Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Good Herbs

I was surprised, when we began gardening here, to find that many herbs do very well in Tucson's challenging climate. Some last year-round, while others, like basil, dill, and cilantro, are annuals limited by the season. The basil's doing very well now; I just made a big pot of red sauce to use some that I cut this morning. Dill and cilantro, however, are only available fresh from the garden in late fall, winter, and early spring.
This photo of dill was taken one morning right after I'd watered it. I planted the seeds in a wine barrel around a 4-foot tall chaste tree sapling. By the time we harvested the last of it, the dill was nearly three feet tall, a dense thicket completely obscuring the chaste tree's trunk. So, what to do with all that dill? It was the wrong time of year for cucumbers in quantity and I didn't really feel like making pickles anyway. I love to make a cucumber, yogurt, onion, and dill raita (or mast va khiar, as it's called in Persian) to serve with curries or khoreshes (those wonderful Persian stews that are served over rice), but even if we ate that concoction three times a day we couldn't have kept up with the dill harvest. It was time to experiment.

For many years, my favorite dill product has been Larrupin' restaurant's mustard-dill sauce. Larrupin', located north of Arcata in Trinidad, California, with wonderful food and amazing ocean views, was a favorite place for celebrations when we lived up there, and the owners are considerate enough to bottle their delicious sauce, which can be bought in area markets. Friends and relatives who come to visit us are often kind enough to bring a bottle or two. But could I make it myself? As it turned out, yes, I could!
The recipe I used is adapted from one in The Cooking of Scandinavia in the old Time-Life Foods of the World series, and it couldn't be simpler! Because I had so much dill, I quadrupled the recipe 3 times (but I don't think twelvetupled is actually a word).

Mustard-Dill Sauce (or Gravlaxsas)
To make about 3/4 cup, in a small, deep bowl combine:
4 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. powdered mustard
3 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. white vinegar
Whisk everything together and then whisk in
1/3 cup vegetable oil,
a little at a time, until it thickens and forms a mayonnaise-like emulsion. Finally, stir in
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill

The sauce will keep in a tightly closed jar in the refrigerator for several days, even a couple of weeks or more, though you may need to shake or whisk it before using.

Alternatively, as you can see from the photo above, you can mix up everything but the dill in the food processor, then add the chopped dill in at the end and pulse a couple of times. I don't recommend putting the dill into the food processor at the beginning; it will taste fine (though not exactly the same), but instead of a lovely golden sauce with flecks of green it will just be a less interesting solid light green.

Now don't get all high-falutin' gourmet and imagine it would be better if you used olive oil and some fancy wine vinegar. Swedish cooks have been making this for centuries and they know what they're doing. White vinegar has the sharpness you need, and anything more than a simple vegetable oil (I use canola) would just interfere with the desired flavor.

As I said, I had a lot of dill. I didn't want to experiment with canning, since it's such a simple, uncooked sauce based on the fresh herb, but what about freezing it?
Yes, it was a success! I'd found these 1-cup Ball freezer containers earlier on a closeout sale at a ridiculously low price and bought all they had, and they were perfect. (I just had to put my Russian nesting doll measuring cups in the picture to show them off! Aren't they cute?) The sauce freezes perfectly and now that we have a year-round supply, it's pretty much replaced tartar sauce or cocktail sauce as our go-to condiment to serve with fish or seafood. So, plant dill and make this sauce. See if you like it as much as we do. If I hadn't moved to Arizona I'd probably never have tried to make it myself, but I'm so glad I did!
This last photo shows some of the rest of the dill hanging in the kitchen to dry (I said there was a lot) - I think you can pick it out from the regular hanging houseplants. Once it was dried and the leaves separated from the stems, I had a cupful to put in a jar in the cupboard. The dried dill actually works just as well as fresh in a raita, I think. Here's my recipe, the Persian version, which is how I learned to make it, but it's equally delicious with Indian food:

Mast va Khiar
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt (nonfat is fine, Greek is rich and delicious)
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 Tbsp. dried dill or 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and refrigerate for 1/2 hour before serving.

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