Bundles of herbs -- the very things that bring life and color to so many recipes -- are too often the victims of crisper drawer abandonment. A week after that bánh mì or minestrone we were so excited about, we unearth the remains, wilted and weeping, entombed in their own plastic baggy coffins. So we throw them away, faces all squinched up. And we hate ourselves, and sulk about missed opportunity.
There is a way to treat them a little better, and ease this self-loathing. You can store them something like a bouquet of flowers: upright in a jar in the fridge, tips dangling into fresh water, and tops protected by a plastic bag secured by a rubber band around the jar -- a trick for keeping them hydrated that I learned from a family friend and wonderful cook known to all as Jagu. If you remember to change out the water every few days, your herbs will last for a freakishly long time.
But I usually don't remember to do this. And even when I do -- those herbs can't defy their fate forever.
Our friend fiveandspice tipped me off to the solution, and it's an herb jam by Paula Wolfert (pictured above). "It's completely changed the way I think about cilantro and parsley," fiveandspice says. "I used to never want to get a bunch of either for a recipe that called for just a tablespoon or two for garnish -- which is many recipes. I never waste any, anymore!"
In Wolfert's book The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, she smartly adapts a traditional Moroccan spread (typically made with a native green called baqqula) to the modern kitchen (note that you can still use either a heavy-bottomed skillet or a "medium cazuela set over a flame-tamer" -- I'll leave that up to you.)
In a couple of nifty strokes of genius, Wolfert transforms your sad-looking herbs and greens into a spunky new animal. It doesn't matter if they're starting to lose their edge, that their garnishing days are over -- because you're about to cook the daylights out of them (see a full slideshow of the proceedings on the recipe page here).
First you gather up all your orphaned semi-bunches of herbs -- Wolfert has a specific cocktail of parsley, cilantro and celery leaves, but fiveandspice says she uses whatever she has on hand that needs using up. Throw in a whole lot of spinach or chard (or other not-too-sturdy greens). My favorite step: you tuck a few cloves of garlic in there to steam with the gang, then pull them out and mash them with a fork for the next stage.
You'll wring your herbs and greens dry and chop them, then bring them back to life, by sauteing them with smoked paprika, cumin, cayenne, oil-cured olives, and that garlic, smashing it all around until it turns into a heady, delicious jam. Fresh lemon juice and olive oil perk it up at the end. It's rich and voluptuous, and surprisingly meaty for something with this much green packed into it (Can you hear me vegans? This one's for you!).
This jam isn't here to win beauty pageants -- it's glorified mulch, really. If this concerns you, serve it in your prettiest little bowl, with dainty crackers. Ours looked like doilies and were very good. Pull out a butter knife from your finest silver and polish it up, if that's what it takes.
Just don't let the jam's scraggly appearance keep you from its charms. Imagine what your relationship with your fridge could be, if instead of the unfortunate discoveries lurking in the corner of the crisper drawer, you always had a wee pot of this to greet you.
1 pound baby spinach leaves 1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley, stems discarded 1/2 cup celery leaves, coarsely chopped 1/2 cup cilantro leaves, stemmed 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 12 oil-cured black olives, pitted, rinsed, coarsely chopped 1 1/4 teaspoon Spanish sweet smoked paprika (pimenton de la Vera) Pinch of cayenne Pinch of ground cumin 1 tablespoon lemon juice, or more to taste Salt and freshly ground pepper
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom
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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."