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Cooking from the Pantry: Herb-Crusted Salmon

Dried Oregano | Photo by Maria Zizka
Dried Oregano | Photo by Maria Zizka

Would you describe dried herbs as less pungent than fresh herbs? If you answered yes, it could be that the dried herbs you're thinking of are dusty, flavorless, and tired -- they've been sitting on a shelf for too long.

I've always thought that spice jars sold at the supermarket are too big. I cook at home often and there's still no way I could go through nearly a cup of coriander seeds in less than one year, which is the length of time it takes for dried spices to lose their vigor. Here's a quick test to determine if your spices are worth keeping: Open the jar, grab a pinch, and rub it between your fingers right under your nose. If the scent is faint or non-existent, toss that spice into the trash.

Instead of buying dried herbs at the supermarket and letting them languish in your pantry, why not dry your own? It's cheaper and takes little effort. Of all the various methods for preserving foods at home, drying herbs might be the easiest and most rewarding.

Sprigs of tarragon drying at home | Photo by Maria Zizka
Sprigs of tarragon drying at home | Photo by Maria Zizka

Start with vibrant, fresh herbs. Those with hardy leaves (oregano, bay, marjoram, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme, summer savory) will dry better than those with tender leaves (parsley, cilantro, basil, some mints). If you have a garden, the ideal time of day to cut herbs is mid-morning, after the dew has evaporated but before the sun is shining directly on the plant. As for the best time of year, you want to aim for the moment when the herb's aromatic oils are most abundant. In the case of lavender, rosemary, sage, and mint, that moment occurs just after the flowers have opened. For most other herbs, however, it's best to cut before blossoms appear. Leaves aren't the only flavorful part; flowers and seeds can be dried just as well. Great candidates for seed drying include caraway, celery, dill, fennel, mustard, cumin, and coriander.

Gather the herbs into small bunches of 4 to 6 sprigs, then strip the leaves from the bottom few inches. If you must wash the herbs, dry them thoroughly. Tie each bunch snugly at the base using twine, string, or a rubber band. As the herbs dry, they will shrink, so you may have to go back and tighten the knot. Find a spot outside or inside that is out of direct sunlight and has decent air circulation--an attic tends to be terrific -- and hang your herb bundles upside-down to dry. Depending on the temperature and the herb, it could take anywhere from 6 days to 2 weeks. The herbs are fully dried when the leaves crumble easily.

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To store your dried herbs, gently pick the leaves (or flowers or seeds) off the stems and place them in a clean jar. Label the jar and store it in a dark, cool place. The general rule of thumb for cooking with dried herbs goes like this: For every tablespoon of fresh herbs, use only a teaspoon of dried herbs. In other words, dried herbs are three times more powerful than fresh herbs.

Herb-Crusted Salmon | Photo by Maria Zizka
Herb-Crusted Salmon | Photo by Maria Zizka

Herb-Crusted Salmon
Serves 2

This recipe can easily be doubled or tripled; you could even roast an entire side of salmon, if you're cooking for a crowd. Use any kind of dried herbs you like.

1 slice fluffy sandwich bread, torn
1 tablespoon dried herbs (such as tarragon, oregano, or thyme)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 (6-ounce) salmon fillets, skin on
2 tablespoons plain, whole-milk yogurt
1 tablespoon mustard
8 - 10 cherry tomatoes
Lemon wedges, for serving
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 400°F.

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the bread, dried herbs, olive oil, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Blend until the bread is finely chopped and the herbs are well distributed.

Place the salmon, skin-side down, on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush the top of the fillets with the yogurt, then with the mustard. Sprinkle a big pinch of salt and lots of black pepper over each fillet. Press the herb-breadcrumb mixture evenly onto the salmon, using the yogurt and mustard as glue.

Scatter the tomatoes around the fillets. Roast in the oven for 6 - 10 minutes, depending on the degree of doneness you prefer, just until the fish is barely cooked through. If the fish is done before the crust looks golden and crisp, place the baking sheet under the broiler for a minute or two and watch it carefully. Serve with lemon wedges for squeezing.

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