Good Herb

Keswick Hall’s Executive Chef John Hoffman sheds light on cooking with herbs.

Sera Petras

If you successfully weathered a fourth grade home economics class, you should have a basic understanding of how herbs can enhance a dish. 

They add flavor, they add color, they just look nice sprinkled about on a plate, adding a bit of je ne sais quoi like they don’t even care. They give serious cred to even the most inexperienced chef, saying “I know my way around a kitchen.” 

But there are secrets to mastering herbal-infused cooking, and John Hoffman, executive chef at Keswick Hall, shares them here. 

Sera Petras

First of all, get it out of your head that cooking with herbs is as easy as going out to your garden, grabbing a handful of dill, and tossing it with some chicken salad. (It actually is that easy but that’s not what we’re going for today.) 

Here, we have star-chef-level, herb-rich recipes that you may—or may not—be able to make in your own home. Some of these recipes are definitely not for the home chef, so be prepared to feast only your eyes, and eyes alone. 

Hoffman has been heading up kitchens at five-star resorts around the world since 2016, and these days he’s managing Keswick’s farm-to-table produce farm, Oakdale, where he and his team gather produce daily. And yes, that includes all types and varieties of herb. 

First, he says, make sure you are working with your own homegrown herbs. You can plant them in agarden or grow them in a window box, just make sure you’re not rolling with shaker cans from a supermarket. Marvel as you watch your herbs begin to flower and blossom, and then use those showy parts for a nuanced flavor that adds definite color to a plate.

“English rosemary grows really well in Virginia’s soil,” says Hoffman. “While we wait for those to go to flower, we use them as garnish. Chives, when they start to blossom, we’ll pull them. It’s not just herbs when you’re cooking, though. While they make great garnish and the flavors that come from the flower are somewhat nuanced, the blossom has a lot of punch to it, so it can really enhance the flavor as well.”

I asked Hoffman if there’s a way you can mess up while cooking with herbs, and his response was, essentially, yes but it’s complicated. “We have soft herbs but there are also hard herbs. Herbs like rosemary, thyme, and lavender are harder and can be cooked longer. The softer herbs are basil or tarragon, or parsley. I like to use these at the last minute because their flavors can kind of melt away or get mixed up if you cook them too long.”

Then, of course, there’s the form of the herb itself. Sometimes, you want a finer powder rather than the whole blossom. To dehydrate an herb to make a powder, Hoffman suggests using the microwave. “This gives you a basic, great powder after it dries out,” he says. “You have this beautiful, bright, vibrant color and you still have that flavor.” [Editor’s note: see box for more info.]

“You can dehydrate almost any herb, but we typically do the soft herbs like tarragon or basil,” Hoffman continues, “the ones that are a little bit more delicate to the touch.” Hoffman says hardier herbs like rosemary and sage can be dehydrated too. Need a leafy herb for a garnish? Hoffman has a tried and true technique that works without fail. “​​A lot of times we’ll take tweezers, and pull the blossoms off, so it’s kind of the most delicate work. We’ll put them in ice water, so that kind of shocks them and keeps them for service.” 

Sera Petras
Mushroom-Crusted Salmon 

Step 1

¼ cup shiitake mushrooms,

washed and stemmed

¼ cup cremini mushrooms,

washed and stemmed

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and black pepper

Step 2

¼ cup trumpet mushrooms, split in half and washed with the bottoms removed 

1 clove of garlic, small diced

6 thyme sprigs, leaves chopped

12 chives, chopped

1 rosemary sprig, chopped

4 mint sprigs, chopped

¼ cup butter, room temperature

2 tablespoons panko bread crumbs

½ teaspoon salt

4 pieces of skinless salmon filets,

about 4–6 ounces each

In a bowl, combine ingredients in Step 1, and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and mix well. Transfer seasoned mushrooms to a baking sheet and cook at 325°F for about 20 minutes. Mushrooms will be lightly colored but not dry. Let cool to room temperature, then cut into ½-inch pieces.  

In a second mixing bowl, combine ingredients in Step 2 and mix with a standing mixer set on low speed and fitted with a paddle. Add cut mushrooms from Step 1. Once mushrooms are broken and incorporated, about 2 minutes, spread onto a parchment-lined baking sheet in a layer about ½″ thick. Let cool in your refrigerator to form an herby crust. 

Increase oven temperature to 400°F. Season salmon with salt and pepper. Place filets skin side up on the baking sheet. Cut the crust to the approximate sizes of each salmon piece and top each filet with the crust. Bake at  400°F for 10 minutes or until the crust is a deep golden brown. Serves 4.

Warm Asparagus Vinaigrette with Mushrooms & Herbs

Step 1

¾ cup onion, small diced

¾ cup carrots, small diced

1 finger/Jwala chili, small diced, optional (if you like heat)

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Step 2

¾ cup extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup lemon juice

¼ cup sherry vinegar

Salt and pepper

Step 3

9 morel mushrooms,

sliced into ½-inch rounds

3 shiitake mushrooms,

stemmed and cut into wedges

3 oyster mushrooms,

cut into 1-inch pieces

¼ cup grapeseed oil

1 teaspoon butter

15 pieces jumbo asparagus, peeled with bottoms trimmed

½ cup fresh herbs,

mixed and chopped

Salt and pepper

In a small saucepan, combine ingredients in Step 1 and sauté for 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Take the pan off the heat, cool, then transfer ingredients to a medium bowl. Combine with ingredients in Step 2 and season with salt and pepper.

Wash and dry mushrooms in Step 3.  Heat grapeseed oil and butter in a sauté pan over high heat. When the pan begins to smoke, carefully add mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Sauté approximately 5 minutes until mushrooms are caramelized but still moist and tender. Reserve in an ever layer and keep warm.  

In a pot of salted boiling water (it should taste like the ocean), blanch peeled asparagus for 1 minute until vibrant green. Drain and arrange spears on a small platter, then scatter with reserved mushroom mixture. Drizzle 1 ounce of dressing over asparagus and sprinkle with your favorite herbs. Season with salt and pepper. Serves 2.

Herbed Spinach & Three-Cheese Pizza

Semolina flour

Pizza dough (4 balls)

1 ½ cup Comté or Gruyère cheese, diced

¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 cup fresh ricotta

6 cups spinach leaves

1 1/3 cups loosely packed fresh dill

and basil leaves

Extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground

black pepper

Put a pizza stone on the lowest oven rack. Preheat the oven to 500°F. Let the stone get very, very hot.

Sprinkle a baking sheet with semolina flour. Pick up a dough ball with your fingers and gently pinch the edges of the ball while rotating it so that the dough stretches into a round. Drape it over your knuckles and continue turning and stretching until the center is so thin it’s almost translucent. If you’ve ever watched a pizza dough-maker at work, this is the method you want to emulate. The dough should be about 9 inches in diameter. Place on the prepared sheet. Unless you have a very large pizza stone or baking sheet, you can probably make only one or two pizzas at a time. Cover the other dough rounds in plastic wrap and store in the fridge until ready to use. 

Spread a quarter of the Comté/Gruyère and Parm-Reggiano on the dough round, then crumble a quarter of the ricotta over the top. Scatter a quarter of the spinach and herbs over the cheese. Drizzle a little oil all over and season with salt. Slide the sheet onto the hot stone and bake until the crust is browned and crisp, the cheese is melted, and the spinach is wilted—about 10 minutes. Grind pepper all over. Repeat with the remaining ingredients and pop in the oven for a few more minutes. The baked ingredients and all the oozy cheeses will be on the bottom layer, with the fresher ingredients on the top for the ultimate flavor bomb. 

Herbs (the DIY Way)

You can use a dehydrator, but if you don’t have one, try making herb powders in the microwave. First, strip herb leaves from stems—especially harder herbs like rosemary and lavender. Spread them out between two paper towels. Zap the herbs in 30-second increments, checking on them frequently to make sure they don’t burn. The total time will be contingent on your microwave’s power and what herbs you’re nuking. If your herbs are getting fried, reduce your microwave’s power to 50 percent. Once they’re fairly brittle and dry, let them cool. Then, working in batches, grind herbs in a spice mill to a fine powder. Another set-it-and-forget-it method is to use your oven. Set it at 150°F or as low as it will go. Spread out herbs on a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet, and bake until dry and brittle, 1–11/2 hours. Working in batches, grind herbs in a spice mill to a fine powder. Store in an airtight container and use frequently for pops of flavor and color.

Check out extra recipes here.

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