped around the filling. Butter the dough as you fold. Fold the corners of the edges in and under the strudel.
- Carefully transfer to a parchment covered baking sheet.
- Bake in the middle of a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes or until the dough is baked through and crisp. It should be a dark golden brown.
Note: The complete recipe can be found under the recipe section of this blog /pies-pastry/apple-strudel/