Herbal Mix 'n' Match

Many cooks know that fresh herbs can transform a simple dish into something quite remarkable. But learning to use herbs takes experimentation and an adventuresome palate--it's not easy to achieve the perfect balance or combination.

To decide on the herbs for these vegetable recipes, I experimented by dividing the vegetables into small portions, mixing different fresh herbs into each and tasting them side by side. My final preferences in some cases were not what I had anticipated.

Choosing the herbs for an herb garden or for pots on the windowsill is an intensely personal process; let your cooking and taste preferences be your guide. The herbs in my kitchen garden are rosemary, thyme, savory, sage, chives, flat-leaf parsley, tarragon, scented basils, cilantro, dill, mint (in a pot), oregano and marjoram.

Mandel is author of "Celebrating the Midwestern Table" (Doubleday & Co., 1996).

STIR-FRY OF SUGAR SNAP PEAS WITH BASIL (VEGETARIAN)

2 teaspoons oil

1 teaspoon butter

3/4 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed and strings removed

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup water

8 small green onions, thinly sliced

1/2 head butter lettuce, thinly sliced

1 1/2 tablespoons thinly sliced or snipped basil leaves

Heat oil and butter in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add sugar snap peas, garlic, salt and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring often, until peas are hot, about 3 minutes.

Add water and simmer until peas are cooked through but still crisp, about 2 minutes. Stir in green onions and cook 10 seconds. Stir in lettuce and remove from heat. Stir in basil. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve hot.

3 servings. Each serving:

95 calories; 413 mg sodium; 3 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 11 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 3.13 grams fiber.

ZUCCHINI AND POTATO PANCAKES WITH FRESH TARRAGON (VEGETARIAN; LOW+FAT COOKING)

2 small zucchini, shredded

1 Yukon gold potato, shredded

1 egg

1/4 cup milk

6 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons snipped tarragon leaves

2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons oil

2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons butter

Serve these pancakes with grilled or roasted meat, poultry or fish. Smaller pancakes make a nice canape base for smoked salmon with sour cream and dill.

Wrap zucchini and potato in cloth towel to absorb as much moisture as possible.

Mix egg, milk, flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg and pepper in 1-quart bowl with wooden spoon until smooth.

Unwrap zucchini and potato. Add zucchini, potato and tarragon to egg mixture. Stir until well mixed.

Heat 1/2 tablespoon oil and and 1/2 tablespoon butter in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. When hot, spoon batter 1 tablespoon at a time into skillet without crowding, spreading slightly with back of spoon, and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Turn and brown other side, about 3 minutes. Add additional oil and butter to skillet as needed to cook remaining pancakes. Keep pancakes warm in single layer on baking sheet at 200 degrees while making remaining pancakes. Serve hot.

24 (2 1/2-inch diameter) pancakes. Each pancake:

33 calories; 90 mg sodium; 12 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.07 gram fiber.

CREAMED PEARL ONIONS AND LEEKS WITH DILL VEGETARIAN)

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon butter

2 leeks, tough green ends trimmed (and reserved for stock), split, rinsed, thinly sliced

1/4 cup milk

1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

1 (1-pound) bag frozen small whole onions, unthawed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1/2 tablespoon flour

2 tablespoons snipped fresh dill

Heat oil and butter in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. When hot, add leeks and cook, stirring often, until wilted, about 4 minutes. Add milk and cream and bring to boil. Add onions, salt, nutmeg and pepper and cook, stirring often, until just tender, about 6 minutes. Sprinkle flour over mixture and stir until smooth and thickened. Stir in dill. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve hot.

4 to 6 servings. Each of 6 servings:

132 calories; 241 mg sodium; 20 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.15 grams fiber.

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Cook's Tips

*Fresh herbs should have a clean, fresh fragrance and a bright color without any sign of wilting or browning.

*To store fresh herbs for a day or two, wrap them in a lightly dampened paper towel, seal airtight in a plastic bag and refrigerate. To store longer, place the herb stems in a jar with enough cold water to cover the stems but not the leaves. Enclose the exposed leaves in a plastic bag, securing it to the glass with a rubber band. Change the water every two days. Just before using the herbs, wash and blot dry with paper towels.

*Because many fresh herbs lose their flavor when cooked, add them in the last few minutes of cooking or just before serving. Some exceptions are thyme, rosemary and sage, which add flavor even during long cooking.

*Fresh herbs can be dried (firm leaves only from mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, marjoram and oregano) either in the oven or tied in small bunches. To dry the leaves in the oven, spread them on a cheesecloth-covered cake rack and bake on the lowest heat setting with the oven door open. Move them around often until they're completely dried. To dry in small bunches, tie the ends together with string and hang them upside down in a dark, dry place with space between bunches for the air to circulate. Dried herbs are not likely to last more than a year.

*Soft herb leaves such as basil, chives, cilantro, dill, parsley and tarragon lend themselves to freezing. Blanch them in boiling water for a few seconds to preserve their flavor. Remove them from the water with a strainer, blot dry with paper towels and seal in an airtight plastic bag. To use, remove what you need and chop. They should last about two months.

*Dried herbs are generally considered to have three times more flavor than fresh. Like dried mushrooms or dried tomatoes, they will benefit from a good bath in warm liquid. Heat some of the liquid, oil or butter in the recipe, stir in the herbs, cover and let them steep for a few minutes before adding them to the rest of the ingredients. If you don't have time to do this, crumble the dried herbs with your fingers to help release their flavors.

* Annie j napkin from Philip Paul Designs, Venice Beach.

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