I spent a season at the Vail CO central kitchen for the whole valley ski area. The kitchen itself was located in Beaver Creek, but we served food all over the valley and were also responsible for supplying several restaurant operations in the Beaver Creek area. I arrived the week after the Prince of Spain had killed himself in a horrible skiing accident. From the kitchen perspective, it was equally horrible. The whole kitchen crew had worked for an entire week to put together a fancy gourmet banquet for 500 people to honor the prince and other visiting dignitaries. The crew was on the elevator with the food to take to the banquet when the word arrived of the death and subsequent cancellation of the banquet. The word was that several of the chef’s walked off the job and never returned, maybe that is why I got the job.
It was an interesting season, I got a ski pass and a 14 hour a day, 6 day a week schedule. Right, I really felt like skiing on my day off…NOT! When I arrived I was given the choice of running the kettle line, (8 steam kettles for soups and stocks ranging in size from 10 to 100 gallons each) or taking a fancy gourmet meal up to a “snowed-in” chalet to serve 10 people. I chose the kettles; it sounded more fun than standing around watching others eat.
My first full day on the job, I was given a recipe for 100 gallons of “Chunky Vegetable Soup.” No, it was not Campbell’s style! Besides the 100 lbs. of potatoes, the 75 lbs. of carrots, the 75lbs of celery, the 40 lbs of mushrooms, 50 lbs. of tomatoes, the turnips, the onions, and several other ingredients the last two were 2 lbs. of parsley and 8 ounces of fresh Thyme. After 8 hours of slicing and dicing, I finally came to the two remaining herbs, thinking that this would be a piece of cake after all the volume of things that I had cut that day.
Up to this point in my career I had never worked with fresh herbs. Of course I had chopped parsley, but I didn’t even know what fresh thyme looked like much less how many little tiny leaves of thyme it took to make a gram, let alone an ounce. It had to be pure leaves, no stem pieces were allowed (the stems went into the stock pot with the veal bones for Glace de Viand). By the way the thyme you buy in the tiny bottles at the store has the stem pieces in there too, but they are ground pretty fine so you rarely taste them. Mother Nature makes all her plants the same, the tips of the stems are the most tender part of the plant. It is the same place that you need to hold in order to strip the leaves off of the stem cleanly.
The trick is to find the place on the stem that is strong enough to support your grip as you slide your fingers down the stem. If you hold it too close to the tip, it will break off in your fingers, if you move too far down the stem you leave too many leaves. I find the place by pinching the tip until it does not break off and strip the stem from there. This works for any fresh herb that you wish to strip. In most cases you do not want to use the stems for anything that will be showing the herbs. For instance, dill cream cheese, the nice little green flecks of the dill weed look fine but large chunks of stem would be very un-appealing.
For recipes where the flavor is more important than the presentation a sachet is the way to go. Take the fresh or dried herbs that you wish to use and place them on a folded layer of cheese cloth. Tie the bundle of herbs up with butchers twine in a sack and use it like a giant tea-bag to impart the flavor to the stock or soup. When you are ready to serve you pull it out and discard it. This is how I solved my fresh thyme dilemma in Vail, it was much simpler than plucking leaves. The sachet is great for pickling spice when boiling shrimp for shrimp cocktail, it sure beats picking out the little chunks of bay leaf from the shrimp.
While we are on the subject of herb presentation, I cannot leave Basil out of the picture. Basil has so many tasty ways to compliment foods. The most popular form of presentation is called chiffonade. With Basil leaves you stack them together in a pile and roll the pile up as tightly as you can. Holding that in your non-knife hand you then make very thin slices, across the roll (Like cutting a Cigar). This yields a fine ribbon like strip that you can decorate your favorite appetizer or Caprese Salad. Another really fancy presentation for Basil is to take larger individual leaves and fry them in oil for a minute or less. They become translucent and crispy, then lay it on top of your next en-croute entre and listen for the oohs and aahs.
Lest I leave you hanging as to a recipe for an “en croute.” Here is a vegetarian entree that is sure to please.
Spanikopita Entree Style (Makes 6)
6 Large Basil Leaves (Whole)
2 Pounds Spinach
1 Pound Sliced Mushrooms
2 Cloves Garlic Minced
1 Large Shallot Minced
1 Quarter cup Olive oil
2 Tablespoons Fresh Chopped Herbs (Basil, Thyme, Rosemary, Tarragon, Parsley)
Salt and Pepper to taste
1 10×15 Sheet Puff Pastry
2 Cups Feta Cheese crumbled (Vegan’s can leave this out)
1 Egg Beaten with a tablespoon of water for an egg wash (Pastry Brush)
Heat the oil in a 12″ saute pan. When it is hot fry the basil leaves carefully turning them with tongs after about 15 seconds. Drain on a paper towel. (Set aside for garnish) Add shallots and garlic, saute until clear 2 minutes at the most. Now add the mushrooms, cook until tender. Add your herbs and spinach and cook until thoroughly wilted. Pour this out onto a colander to cool and drain the excess liquid. Cut the sheet of Pastry into 6 5×5 squares and roll them out slightly on a lightly floured board. (Just an inch or so to stretch it) Next add the crumbled feta to the spinach mixture. Paint the edges of the pastry square with the egg-wash and put a large handful of the spinach mixture into the center. Fold from the corners of the pastry into the center and seal the edges together in an X . Use a spatula to move your creation to a parchment lined sheet pan. When you have completed all 6 envelopes, the next step is to paint the whole top with the remaining egg-wash. At this point you can freeze them, or go straight into a 350° oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. If you choose to freeze them the cooking time should increase by twenty minutes.