Dishing With James Beard Foundation President
An Herb By Any Other Name
By Susan Ungaro
I came to the James Beard Foundation more than 10 years ago, after working for 27 years at Family Circle magazine. And while running a national Foundation was an exciting new challenge that I was excited to take on, I was thrilled when in my first months in my new position, a publishing project came across my desk.
We were about to reissue one of James Beard’s books, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974. Our namesake James Beard wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from the pleasures of the perfect sandwich to a lesson in chicken anatomy to his six essential herbs, which is one of my favorites.
Humorous, informative, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensible resource for the home cook. I love reading about how much he loved each of these herbs — and it makes me think about how much I love fresh basil. What’s your favorite?
James Beard’s Six Essential Herbs
If I had to pick six herbs I couldn’t cook without, I’d settle for basil, bay leaf, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme. Parsley too, of course, but that is so universal it goes without saying.
Basil is grown so readily in most parts of the country that, come spring, anyone with a patch of garden or a sunny windowsill should invest in a couple of plants. The matchless flavor of fresh basil is a natural ally of tomatoes and the prime ingredient in the Italian pesto, a dark green paste made from basil leaves pounded with garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and cheese that is spooned on pasta and rice and into soups. Pesto freezes well, so you can keep it year-round. Fresh or dried, basil is exceedingly good with veal and many fish dishes.
Bay leaves have a delicate pungency that enhances all kinds of cooking. They are appropriate as a flavoring for a custard or arrowroot pudding as for a stew or sauce. The French pop a couple of bay leaves on top of a pâté while it is baking (if you try this, cover them with foil to keep them flat). In Italy, crumbled bay leaves are fried in olive oil with chopped onion, garlic, celery leaves, and tomato to make a soffrino, a seasoning for sauces, soups, and stews.
Rosemary, asserted the great writer-cook Marcel Boulestin, is not for remembrance—it’s for cooking veal. Lamb and beef as well. Put two or three sprigs of rosemary on a just-cooked steak, pour on a little warm brandy. Ignite, and let burn out to give a terrific flavor to the meat. The French custom of dipping a rosemary sprig in oil and brushing a steak, chop, or fish with it during the broiling is a very subtle flavoring trick, indeed. Always pulverize rosemary’s needlelike leaves in a mortar before adding them to a sauce or stew.
Savory, or sarriette as known in France, where it grows wild in the hills of Provence, is little known and little used in this country. The French often roll goat’s milk cheeses in its tiny, spiky dried leaves. Savory is an excellent herb for lamb, pungent enough to take the place of both salt and pepper if need be, which anyone on a salt-free diet might bear in mind.
Thyme is an herb without which no self-respecting cook can exist. It goes in ragoûts, sauces, and stocks. There are several varieties of thyme, of which the most familiar is the tiny-leaved French thyme. The lemon thyme is very pleasant, too. An unusual and effective way to use thyme is to blend it with four ounces of cream cheese, a couple of tablespoons of heavy cream, a touch of minced garlic, and a soupçon of salt. Use about a teaspoon of the fresh leaves, half the amount of the dried. Chill and serve as a snack or a non-sweet dessert.
And then there’s tarragon, a most exceptional and helpful herb. The unique flavor of its pointed leaves belongs with fish, is an absolute must for béarnaise sauce, gives vinegar a glorious taste, and is the best friend a chicken ever had.
One of the greatest—and simplest—chicken dishes I know is Poulet Sauté a l’Estragon. The whole process takes less than 30 minutes, and you should have a dish you could serve with confidence to the most critical group of food buffs.
Some final advice: Dried herbs cannot be used forever and ever. They don’t last that long. Keep them in a dark place, tightly sealed in glass jars, tins, or polyethylene bags, and smell them now and then to see if they are holding their strength. If not, throw them out and get some more. There’s no economy in cooking with a spent herb. — James Beard, Beard on Food (1974)
Visit jamesbeard.org for James Beard’s Chicken with Tarragon recipe.
Will Travel for Food
By Susan Ungaro
“Travel is an important part of my food life,” wrote James Beard in the introduction to one of our favorites of his many books, Beard on Food. I think many of us can relate to his sentiments when planning our vacations. In fact, whenever Beard traveled to a new city, the first places he visited were the food markets and local restaurants; not the museums and cathedrals. After all, what better way to experience a new place than through the cuisine or a dish in the place where it originated—and what better way to experience a city than to taste the best regional dishes from the best local chefs?
This inextricable link between travel and food inspires our national food tour, Taste America, which is entering its fourth consecutive year of bringing our Foundation around the country to shine a spotlight on some of our nation’s most dynamic food cities.
This year our honoree All-Star chef is multiple James Beard Award winner Tom Colicchio, who joined us at the James Beard House in New York City a few weeks ago to kick off the festivities for 2016, and from September 22 through November 5, we’ll be traveling to Boston; Charleston, SC; Chicago; Kansas City, MO; Los Angeles; New Orleans; Phoenix; Portland, OR; Twin Cities, MN; and San Francisco, with a team of All-Star chefs that includes Dan Barber, John Besh, Scott Conant, Amanda Freitag, Jose Garces, Alex Guarnaschelli, Stephanie Izard, Gavin Kaysen, Anita Lo, and Missy Robbins. These chefs will be traveling around the country, and each will be paired with a local chef in one of our Taste America cities.
In each city, we will also be hosting free cooking demonstrations and Q&A sessions with many of these chefs at select Sur La Table stores in those cities. Sur La Table will also hold cooking classes featuring recipes from the James Beard Foundation’s cookbook, James Beard’s All-American Eats, at select stores on the tour.
We’re so excited to be taking the James Beard House dining experience on the road again this year with such an incredibly talented group of chefs. I hope you’ll join us in a city near you! You can find out more about our events, including a full roster of participating chefs, at jbftasteamerica.org.
The JBF Restaurant Finder
Even if you can’t make it to one of our Taste America events this year, we’ve made it easier to find great restaurants whenever you travel. One of the first things I do when I go to a city is look up who all of the James Beard Award winners, nominees, and semifinalists are so I can visit as many of them as I can. I am thrilled that this information is now all in one place on our website so that anyone can do the same.
Be sure to check out jamesbeard.org/restaurant-finder the next time you’re planning a trip!
James Beard’s Sicilian-Style Tomatoes
As James Beard Foundation members know, as summer turns into fall, I look forward to eating tomatoes from my husband’s garden. While I love a simple tomato salad, I also love looking to James Beard’s books for different ideas about what to do with the tomatoes. In the headnote for this recipe, he writes that these tomatoes gently cooked with fresh herbs and spices are “unusually good,” and I have to agree.
6 firm, ripe tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ teaspoon allspice
Remove the tops of the tomatoes and rub the tomatoes with salt. Lightly squeeze the tomatoes to loosen the pulp, then put them, cut-side-down, onto paper towels.
Pulse the oil, parsley, basil, garlic, cinnamon, pepper, and allspice in a blender or food processor to combine. Pour the mixture into a heavy skillet. Place the tomatoes, cut-side-down, into the mixture, and simmer over medium-low heat until cooked through but not mushy, about 30 minutes. Right the tomatoes and spoon the pan juices over them to serve.