Vanessa Chang
(A Glutton with Brains)


a glutton with brains

What to Do with Fresh Herbs


For the most part, it's an irresistible buy. As I write this in the height of summer, farmers display rows of aromatic bundles. Fresh basil, woody thyme, piney rosemary, wise sage and frilly fresh dill. In the depth of winter, the greenery cradled in plastic cartons offer a bit of sensory respite that is almost worth a steep price tag. Inevitably though, like a romance, the passion wanes. From hot and heavy plans of a pesto-making orgy to the sad, limp leaves sitting in some lost corner of the fridge. The produce industry term for it is "loss." I don't think many greengrocers understand how poetic that is.

Because as much as a chiffonade of basil or a sprinkling of chopped Italian parsley is almost an afterthought in this Food Network-happy world, the fact remains that herbs uplift anything and everything, intended and unintended. To me, it's a sappy amazing grace sort of moment. The basil was lost, but now is found. Maybe not for pesto, but ... something. Leftovers have purpose, too.

As a wannabe gardener, I've done fairly well with herbs. Apart from my cilantro going to seed and my dill dying of sadness (I left its pot separated from the others for a few days. Like me, I don't think it likes being alone), my basil is thriving, my lemon verbena is loving life and the mint is the wild and crazy guy at the party. The gardening books and advice from capable friends advise picking off the flower buds and trimming constantly to stimulate new growth. Makes sense — I feel like a new person after a haircut. Most people throw away these trimmings without a thought. I was one. Then one day, my inner-3-year-old took over and I instinctively I started putting the herb petals, buds and trimmings into my mouth with a slightly furrowed brow to match my skepticism. But like the kid that tastes steamed zucchini for the first time, my brow relaxed, I chewed faster and even smiled.

Since then, it's been this unspoken mission to not waste the precious herbs. Leftovers, trimmings, flowers -- they all have a role and quite frankly, make the habitudinal uniquely memorable. Exactly how, you say?  The blossoms from chives, thyme, rosemary, etc. are gorgeous not solely as garnishes but as flavor contributors as well. On top of risotto, salad, meat, anything where you want a kindler, gentler form of the herb. I also like to make a sort of tea. The official term is "tisane" since this concoction will have no actual camelia sinensis leaf in it. But it's just as soothing.


Mint (invigorating), catnip (calming), lemon verbena (restorative) and such all work well. All you need is a few blossoms and some leaves into a tea pot or pitcher. Pour over some barely boiling water. Let sit for about 5 minutes and pour. Good with honey and a book.


Herb Butter for Anytime

My favorite. Anything goes well with softened, beatened butter. I had extra dill from the Feta Biscuits recipe. Chives (leaves and blossoms) are growing faster than I can keep up with their slender leaves.  Parsley, thyme and so on. You can combine, or leave an herb solo. 

First, finely chop up your desired herb. I use about 1/2 cup's worth for about two sticks of unsalted butter.


With a stand mixer, hand mixer or wooden spoon, beat some softened butter just until it's a mound more than a stick. Add the herbs and continue mixing until the greenery is uniformly throughout the butter.


You can use it immediately, or make a batch every so often when you find yourself with a surplus of some sort of herb. To store it, I prefer the freezer.

Scoop out the herbed butter on a sheet of wax or parchment paper. I generally place it about three inches from the edge of the parchment, closest to me. That way I have enough paper to fold over my mound and get it going into a log shape. There's so science about it, just tuck and roll the soft butter (using the parchment as a guide) until it's roughly the size you want and the whole thing resembles a mutant Tootsie Roll.


Wrap in plastic wrap and place in the freezer until ready to use. When you need to use it, let it thaw in the refrigerator for a few hours. Alternatively, you can scoop them with melon ballers for something more decorative, but I've never had the catering gene in me.


Dill butter and steamed new potatoes were meant for each other. I love it with fish and seafood as well. Basil butter I love on squash, tomatoes and corn. Thyme butter I use to massage a whole chicken before throwing it into a hot oven until its bronze-y sheen is the envy of fake bakers everywhere.

For any or all herb butters, you can't go wrong with some coarse sea salt and one huge fluffy baked potato.

Herb-Scented Cream

Inspired by Elizabeth David. There are essentially two ways to go about making this scented cream that requires a small amount of herbs. Either way, take a small handful of lemon verbena leaves or rose geranium. Make sure it's washed and patted dry.

If you've got time, pour some heavy cream into a bowl or some sort of container that'll fit nicely into the fridge. Gently tear apart the verbena or rose geranium and place into the bowl of cream. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit overnight.

If you're in a hurry, take your torn herbs and throw them into a saucepan with the cream (however much you need) and heat it over a low heat to a bare simmer. Turn off the heat, take the pan off the stove and let the herbs steep as if it were a tea. Let it completely cool.

When you're ready, strain or fish out the herbs. From here, you can use this subtle cream in a variety of ways. You can pour it as is over strawberries or summer berries. Or whip it into a loose fluff to serve with the berries, cakes, cookies, pies ... It's even good as a base for a seasonal ice cream, one that's composed with layers of flavor. For instance, lemon verbena cream, eggs, sugar then maybe a peach puree. 

SImple Syrup for Cocktails, Sorbets and Poaching Fruit

Combine one part granulated sugar to one part water in a saucepan. Heat over a medium heat and stir ocassionally to help dissolve the sugar. Bring to a gentle boil and when the sugar has completely been absorbed turn off the heat. Add a handful of herbs (blossoms and flower buds are fine, too) and stir to submerge. Let it sit in the syrup until the liquid has completely cooled. Strain out the herbs and store in a container in the fridge. Good for about two weeks.

Basil is gorgeous with tropical cocktails, especially anything involving pineapple. Rosemary simple syrup is lovely in a gin and tonic, as is borage. Lemon verbena is always refreshing. Even more savory herbs, like thyme, I enjoy with the flavor of berries and stone fruit. Rosemary syrup and lemonade together are a revelation.

Herb-Infused Sugar

Like the vanilla sugar, it requires little more than an aromatic, sugar and some time. Lavender, rose geranium, lemon verbena all make lovely sweeteners for shortbreads, tea and other instances when the subtle flavor contributes. Take a few fresh herbs and combine them with some granulated sugar into an airtight container. Keep in a cool dark space, taking it out every couple of days to give it a shake. Ready in about two weeks.