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ROSEMARY : It tends to take over a culinary herb garden in a genuinely flamboyant fashion, yet no self-respecting cook can get along without this fascinating, aromatic herb.

February 26, 1987|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

Is rosemary replacing basil as the herb of the '80s? It certainly seems likely, for not only is it being used by itself more often, it is being combined with basil in many dishes to add still another deliciously aromatic element. Fortunately the two herbs are excellent complements.

As experienced cooks and kitchen dabblers know, rosemary is not one of the more subtle culinary herbs. It has a decided aroma and imparts an elegant, yet pronounced, flavor to foods.

A woody, shrublike plant, rosemary grows rampant under the right climatic conditions. Never will I forget traveling through southern Italy and watching local cooks casually harvest rosemary for their day's cooking from enormous bushes that grew wild along the median strips in the main streets in several small towns. Undoubtedly the constant culinary pruning kept the bushes under control, while the pervasive scent of the evergreen herb made one hungry.

Inexperienced gardeners who have planted rosemary expecting to have a nice small, controllable patch of the herb are often horrified to find it is a shrub to be reckoned with. Over a period of years, it can grow to almost six feet high, and sprawling. It tends to take over the garden unless closely monitored. So if you plan to plant rosemary in your herb garden, consider planting it at the back of the garden in a sunny spot with plenty of room for it to spread out. Or, if space is a problem, plant rosemary in a large pot so you can control its growth.

With the ready availability of fresh herbs of all kinds, it seems a shame to settle for seasoning foods with dried rosemary. But, admittedly, there are times when those little bottles on your spice shelf come in handy.

The usual problem with dried herbs and spices is that people tend to keep using them long after they have lost any semblance of flavor. Rarely do people think to replace a jar of herbs or spices unless it's empty. And it's impossible for old, tired, dried herbs to do their seasoning job properly. If your bottled herbs seem to be losing their oomph, a good deep whiff of the opened jar should reveal the story.

No aroma--or a weak aroma--means it's time to replace that particular herb. And while you're about it, check the herb's color. Dried herbs that should be green but have turned an anemic gray are over the hill. Herbs are used to provide flavor, and when the flavor is gone, it's false economy not to replace the herbs. The rule of thumb, incidentally, for substituting fresh herbs for dried herbs is generally three to one: Use one tablespoon of fresh herbs for each teaspoon of dried herbs.

One of the great charms of rosemary is that it goes so well with such a variety of foods. It is strong enough to stand up to red meats such as beef or lamb; it blends well with olive and other oils to make excellent salad dressings; it adds aroma and flavor to egg dishes, and so on. Do remember when using fresh rosemary in particular, however, that it's better to err by adding too little rather than too much. It can become overpowering if not handled with caution.

One other tip for using fresh rosemary: When you use it in soups, stews and the like, don't bother stripping the individual leaves from the sprigs. Use the sprigs whole and simply remove them before serving.

The following recipes show the wonderful versatility of this memorable seasoning.

ROLLED LEG OF LAMB

1/2 cup minced onion

3 cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 cups soft bread crumbs

1 tablespoon minced rosemary leaves

Salt, pepper

1 (4-pound) boned leg of lamb

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Olive oil

Saute onion and garlic in butter until tender. Stir in bread crumbs and rosemary leaves, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Open leg of lamb flat on board. Spread mustard over inside of lamb. Set aside 1/2 cup crumb mixture and sprinkle remaining crumb mixture over mustard. Roll meat into original shape and tie with string. Rub olive oil over outer surface of lamb and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Place lamb in roasting pan. Pat reserved 1/2 cup crumb mixture over lamb. Roast at 325 degrees to desired degree of doneness, 160 degrees for medium or about 30 to 40 minutes per pound. Allow to stand 15 to 20 minutes before carving. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

ROSEMARY BRIOCHE

1 package yeast

1/4 cup warm water

1/2 cup milk

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 eggs

2 egg yolks

1 cup softened butter or margarine

2 tablespoons rosemary leaves

3 1/2 to 4 cups flour

Sprinkle yeast over water in small bowl. Stir to dissolve. Heat together milk, sugar and salt until slightly warm. Beat 4 eggs with egg yolks. Beat in yeast, milk mixture and butter. Add rosemary. Add enough flour to make soft dough. Knead lightly and place in lightly greased bowl in warm spot. Cover and let rise in warm, draft-free spot until dough doubles in bulk.

Punch down and shape into 2 braided loaves or 12 individual brioche on lightly floured surface, adding flour as necessary.

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