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When herbs take center stage

Addie Broyles,
These Vietnamese meatballs, inspired by the Elizabeth Street Cafe in Austin, are from “The Defined Dish" by Alex Snodgrass. [Contributed by Kristen Kilpatrick]

When I’m ready for winter to end, which usually happens in these last weeks before the time changes, a big bunch of cilantro or Thai basil can brighten my day.

The fragrance alone lifts my spirits, and a pile of verdant greens on top of everything I cook is something I can look forward to inside my house while nature starts to spring to life outside.

We think of summertime as the time to celebrate big bunches of herbs, but I wanted to share a handful of herb-forward recipes months before our gardens are bursting with them.

For a long time, herbs were somewhat difficult to find in many American grocery stores, where — in winter, especially — you could find only small plastic containers of tarragon, mint, sage and the like in a small shelf in the produce section.

Nowadays, big bunches of cilantro and parsley are available year-round in even the biggest supermarkets, but the best place to find the widest selection of herbs that will transform your cooking is in Asian grocery stores. That’s where you’ll find punchy ingredients such as Thai lime leaves, cha plu, lemongrass and laksa, whose smell alone will transport you to a market in Southeast Asia without leaving your home.

If you’re trying a new-to-you herb, go to the international market and see what looks fresh, using your nose to help you decide which direction to take. While you’re cooking, nibble on a leaf to see how you like it uncooked and then sample it after you’ve added heat to see how the flavor changes.

Using herbs as the focus of a dish is a relatively easy way to improve your cooking without much effort, but let price and availability help you decide which herbs to add and what kind of dishes to make.

For instance, if you absolutely cannot find mint without spending $12 on a bunch, don’t make Sam Sifton’s pasta with mint. If you can find a good deal on basil or parsley, however, substitute them instead.

Dan Toombs suggests varying the ratio of mint to cilantro in the sauce that goes with his corn koftas; if you don’t like cilantro or mint, you could also throw in a little Thai basil or parsley, but go easy. Some herbs are more pungent or spicy than others, including oregano, rosemary and sage, which is why many Americans typically use only a sprinkle of them when cooking.

But once you find herbs that you really like — mint, basil and cilantro are my favorite — use them beyond the garnish and see what happens.

Beef, Lemongrass and Cha Plu Stir Fry

There is a lot of confusion around cha plu, as many of the dishes in which it is used are referred to (in the West at least) as betel leaf. The two are closely related, but whereas betel leaf has quite an intense bitterness to it, cha plu (or bai cha plu, or wild pepper leaf ) has a very distinctive, fragrant sweetness to it. It will be instantly recognizable if you’ve ever wandered around a food market anywhere in Southeast Asia. The leaves are often used as wraps, but are also excellent as a stir-fried green.

This recipe makes enough for four for a palate-enlivening starter, or two as a low-carb meal, but you could easily bulk it out by tossing in some cooked noodles or serving it with rice.

Finally, a note on the cooking — when the leaves look as they do in the photograph, this is when you should add the cilantro and laksa leaves (also called Vietnamese mint or Vietnamese cilantro). The herbs will continue to wilt even after removing from the heat.

— Catherine Phipps

1 (10-ounce) sirloin steak, trimmed and very thinly sliced

1 tablespoon groundnut oil

2 red shallots, thinly sliced

2 chiles, thinly sliced on the diagonal

2 lemongrass stalks, white parts only, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

1/2-ounce piece ginger, finely chopped

3 1/2 ounces radishes, sliced into rounds

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1/2 teaspoon light soft brown sugar or palm sugar

A large bunch of cha plu, stems discarded, roughly chopped

A few laksa leaves, finely chopped

A few cilantro leaves

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the steak in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Toss and leave to stand for a few minutes.

Heat the oil in a wok. When the air above the oil starts to shimmer, it will be hot enough to use. Add the shallots, chiles, lemongrass, garlic, ginger and radishes and stir-fry for 1 minute.

Add the beef and continue to cook for a minute or two, until browned around the edges. Sprinkle in the fish sauce and sugar, then add the cha plu. Continue to cook until the leaves have started to wilt, then toss in the laksa and cilantro leaves. Cook for another minute or two, then serve immediately. Serves 2 to 4.

— From “Leaf: Lettuce, Greens, Herbs, Weeds - 120 Recipes that Celebrate Varied, Versatile Leaves” by Catherine Phipps (Quadrille, $35)

Vietnamese Spicy Pork Meatballs With Fresh Noodle Salad (Bun Cha)

One of my all-time favorite restaurants is Elizabeth Street Cafe in Austin. Anytime I’m visiting, it’s always on the top of my to-do list as far as eats go. They make an incredible marinated pork bun that I order every time I go, which I realized I could re-create at home — with my own healthier spin, of course. Since pork can easily dry out when grilled, I decided it’d be best to do pork meatballs instead. Best decision I’ve ever made! These pork meatballs are everything I have ever dreamed of in meatball form —a little spicy, a little tangy, a little ginger-y. Plus I serve them with nuoc cham, a Vietnamese dipping sauce that has an irresistible sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavor. It keeps for up to 4 months in the fridge, so I highly recommend using it to brighten seafood, add a salty tang to beef or pork, or simply spooning it over steamed rice or noodles for an easy, delicious dinner.

— Alex Snodgrass

For the nuoc cham sauce:

1/3 cup fish sauce (I use Red Boat)

1/4 cup fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)

3 tablespoons coconut palm sugar

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 to 3 bird’s eye chiles, very thinly sliced (1 for mild, 3 for hot)

2 garlic cloves, minced

For the pork meatballs:

2 pounds ground pork

1 medium shallot, minced (3 tablespoons)

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 bird’s eye chiles, very thinly sliced

1 tablespoon fish sauce (I use Red Boat)

2 tablespoons coconut aminos

1 (1/2-inch) piece fresh ginger, finely grated

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive or avocado oil, for frying

To serve:

4 cups mixed spring greens

2 small carrots, cut into matchsticks

1 medium English cucumber, seeded and thinly sliced into matchsticks

1 1/2 cups bean sprouts

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves

1/4 cup fresh Thai or regular basil leaves

1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves

8 ounces rice vermicelli noodles, cooked according to package directions (replace with daikon radish if paleo or grain-free)

Lime wedges

1 cup cashews, roughly chopped

To make the nuoc cham sauce, in a medium bowl, combine 2/3 cup water with the fish sauce, lime juice, coconut sugar, rice vinegar, chiles and garlic. Whisk until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside.

To make the meatballs: In a large bowl, combine the pork, shallot, garlic, chiles, fish sauce, coconut aminos, ginger, salt and pepper. Use your hands to mix until just combined.

Scoop 2 tablespoons of the meatball mixture at a time onto a parchment-lined plate and use your hands to form each into a ball. Repeat until you’ve used all the meat.

In a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. Working in batches so you don’t crowd the pan, add the meatballs and arrange them in a single layer. Fry them on all sides until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook until the meatballs are cooked through or no longer pink, 4 to 6 minutes more. Transfer the meatballs to a paper towel-lined plate.

To assemble: Divide the spring greens, carrots, cucumber, bean sprouts, mint, basil and cilantro among four bowls. Add the meatballs and 1/2 cup of the cooked noodles to each bowl (if using). Spoon your desired amount of nuoc cham sauce over the bowls, add the lime wedges, and sprinkle with the chopped cashews. Serves 4.

— From “The Defined Dish: Whole30 Endorsed, Healthy and Wholesome Weeknight Recipes" by Alex Snodgrass (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30)

Pasta With Peas and Mint

If you cook for others on a regular cadence, you’ll discover that not all the meals will be beautifully planned. Sometimes one thing leads to another and you forget to shop, or your forget that you need wood or propane or time to brine the meat. Sometimes you run out of time. Sometimes you run out of energy. Sometimes you just want to cook something simple and eat, toast one another, wash everything up and take a long walk with the dog. Pasta with peas and mint can answer that call, provide a bright summer evening on a plate, even if it’s winter. It’s a pantry meal for those who grow mint and always have dried pasta in a cabinet and a few bags of organic peas in the freezer. (It’s an easy shop for those who don’t.) You can use fettuccine or tagliatelle, though I like how medium shells hold the peas. Could you add some chopped bacon to the pan? Why, yes, you could, and that would be fine.

— Sam Sifton

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

2 small shallots or 1 large one, peeled and thinly sliced

2 cups shelled fresh or frozen peas

1 pound dried pasta, such as fettuccine, tagliatelle or shells

1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese

2 large handfuls of mint leaves, either roughly torn or thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Set a large pot of salted water over high heat and allow to come to a boil.

Set a large saute pan over medium-high heat and swirl the oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter into it. When the oil and butter shimmer and foam, add the garlic and shallots to the pan and stir. Cook, stirring, for a few minutes, until the garlic has started to soften and the shallots turn translucent. Add the peas and a splash of water and cook, stirring occasionally, until the peas are cooked through and the water has evaporated, 3 to 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in the boiling salted water until it is just al dente, probably a minute or so less than the instructions on the packaging, then fish out a cup of the pasta water and drain the rest.

Put the pasta in a large, warm serving bowl and add to it the peas, along with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, the cheese and most of the mint, and toss to combine. Add a few splashes of the reserved pasta water to loosen everything up and give the pasta a sheen. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the remaining mint over the top of the pasta and serve.

— From “See You on Sunday: A Cookbook for Family and Friends” by Sam Sifton (Random House, $35)

Corn Koftas With Herbs

This one is juicy! It might have a lot of sauce, but the corn koftas can stand up to it. You could use any vegetable as the base for the koftas. The most important thing is that you wrap it all up tightly so you don’t get it all on your lap! I should probably mention that when I made these corn koftas during the photo shoot for this book, they were a real hit. To make this vegan, you could either leave out the yogurt for a stronger but very delicious flavor or try a soy or coconut yogurt.

— Dan Toombs

Oil, for deep-frying

Chickpea flour, for dusting

4 tortillas, chapattis or rumali rotis

Yogurt sauce (see recipe below)

Mint and cilantro sauce (see recipe below)

Lettuce (optional)

Sliced onions (optional)

For the koftas:

1 large potato (about 10 1/2 ounces), peeled and diced

1 (14-ounce) can of corn (or corn cut from 2 large cobs)

1 teaspoon chile powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 green chile, finely chopped

3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro


To make the koftas, boil your diced potato in water for about 10 minutes, until fork tender. Drain and mash.

Pound the corn in a pestle and mortar into a paste. Mix the corn and mashed potato with the chile powder, cumin, green chile and cilantro. Season with salt to taste and form the mixture into short sausage shapes or small ball shapes.

Heat about 4 inches oil in a wok or large pan to 335 degrees. If you don’t have an oil thermometer, drop a piece of the corn mixture in the oil. If it sizzles and rises to the top immediately, you’re ready to cook. When it reaches this heat, dust a kofta in the chickpea flour and place it in the oil. Repeat with the rest. (You may need to cook them in batches, depending on the size of your pan.) The koftas are ready once nicely browned and heated through, about 3 minutes.

To finish, smother the tortillas with a good dose of yogurt sauce and mint and cilantro sauce and divide the koftas between them. If you like, you could also add some lettuce, sliced onions or whatever you want. Then wrap it all up to serve. Serves 4.

— From “Curry Guy Veggie: Over 100 Vegetarian Indian Restaurant Classics and New Dishes to Make at Home” by Dan Toombs (Quadrille, $19.99)

Mint and Cilantro Sauce

This is a sauce I make all the time. It is so versatile, I store it in a squeeze bottle to put on everything, but that isn’t essential. Mint and cilantro sauce is available year-round at Asian markets, but nothing beats taking it all up a notch with your own homemade version. You can adjust the recipe, too, by varying the cilantro-to-mint ratio, adding more or less chiles, using yogurt or leaving it out.

— Dan Toombs

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 very large bunch fresh mint, about 3 1/2 ounces

1 very large bunch fresh cilantro, about 3 1/2 ounces

6 green chiles (more or less to taste)

4 garlic cloves

1 (2-inch) piece of ginger

Juice of 2 lemons

1/3 cup plain yogurt (store-bought or homemade)


In a dry frying pan, roast the cumin seeds over medium-high heat until warm to the touch and fragrant but not yet smoking.

Pour the roasted seeds into a blender or spice grinder with the mint, cilantro, green chiles, garlic, ginger, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of the yogurt, if using. Blend to a paste. If you are having trouble getting the ingredients to blend, add a little more lemon juice or a drop or two of water until you have a thick green paste.

You could now use the sauce to spread over sandwiches and wraps, but if you are making chaats or like a smoother, thinner sauce, whisk the remaining yogurt into the paste until very smooth. (You could even add more yogurt if you prefer.) Season with salt to taste.

I like to store this sauce for up to 3 days in restaurant-style squirt bottles for squeezing over lots of different dishes. Serves 4.

— From “Curry Guy Veggie: Over 100 Vegetarian Indian Restaurant Classics and New Dishes to Make at Home” by Dan Toombs (Quadrille, $19.99)