Herbs Take Center Stage

Is there anything in the world of food more lonely and pathetic than a single spring of parsley sitting on top of a main dish? Before anyone on this side of the Atlantic had heard of tabbouleh or pesto, that was pretty much the extent of our understanding of parsley. 

Today, herbs like parsley, cilantro, and basil have become important elements of our culinary culture. Just look at windowsills across the country, where people are growing their own. Still, argues Mark Bittman in NYT Magazine, herbs remain underrated.

We tend to agree. Herbs need not be relegated to a supporting role in a main dish; they can be the dish itself. Before you get carried away, though, be aware of which herbs are mild enough to take center stage.

Beyond [tabbouleh] — and before you use herbs as a main ingredient — it helps to know which ones work on a grand scale and which ones don’t. Parsley, obviously, works in abundance: it’s clean-tasting, pleasantly grassy and almost never overwhelming. You can add literally a bunch (bunches!) of it to salad, soup, eggs, pasta, grains or beans. The same is largely true of basil, and you can use other mild herbs — chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, shiso — by at least the handful.

On the other hand, strong herbs — like epazote, lavender, marjoram and oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon and thyme — should be used more sparingly.

Bittman also offers a few recipes with herbs running the show. This hearty Pasta With Green Meatballs and Herb Sauce is looking amazing.

Pasta With Green Meatballs and Herb Sauce

Time: 30 to 40 minutes

2 cups finely chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh chives
1 thin slice white bread
1/4 cup milk
1/2 pound ground sirloin, pork or lamb or a mixture
Salt and black pepper
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound pasta
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for garnish.

1. Mix together the basil, parsley and chives. Soak the bread in the milk for 5 minutes, then gently squeeze any excess milk from the bread; discard the milk. Combine the bread with the meat, 1 cup of the herbs and some salt and pepper; shape the mixture into 1-inch meatballs.

2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Put 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the meatballs in a single layer (work in batches if necessary). Cook, turning occasionally, until brown on all sides, 5 to 10 minutes.

3. Cook the pasta in the boiling water until tender but not mushy. While the pasta is cooking, purée 11/2 cups of the herbs with 4 tablespoons oil, the garlic and some salt and pepper in a mini food processor or blender; leave the sauce rough or add a little water if you want it smoother. Drain the pasta, reserving about a cup of its cooking liquid. Toss the pasta with the herb sauce and most of the remaining herbs, adding the reserved liquid if the mixture seems dry. Top with the meatballs, garnish with Parmesan and the last of the herbs and serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

Photo: Yunhee Kim / The New York Times

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