CHIAVARI, Italy – it’s time to prune my little herb garden and I’m going to use the trimmings of the rosemary plant to make a couple of bottles of flavored oil. I bought the oil last week, a not very expensive extra virgin olive oil from Liguria. I prefer olive oil because it is the most pure and does the best job of capturing the flavor of the herbs. Just about any combination of herbs, will do, it depends on what flavor you want. The method is always the same.
An Italian cookbook I picked up a few years ago called Cooking with Aromatic Herbs suggests that after you’ve decided on the flavor you want, cut your herbs into small sprigs and wash them carefully. If you are using more than one herb, tie them together with a piece of kitchen string. Push the herb bundle into a clean, dry bottle and cover it with oil. If you use the oil daily, keep refilling the bottle with oil as the oil level goes down. If you don’t use the oil often, it’s best to only make a half a liter because after a while the herbs tend to break down. They recommended the following herb combinations for one liter of olive oil.
For fish, grilled or roasted meat: sprigs of sage, rosemary and black peppercorns;
For spaghetti: 2 cloves of garlic, 4 small hot red peppers and a small sprig of rosemary;
For white meat (turkey, chicken, pork): thyme, marjoram and white peppercorns;
For pizza: 2 sprigs of oregano, a scallion, 2 small hot red peppers;
For red meat: 2 bay leaves, 3 black peppercorns and 3 white peppercorns.
Not to make disparaging remarks about the authors of the book, but I doubt many of us are actually going to have 5 different bottles of flavored olive oil in our cupboards. I’m not, that’s for sure. And while Cooking with Aromatic Herbs recommends tying the herbs together and keeping the peppercorns, garlic and hot peppers whole, I find that chopping the herbs and breaking up the garlic and peppercorns releases more flavor.
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I’ve also found that making two bottles of flavored oil at a time works better than adding fresh oil to a bottle as I use it. It takes a week or two for the oil to infuse with the flavor of the herbs and, in my opinion, if you add fresh oil on top of your flavored oil, you will dilute the flavor.
I also use more herbs than they do. My favorite combination is rosemary, garlic, black peppercorns and hot red peppers. For a liter of olive oil I use three or four long sprigs of rosemary, about 5 inches each, one or two garlic cloves, depending on their size, a pinch of slat, about a teaspoon of black peppercorns and depending on hot they are, one or two little red peppers. Personally I don’t care if I have bits of herbs in my food, but if you would prefer not to, then tie your herbs together as they suggest.
Here is my “no recipe” recipe. Fill a clean bottle about ¾’s full with olive oil. As you prepare the herbs add them to the oil. Start with the rosemary. Wash, dry and strip the rosemary leaves from the branches. Chop the leaves into very, very small bits and add them to your oil. Peel the garlic cloves and chop and on a cutting board, mash them with the side of a large knife. Then add a tiny bit of salt and with the side of your knife, press against the garlic and pull it toward you in a smearing motion. Do this until the garlic is completely broken down. The salt creates enough friction on the garlic to reduce it to pulp and the garlic releases more flavor in the process. Scrape up the garlic and put it in the oil.
The black peppercorns get broken up using my meat pounder. I just put them between some kitchen paper, fold it up to keep the peppercorns from flying out and pound away. They just need to be in pieces, they don’t need to be pulverized or have any particular size or texture. Of course you can be more civilized than I am and use a pepper grinder, that works too.
The last step is the red hot pepperoncini. Make a small to medium slit in the side of the pepperoncino and put it in the bottle. That’s it.
Rosemary, garlic and pepper is my favorite combination and I use it for everything, for frying, for salads, to season cooked and uncooked vegetables. The only problem I have is keeping enough of it around. A friend of mine is coming to visit the week after Easter so this weekend I’m going to make a couple of bottles of oil to have on hand while she’s here, and another one for her to take home.
If you try any of the Cooking with Aromatic Herbs combinations, or my recipe, let me know what you think. Your input is always welcomed.