Cheerful Chervil

With its intriguing flavor of anise, touched with parsley, with light-green leaves dainty as a fern's, with a habit of growth as easy as child's play, why doesn't chervil grace every garden and table?

In France, it does. Whether the cuisine is haute or simple, chervil's lacy leaves are as essential for flavoring and garnish as parsley's in the English-speaking world.

With its anisey overtones, chervil has much the same affinities as tarragon: eggs, fish, white meats, grilled steak, carrots, beets, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and anything creamy, especially cheese. Chervil is subtler than tarragon, its complex flavor lingering on the tongue.

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And chervil belongs in salads. In 1699 in "Acetaria," the great English salad fancier John Evelyn noted, "The tender tips of chervil should never be wanting in our sallets, being exceedingly wholesome and cheering of the spirits." Cheerful is apt for chervil in every aspect--Greek sources of the word are thought to mean glad leaf. In Gallic cuisine, together with parsley, tarragon and chives, chervil has been elevated to a classic in the quartet called fines herbes . An omelet aux fines herbes couldn't be simpler, yet it makes an extraordinarily delicious and elegant late breakfast or light luncheon served with Champagne and toast.

Make an omelet one serving at a time in a heavy flattish seven- to eight-inch skillet that's well seasoned (i.e., not new). In a bowl, beat two large fresh eggs with a fork until yolks and whites are blended. Stir in two tablespoons each of finely chopped fresh chervil, parsley, tarragon and chives.

Melt half a tablespoon of unsalted butter in a skillet over high heat. Before the butter colors, drop in the eggs. At once use the fork to draw set edges of the eggs toward the center of the pan, at the same time tipping the pan so runny egg fills the empty spaces. When the eggs are set on the bottom but still soft on top, fold the omelet in half, then drop a hazelnut-size lump of butter into the bare side of the pan. When the butter has melted and any uncooked egg set, turn the omelet out onto a heated dish then drizzle with the butter.

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Use a brush to quickly smooth the butter over the omelet or serve as is--the butter adds a gorgeous nutty taste. Season with salt and freshly ground white pepper and serve at once.

An omelet is cooked in about one minute. Fragile through and through, chervil doesn't tolerate heat. Add it at the last minute to something hot. It will release its oils at once.

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Nor does chervil dry satisfactorily--but it freezes well. When you have a wealth of leaves, make chervil ice cubes of about three parts water to two parts chervil leaves and tender stalks, whole or chopped. Once frozen, double-bag the cubes so surfaces are protected from other odors. You can drop a cube into a simmering vegetable, soup or stew just before serving.

Even better, freeze chervil in butter. Cream softened unsalted butter with as much chopped chervil as you can stuff into it. Chill in a block until firm, slice off pats, then freeze pats between sheets of freezer paper in doubled bags. Butter will hold its quality six to nine months.

You can also keep chervil in mild-tasting oil in the refrigerator for 10 days. And its flavor makes one of the best herb vinegars: tuck a dozen stalks into a wine-size bottle of white wine vinegar.

It is customary in France to pull chervil's fine leaves from its stalks and use them whole rather than chop them. I think the stalks are so tender that it's a waste not to use them. Harvesting from the outside of the plant (the plant renews itself from the center) I snip stalks off a couple of inches from the base. Then I quickly rinse and chop the bunch. Chop chervil by hand, not in a machine--a furious blade smashes delicate leaves in the chopping.

To enjoy chervil--unless you can find it in a gourmet produce department or from an herbsman at a farmers market-- you must grow it yourself. Chervil leaves and stems are too fragile for shipping by the bundle.

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Chervil springs readily from seed--you can have a small harvest in six to eight weeks. Let flowers of some plants go to seed, as plants self-sow readily in the garden. My chervil-of-the-moment is the third generation of plants in that place.

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There are several sorts of chervil. Plain chervil looks like minuscule flat-leaf parsley and curly-leaf chervil looks like flat leaf parsley furled. True curled chervil is hard to find. It's been my experience that you can order curled chervil but you'll be sent the plain--annoying. Brussels Winter chervil is a cultivar said to have larger leaves and be slower to go to seed--it may be. I've grown it, but after so many years of seeds from different sources and so much volunteering, all I know is I have flat-leaf chervil and I love it.

A member of the parsley family, chervil is an annual--that is, it dies at the end of one season. It flourishes in cool weather in any soil, although it does best in earth that's fertile and kept on the moist side.

Customarily, chervil is sown in early spring then again in late summer--it dies down in heat. One of the many happy things about life in Southern California is that we can stretch the growing season. We can sow chervil now, whether in the ground or in pots. Containers should be 12 inches deep and anywhere from one gallon on up, depending on the number of plants.

To germinate, seeds need soil or a soilless medium at 55 degrees, and they need light, so don't cover them. Just keep them moist until they sprout, then cover with a veil of soil. Plants are supposed to be about eight inches apart, but I sow sparsely and never thin them. Chervil doesn't like being transplanted.

Once they're on their feet, ideal circumstances for chervil is an air temperature between 0 and 75 degrees. Indoors, you can keep pots in an east window. Outdoors, chervil can take full sun in cool climates, but wants dappled sun or bright shade elsewhere. Since edible plants for shade are few and far between, chervil's the more valuable in the garden--it makes a charming fill-in or ground cover.

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Although the books say it can grow one and a half--even two--feet tall when flowering, our chervil has never been more than 10 or 12 inches high. They're an airy mound when not in bloom, then small white stars shoot up on stems above it. When seeds form, they're long and thin with sharp ends--something like an elongated dill seed. They, too, can be used in cooking. If you sow a pinch of seeds every couple of weeks until warm weather approaches, you'll have chervil all year round. Then, in the ground, self-sowing kicks in, and you won't have to think about chervil again. As the weather warms, leaves can turn reddish bronze, very pretty.

As with its leaves in cooking, the chervil plant is ruined by too much heat but embraces cold. In our garden after a snowfall, the ferny mounds shake off ice crystals and are perky as ever.

I'm bound to add that chervil plants can seem capricious. A friend who's a devoted gardener said he hasn't yet got the secret of chervil's success--and in the beginning, a couple of sowings in our garden came to nothing. Because it's so amiable and because demand for chervil seed is not enormous, my suspicion is that when chervil doesn't come up or grow well, it's because the seeds are either old or they've been covered in sowing or they've been sown when the air is hot.

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Once you get started with this glad leaf, you, too, will wonder why chervil doesn't grace every garden and table--and be delighted it graces yours.

Sources

Fresh: Gelson's, Bristol Farms, perhaps herb farmers at a farmers market.

Plants (come spring): Hartman's Herb Farm, Old Dana Road, Barre, Mich. 10115, or many local nurseries.

Seeds: plain and curled chervil, Fox Hollow Herb & Heirloom Seed Co, Box 148, McGrann, Pa. 16236. Brussels Winter chervil, Gourmet Gardener, 8650 College Blvd, Overland Park, Kan. 66210.

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For a first course that's light, unusual, and whets the appetite, you can do no better than a clear broth speckled with chopped chervil and threaded with angel's hair pasta. If not homemade, use canned ready-to-serve broths, not murky powders, cubes or strong condensed soups. I made this soup recently to precede a hearty oxtail stew followed by chicory salad, with fresh pineapple sherbet for dessert. When a friend called the next day to schmooze about the evening, I was pleased that the first mention was of my soup.

CLEAR CHERVIL SOUP

Salt

2 ounces angel's hair pasta

1 teaspoon flavored nut oil

7 cups chicken broth, fat removed

1 cup chopped chervil leaves and tender stalks

8 leafy chervil sprigs

Bring medium-large pot of salted water to boil. Break long strands of pasta into thirds. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain and turn into small bowl. Add oil and toss well. Cover and reserve in cool place. Pasta will keep fresh several hours.

To serve, bring broth to simmer over medium-high heat. Stir in pasta and chopped chervil. Return to simmer. Then ladle into small soup plates. Garnish each with chervil sprig. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

68 calories; 717 mg sodium; 2 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.13 gram fiber.

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