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Quick Cooking Retains Distinctive Flavors of Herbs Without Bitterness

August 28, 1986|DIANA WILLIAMS HANSEN | Hansen is a Louisville-based cooking consultant specializing in microwaving. and

"May I use herbs as easily with my microwave cooking as with conventional cooking?" many people ask. The answer is yes. With microwaving, it's a joy to use herbs, either fresh or dry, because the relatively short cooking times allow them to keep their distinctive flavors. Many herbs become bitter if cooked too long.

Generally, herbs are divided into two varieties: the mild accent herbs such as parsley, dill and chives, and the stronger character herbs, which include oregano, thyme and tarragon. It is safe to add accent herbs fairly generously to favorite entree or vegetable dishes, but with the character herbs, you should use three times as much fresh herb as dried. The exception is rosemary, which is stronger in its fresh state.

The only time you may want to reduce the amount of herbs is when you plan to freeze the food before reconstituting it in the microwave. The freezer can cause changes in the flavors of some foods, so it is wise to use less of strong-flavored herbs, taste and add more while heating the dish just before serving it.

Microwave-Dry Fresh Herbs

When you have a few fresh herbs left over, or when a bumper crop from the garden presents itself, you may microwave-dry fresh herbs for use later. But watch them carefully. They can become excessively dehydrated and hot enough to catch fire if extremely overheated.

I have successfully dried many types of herbs even in high-wattage ovens. Herbs dry best in small amounts. I place a few sprigs (about 1/2 cup) of the fresh herb between paper towels, or place the paper towels on a paper plate in the microwave oven and microwave on HIGH (100% power) for about half a minute to start. I test the sprigs frequently as I dry them and as soon as the leaves are crumbly, I take them from the oven--the total microwave time is usually a minute or two. After briefly cooling the dried herb, the crumbled leaves can be stored in a jar or plastic bag.

You can use this unique vegetable mixture as a taco filling, although it's very good as a side dish with meats. Cilantro (also known as Chinese parsley although it is also traditional in Mexican dishes) and chili powder flavor the mixture. In Mexico, this combination of squash and savory herb seasonings is called calabasitas --little squash. You can omit the avocado in this mixture for less calories. VEGETABLE TACOS

4 small zucchini, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

2 large green peppers, cut in thin strips

1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced

2 tablespoons butter

6 green onions, finely chopped

2 ripe, firm avocados, peeled, pitted and diced

1 firm tomato, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon chili powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

12 crisp taco shells

3 cups shredded brick or Jack cheese

Place zucchini, peppers, mushrooms and butter in 3-quart microwave-safe casserole. (Casserole will be very full before cooking, but there will be room for mixing as vegetables begin to cook.) Microwave on HIGH 6 to 9 minutes. With 2 large spoons, carefully toss vegetables lightly to combine after about 4 minutes. When done, vegetables will be lightly cooked but still crisp. Toss vegetables again and drain off any accumulated liquid, then add green onions, avocados, tomato, cilantro, chili powder and salt. Toss lightly to mix. Fill taco shells with hot vegetable mixture and top each with cheese. (Because vegetables are juicy, serve immediately.) Makes about 6 servings.

Note: If serving as side dish, drain vegetables well, then toss with cheese just before serving.

Traditional Italian pesto is a thick blend of herbs, garlic and oil. The spinach is an optional but welcome addition. This recipe is a delicious way to diet but, if desired, omit the fish and toss the pesto with half a pound fresh-cooked spaghetti or fettuccine. FISH FILLETS ON BED OF SPINACH PESTO

1 pound spinach

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped basil leaves

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/3 cup minced parsley

1 1/2 pounds cod or other lean fish fillets

2 tablespoons lemon juice


Hot cooked rice or pasta

Wash spinach several times to remove grit and dirt. Remove stems and discolored leaves. Finely chop spinach. In 12x8-inch microwave-safe dish stir together olive oil and spinach. Mix in basil, salt, garlic, cheese and parsley. Form spinach mixture into 4 equidistant mounds in dish.

If fish fillets are smaller at one end than the other, fold thin tail area under rest of fish so that each fillet will be about same thickness from front to back. Place portion of fish over each mound of pesto. Sprinkle fish with lemon juice and paprika. Cover with plastic wrap and microwave on HIGH 8 to 12 minutes until fish is still slightly translucent. Serve fish and pesto with rice or pasta. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Frozen chopped spinach may be substituted for fresh spinach. Thaw spinach, in paper package on HIGH about 2 to 3 minutes. Unwrap package, place spinach in 12x8-inch dish and break up with fork. Continue as above.

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