Uncommon Herbs : Beyond Basil: The New Wave Herbs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 50 years ago, Irma Goodrich Mazza wrote a book called "Herbs for the Kitchen" that quickly became a classic. Published in 1939 and revised in 1947, it has been reprinted many times.

In the '30s, Americans had to be told that fresh herbs, garlic and premium olive oils could do wonderful things for food. They hardly knew such seasonings existed. The Boston Herald, reviewing the first edition of Mazza's book, called her cooking "unusual." Like most women, Mazza turned out her share of bland creamed vegetables. Then she married an Italian who refused to eat such stuff.

Mazza warned her readers not to let their families know they were going to spike food with strange little green leaves. "Automatically they will be set against the entire venture and you will be licked before you start," she warned.

If someone asked what made a dish tasty, the game plan was to play coy. "Just get a mysterious gleam in your eye," advised Mazza and say, "Oh, just a little marjoram. . . . I'll try to remember to put some in again the next time we have this dish."

Today, there's an astonishing abundance of herbs in American markets and nurseries, more than Mazza ever dreamed of, and no one is shy about using them. Mazza thought cooks could do wonders with only six--basil, marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage and thyme--but proposed 25 more for serious cooks and another 26 for those who became hooked.

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That's a lot of herbs but doesn't begin to touch those that have arrived with recent waves of immigrants. At the moment, most of these are available only in specialty markets, some farmers markets and the back yards of new residents who want to recreate the tastes of home.

Many have no English names, like the Vietnamese rau ram , a pointy, strong-tasting leaf that turns up in Singaporean cuisine under the name daun kesom . It's also called laksa leaf, because it always tops the noodle soup known as laksa.

Other new seasonings are not herbs but aromatics--ingredients that add flavor but are not eaten. These include lemon grass, which is working its way into mainstream cooking; fresh pandanus leaves; galangal and kaffir lime leaves.

The same herb may be used in several countries under different names, which creates a lot of confusion. Japanese shiso , which has been available here for awhile, is thi to to the Vietnamese, which at least is vaguely similar. It also goes by perilla and "beefsteak leaf." Red-stemmed basil is rau que to a Vietnamese and horapha to a Thai. Galangal, which looks like pale-skinned ginger root, is kha in Thailand, lengkuas in Malaysia and laos in Indonesia.

The Mexican herb epazote once was unavailable here, except as an occasionally found wild plant. Now Taylor's Herb Gardens of Vista supplies it to nurseries. Once started, epazote spreads like mint, sprouting up in every pot within its ambitious reach. And so, by the way, does rau ram , which can be sprouted from a cut bunch purchased at an Asian market. Place the bunch in water until roots form, then plant it. Or buy this and other potted Vietnamese herbs from markets in Westminster's Little Saigon.

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Long slim pandanus leaves occasionally appear fresh but are almost always available frozen. Juice squeezed from the leaves gives a subtle flavor to some southeast Asian desserts, and cooks in Singapore and Malaysia often add a blade when cooking rice. Until recently, bottled pandan flavoring was the only way to obtain this unique flavor.

South Indian curry leaves taste nothing like curry powder, though they're often added to curries, so that's probably how they acquired the name. Indian cookbooks sometimes specify bay leaves as an alternative, but the flavors have nothing in common. Dried curry leaves have long been available in Indian markets. Now the leaves are arriving fresh. They'll keep for a long time in the refrigerator, or can be dried for later use.

Galangal looks like ginger root but smells vaguely of mustard. It's available fresh in some Thai markets. La lot leaves, in which Vietnamese wrap beef as part of their seven-course beef dinner, grow well in Southern California. We don't usually think of something that you wrap meat with as an herb, but they do contribute to the flavor of the dish.

Some say that when grown on American soil, Asian herbs and aromatics lose their full flavor. On the other hand, the executive chef of a hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, told me that European herbs grow quickly in Indonesia's hot, humid climate. But they have so little taste that it is necessary to rely on imported herbs from Europe.

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Rau ram has a strong, soapy flavor, but without it, this soupy noodle dish from Singapore would lose its unique taste. The recipe is from "Singapore Food" by Wendy Hutton (Ure Smith). Buy the fish balls and fresh rice noodles at a Chinese market. The noodles should be the size of thick spaghetti.

WENDY HUTTON'S LAKSA LEMAK

16 to 24 shrimp

2 cups water

Laksa Gravy

1 1/2 pounds fresh thick round Chinese rice noodles

2 packed cups bean sprouts, washed

Few leaves rau ram (laksa leaf), cut in hair-like shreds

1/2 cucumber, peeled, cut in matchsticks

Place shrimp and water in saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce heat, simmer 2 minutes and strain. Reserve liquid for use in Laksa Gravy. Peel shrimp and devein.

Prepare Laksa Gravy. Cook noodles in boiling water 3 minutes. Place some noodles in each individual serving bowl. Place some bean sprouts on top, then add Laksa Gravy. Garnish with shrimp, rau ram and cucumber. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

696 calories; 358 mg sodium; 21 mg cholesterol; 30 grams fat; 87 grams carbohydrates; 24 grams protein; 3 grams fiber.

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Laksa Gravy

4 to 6 small dried red chiles, soaked in warm water

1 stalk lemon grass, thick lower part only

8 shallots or 1 medium red or brown onion

4 slices fresh galangal or 1 teaspoon ground dried galangal

4 candlenuts

1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste (blacan)

1/4 cup oil

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 heaping tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked and pounded

2 (13 1/2-ounce) cans coconut milk

Reserved shrimp stock

1/2 pound Chinese fish balls

1 teaspoon salt

Pound together chiles, lemon grass, shallots, galangal, candlenuts and shrimp paste or grind in food processor or blender, adding 1 1/2 tablespoons oil. Stir in turmeric and coriander.

Heat remaining oil in large saucepan. Add ground ingredients and fry gently, stirring frequently, 4 to 5 minutes. Add dried shrimp and fry 2 minutes. Remove thick coconut milk from top of unshaken can with ladle. Combine remaining milks. There should be 3 cups thinner coconut milk.

Add thin coconut milk and reserved shrimp stock to fried mixture and bring to boil, stirring constantly. Add fish balls and simmer 5 minutes. Add thick coconut milk and salt and simmer until gravy thickens.

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A few leaves of epazote tucked inside a quesadilla add an intriguing flavor. To go with the quesadillas there are black beans cooked Veracruz-style with a sprig or two of the same herb. Epazote is very strong, so use with caution.

QUESADILLAS WITH EPAZOTE AND QUESO FRESCO

8 corn tortillas

1/2 pound queso fresco

3 to 4 Anaheim or poblano chiles, roasted, peeled and cut into strips

3 dozen epazote leaves

Salsa

Black Beans With Epazote

For each quesadilla, place 1 corn tortilla on well-greased grill. Top with 1 ounce queso fresco, few chile strips and 4 epazote leaves. Cover with another corn tortilla. Cook, turning once with spatula, until cheese is melted and each side is lightly browned.

To serve cut in halves or quarters. Place on serving plate. Accompany with bowl of Salsa and Black Beans With Epazote. Makes 8 quesadillas.

Each quesadilla contains about:

221 calories; 314 mg sodium; 12 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 2.20 grams fiber.

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Salsa

1 large clove garlic

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 small onion, chopped

2 tomatoes, chopped

2 serrano chiles, chopped

Dash lime juice

Dash ground cumin

Mash garlic in salt until dissolved. Place in small bowl. Add onion, tomatoes, chiles, lime juice and cumin. Taste and add more salt, if desired. Makes about 2 cups.

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Black Beans With Epazote

1 cup dried black beans

1/2 onion, halved

2 cloves garlic

1/4 pound ground pork

Salt

2 sprigs epazote

Soak beans in pan overnight. Drain. Cover with hot water.

Cut onion half into wedges and add to beans with garlic. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender. Add pork, 1 teaspoon or more of salt and epazote. Cook until beans are tender. Serve in bowls with their broth. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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Some Asian markets now carry bagfuls of pak chee farang leaves. If you can't get them, omit, or add a little more cilantro. In some markets they are labeled with their Vietnamese name, ngo gai.

TOM YAM GOONG (Thai Hot and Sour Soup)

1 quart water

2 stalks lemon grass, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths

4 kaffir lime leaves, each torn off center spine

1 large shallot, peeled, sliced

6 tiny Thai chiles or 2 serrano chiles, sliced lengthwise

1/2 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails left on

1/2 cup canned straw mushrooms

3 tablespoons lime juice

3 tablespoons fish sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 small firm tomato, cut into wedges

1/3 cup cilantro leaves

1 tablespoon chopped pak chee farang

Place water in 3-quart saucepan. Add lemon grass, lime leaves and shallot and bring to boil. Add chiles and shrimp. Cook 2 minutes. Add straw mushrooms, lime juice, fish sauce and salt. Add tomato and cook just until heated, not soft.

Turn unstrained soup into serving bowl. (Do not eat lemon grass and lime leaves.) Top with pak chee farang and cilantro leaves. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

91 calories; 892 mg sodium; 86 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams protein; 0.77 gram fiber.

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Not all curries have scads of sauce. This one, from the book "A Kitchen Symphony," compiled by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra Ladies League, is a dry curry from South India, where curry leaves are an important seasoning.

MUTTON DRY CURRY

5 small onions

2 cloves garlic

1 (1/2-inch) piece ginger root

2 cloves

1/2 stick cinnamon

3 cardamom pods

Salt

Water

5 tablespoons Indian curry powder

2 teaspoons chili powder

1 pound lamb, cut in bite-size chunks

2 tablespoons ghee, clarified butter or oil

2 sprigs curry leaves

Lime juice

Grind onions, garlic, ginger root, cloves, cinnamon and whole cardamom pods together in food processor. Add salt to taste and 1/4 cup water, then add curry powder and chili powder. Process again. Rub paste into lamb chunks.

Heat ghee in skillet. Add lamb and fry until oil rises to surface. Add curry leaves. Simmer 1 1/2 hours, adding little more water if curry becomes too dry. Mixture should not be soupy.

At serving time, squeeze lime juice over curry. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

226 calories; 206 mg sodium; 72 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 1.01 grams fiber.

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This curry-flavored meatloaf recipe made the rounds years ago, when kaffir lime leaves were unknown here. Most people used bay leaves instead, or even lemon or orange leaves from a back-yard tree. However, it takes the kaffir leaves to add the proper touch of delicate, lemony perfume.

BOBOTIE (Lamb Meatloaf)

2 slices white bread

Milk

2 onions, thinly sliced

1 apple, peeled and diced

2 tablespoons butter

1 pound ground lamb

2 tablespoons curry powder

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup raisins

2 eggs

12 blanched almonds, coarsely chopped

6 kaffir lime leaves

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon turmeric

Cooked white rice, optional

Chutney, optional

Soak bread in bowl with milk to cover until soft, then squeeze dry. Saute onions and apple in skillet with butter until tender and not browned. Add bread, lamb, curry powder, sugar, vinegar, salt, pepper and raisins. Add 1 beaten egg and almonds and mix thoroughly.

Pack mixture lightly into 9x5-inch baking dish. Arrange lime leaves on top. Bake at 350 degrees 1 hour. Beat remaining egg with milk. Stir in turmeric. Pour over meatloaf and bake 15 minutes longer. Serve with rice and chutney. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving, without rice or chutney, contains about:

269 calories; 289 mg sodium; 122 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 26 grams carbohydrates; 18 grams protein; 0.49 gram fiber.

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This recipe is from "Simple Art of Vietnamese Cookery" by Binh Duong and Marcia Kiesel (Prentice Hall Press). It's possible to buy la lot plants in Little Saigon, but the leaf may be hard to find elsewhere. Shiso, which is much more widely available, has sharper flavor.

BEEF GRILLED IN LA-LOT LEAVES

1/2 pound eye of beef round, cut against grain into 30 very thin slices

1 teaspoon ground lemon grass, minced

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons medium dry Sherry

1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil

1/4 teaspoon sesame oil

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

30 la lot, shiso or grape leaves, plus extra, if needed

Combine beef, lemon grass, garlic, sugar, soy sauce, Sherry, vegetable and sesame oils and pepper in medium bowl. Mix well. Marinate at room temperature 2 hours or cover and refrigerate overnight. Place each piece of beef on 1 large leaf or 2 smaller ones. Fold top and bottom up to cover, leaving sides open. Thread 5 beef bundles onto each of 6 bamboo skewers.

Broil or grill skewers about 5 inches from heat until leaves are crisp and brown on 1 side, about 3 minutes. Turn and cook until lightly browned all over, another 3 minutes. Serve hot. Makes 4 to 6 appetizers servings or 2 to 3 main course servings.

Each of 2 servings contains about:

232 calories; 1,066 mg sodium; 46 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 21 grams carbohydrates; 23 grams protein; 1.15 grams fiber.

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