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Monday, October 4, 2010

Herbes de Provence and a Recipe

Herbes de Provence
by Victoria Challancin

I returned to Mexico last week from almost a month in Paris and Istanbul, where I led a small group.  Friends wanted to know if I shopped.  Silly them.  Of course I did.  I suspect that they were imagining the latest fashions, perhaps a new Kelim, or maybe even some copper pots.  All nice ideas, all worthy purchases.  But with the stingy airline baggage allowances, I have to admit that instead I crammed my suitcase with affordable bags of herbs and  packets of spices.  And those very suitcases, my house, and my husband are all happy with the heady arromatic new scents that permeate the house, emanating from the pantry.

One of my purchases is a bag of Herbes de Provence, gleaned from a favorite Paris street market.  So fresh, so pleasingly packaged, so usable.  And although I can make my own blend of these herbs, the ones I purchased in France are, of course, grown in France and bring with them the richness of that southern soil, sun, and culinary culture.

I remember visiting the barn of my Italian relatives who live high in the Alps, the smell of drying herbs hanging from the rafters mingling with the warm and pungent animal and earth scents.  Heaven.  And I often wonder what my Italian Grandmother must have thought, how she coped, when my Grandfather uprooted the family and moved them to the United States.  Tropical South Florida, where my family eventually moved, was a far cry from the high mountain region from whence they came. Did she miss the native plants from the nearby mountains?  Of course she did.  Did she learn to substitute.  Yes, again. 

The seasonings of our Grandmothers logically came from what grew near them. Whether in Mexico, Val d’Aosta, Turkey, or China, the wild herbs from nearby fields or ones plucked from the garden found their way into both the medicine chest and the kitchen.  Fancy commercial blends simply did not exist for them.  Such is true with Herbes de Provence.

In the South of France, wild herbs are gathered by the handfuls to be added at the last minute to all sorts of dishes.  Thyme, savory, basil, chervil, rosemary, marjoram, and bay come fresh from the fields and go straight into the pot.  When winter comes, these very same herbs are used dried, taken down from the rafters, and crumbled into the cooking food.  Like herb and spice mixtures found all over the world (Ex:  Baharat, Za’atar, Garam Massala, Curry Powder), there are no exact formulas.  No perfect recipe.  Blends change according to the whim of the cook or are adjusted to the perceived requirements of the dish.  Only in the 1970s did a mixture of dried Provençal herbs become available commercially.  Only then did the actual term Herbes de Provence take on the meaning it has for cooks today. And while I am known for my use of fresh herbs and spices, the hallmark of my personal cooking style, I will certainly reach for this fresh bag of dried herbs this winter when I want to impart a bit of Provençal warmth and flavor to my food.

You can purchase Herbes de Provence from various spice companies and even in ordinary grocery stores, but if you want to make your own, here is a blend I have used for years.  This is a simple basis from which to improvise—adjust the combinations to suit your own taste.  Additions might include small, judicious amounts of crushed fennel seeds, dried culinary lavender buds, sage, oregano, and/or tarragon—just use these in smaller amounts so that their robust flavors don’t drown out the flavors of the other herbs.

The bag I purchased in a Paris market contains:  rosemary, basil, marjoram, thyme, and savory

Herbes de Provence
Recipe by Victoria Challancin

¼ cup dried thyme leaves
3 tablespoons dried summer savory leaves
3 tablespoons dried chervil leaves
3 tablespoons dried basil leaves
2 tablespoons dried rosemary leaves
2 tablespoons dried marjoram leaves

Mix the whole herb leaves in a bowl, place in a clean, airtight jar, and store in a cool, dry place.
To use, rub the dried herbs between your palms or grind them to a powder. 

Suggested Uses
This particular herb blend goes with the ingredients and flavors that naturally dominate Provençal cuisine:
olive oil (above all, olive oil!), tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, capers, olives, artichokes, and more.  Use this herb blend with breads, chicken, lamb, pork, stews, roasted vegetables, eggs, goat cheese, and strong types of fish such as mackerel or salmon.  

Of course I had to buy a ceramic and glass grinder to go with my bag of herbs

And another small bag through which you can see the size of the herb leaves

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