Friday, May 21, 2010

Herbs, Cactus, and Better Cooking

When I start shopping these days, I get sucked in by herbs. They always look so pretty and wonderful, and not too hard to keep alive (I think that last is a cruel lie designed to create heartache and guilt, actually).

But they also look like salvation.

Fresh herbs are expensive, oh heck yeah, but when there is no dairy in a dish, no gluten, no eggs? Well, the difference between fresh and dried herbs is more noticeable than I'd ever imagined. I need the flavors the fresh herbs are giving me; I just don't want to pay for it at the store every time.

So yesterday, I went herb crazy - three types of mint, two types of thyme, cilantro, basil, oregano. Now, I have only used mint three times in a my life, and thyme barely more than that. But those adorable little pots with the tiny green leaves sucked me in. I wanted an herb garden, goshdarnit, and I was going to make one. Whether or not it had herbs that I actually used.

I'm not sure how that happens. There is something about an herb garden that screams 'I am chef.' Better than a certificate of completion from culinary school. Herbs mean I am cooking, and cooking something that tastes good. Of course, herbs are a big fat bunch of liars, but I like them anyway.

And I figured out what to do with all that mint, too: mint water. It's simple, adds a little something pretty for when people come over, or you want a little verve to your humdrum drinking experience.

Mint Water

What you need:
2-3 sprigs of fresh mint
a pitcher of water, about 2 quarts

What you do:
1. Wash the mint, make sure it's bug free. Set out the pitcher with water and pop the mint in it.
2. Let this sit at room temperature for a few hours, or overnight.
3. You can dink as is, or chill before using. The mint taste is mild, but pleasant, for those who like mint.

Hey - this is a recipe even I can't screw up!

But let me add a cautionary note to all this herb usage. They are gateway foods: they lead to culinary experimentation in all possible foods in your yard. How else can I explain carefully picking buds off my cholla cactus, to try to prepare and eat, when I've never eaten one in my life? I'm checking out prickly pear pads and how I can cook them, thinking about how long until the beans on my palo verde tree are ripe so I can harvest them and freeze them for later use.

I have gone off the deep end. Not because these aren't interesting and possibly even tasty foods, but because I have NO idea what the heck to DO with them. I don't use these. I am a mediocre cook with foods I've seen in the kitchen my whole life. I don't know why some ancestral part of my brain thinks that if I use food I've actually picked, my cooking will somehow improve to match. Positive thinking at it's best.

Although honestly - cholla buds tasted pretty darn good. SCARY, but good. Have you ever eaten a food that you had to de-prickle so that you don't get spines in your mouth? And you're not even sure you're doing it right? That, my friends, is eating on the edge. Putting that first bite of boiled cholla bud in my mouth was very, very nerve wracking. But it tasted awesome - slimy like okra, but tasting of asparagus, with a tart aftertaste. Very unique, and really good!

Ahem...before my throat started up on me again and we realized these, too, are off Shauna's menu. But they were awesome until then!

And it looks very, very interesting. Here, take a look!

My cholla buds, partially de-thorned.

And now cooked - which is not nearly so pretty.

If you ever get a chance to try these, they are supposedly good in soups, but I think they'd go very nicely as a side dish, too, in slices.

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