Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fresh herbs add flavor to your camp cooking

I wrote this article in September 2001 ...

"Try one or two new dishes each trip. It's fun, and it'll expand your culinary repertoire," I wrote in my third Suite101 article, "A Camper's Dozen: 13 Tips To Successful Meals In Camp (Part 2)."

"If you family loves chicken, serve it roasted in a Dutch oven with new potatoes, carrots and zucchini. As you lift the oven lid, the sweet scent of rosemary will bring the family running to the table."

Like any cooking, camp meals grow old after a while. Chicken fried in a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven is very good. But the meal is loaded with fat. In today's nutrition conscience world, it’s best to balance high fat meals with those that are lower in fat. One way to accomplish that is by using fresh herbs.

Fresh herbs transform any dish into a culinary delight by enhancing the flavor of a dish. Who doesn't enjoy Italian pasta dishes flavored with basil and thyme? Or Mexican meals spiced with cilantro and oregano? Using fresh herbs in camp cooking will produce many flavor-packed meals for your family.

Fresh herbs in camp cooking

According to The New Professional Chef, "Herbs are the leaves of aromatic plants and are used primarily to add flavor to foods." Although most herbs can be purchased dried, fresh herbs are easy to use. Examples include thyme, rosemary and basil.

Select herbs that have a fresh, strong aroma. A weak or stale aroma is a good indicator that an herb sprig may be old. The New Professional Chef says, "They should have good color (usually green), fresh looking leaves and stems, and no wilt, brown spots, sunburn, or pest damage."

To keep herbs as fresh as possible, buy in small amounts. And try not to buy them any sooner that a few days before your camping trip. Wrap sprigs of fresh herbs in a damp paper towel and place them into a plastic storage bag. Store fresh herbs a refrigerator or ice chest.

Use the whole sprig when possible. The recipe for Dutch Oven Roast Chicken with Herbs uses whole sprigs of thyme, rosemary and chervil in the chest cavity of the chicken. This flavors the meat and drippings. If the recipe calls for chopped or minced herbs cut them just before they're needed. Prolonged exposure to heat gives many herbs a bitter taste. (When using dried herbs, add them early in the cooking process -- dried herbs need longer simmering times to enhance flavor.)

Chefs often cut leafy herbs in fine shreds (called a chiffonade cut). Roll or stack the herbs and cut into very fine strips with your cook’s knife. Herbs cut in chiffonade are used to flavor many soups, stews and casseroles.

Fresh herbs are also used to garnish a dish just before serving. Pinch about one tablespoon of the shredded herb and sprinkle over the dish. In my last article, "Dutch Oven Chicken Enchiladas," chopped cilantro is used to add color and fresh flavor to the casserole. Whole sprigs can also be used to garnish a plate.

Fresh herbs are added to a dish toward the end the cooking process. This preserves their flavor. Add fresh herbs in the last 30 to 45 minutes in long-cooking dishes like stews and soups. For vegetables and other quick-cooking dishes, add herbs as you start cooking. Add herbs to casseroles when you mix the dish.

Add herbs to uncooked dishes early to blend in flavors. Fresh herbs in salad dressings should be given two or more hours to develop the flavor. Add herbs to cold dishes like salads, dips and raw vegetables several hours in advance.

To convert recipes that call for dried herbs, substitute three times the amount of fresh herbs as dried herbs. For example, one tablespoon of fresh basil equals one teaspoon of dried basil.

Dutch Oven Roast Chicken with Herbs

Last June after a fun hike from Woods Lake to Winnamuca Lake, near California’s Carson Pass, I roasted a chicken in my 12-inch Dutch oven for my family and my parents. The chicken, which was flavored with rosemary, thyme and chervil, browned nicely in the Dutch oven.

1 3 to 4-pound chicken
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
3 cloves minced garlic
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh chervil
1/2 cup chicken stock or wine

Use a 12-inch Dutch oven for this recipe. Ignite 25 charcoal briquettes and let them burn until they are barely covered with ash, about 20 minutes. For a 350-degree oven, you’ll need 8 briquettes underneath and 17 on top of the oven.

Wash chicken, pat dry and place on a baking rack, breast-side up, in oven. Lightly season the chest cavity and skin with salt, pepper and garlic. Place 2 thyme and rosemary sprigs inside the chest cavity and chop the remainder. Sprinkle chopped herbs over skin.

Place lid on oven. Arrange 17 charcoal briquettes to the oven lid and 8 briquettes underneath. Bake about 1-hour and 15 minutes until juices run clear and the leg easily pulls apart. Cut into chicken into quarters. Serves 4 to 5. Use pan drippings to flavor side dished if desired.

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