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GARDEN FRESH

Such a Dill

June 01, 1995|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Tonight I was snipping dill leaves over our potatoes when Alice Vinegar, my cherished grandmother, popped into my mind. Did she ever add dill to her new potatoes? Did she stir dill into her sliced carrots? Lay branches of dill over her world-class poached salmon? Stir her shelly bean soup with dill stalks? Flavor winter's mushrooms with specks of dried dill?

With its saucy blend of the flavors of lemons, grass and licorice, dill personifies the blush of summer. With her faultless eye for quality, nose for freshness and impeccable timing, my grandmother personified the best of American plainsong cooks.

But when the two images merged in my mind, I grew sad.

Born and raised in California's Central Valley, my grandmother loved her vegetables, yet butter, cream, salt and pepper were the beginning and end of her seasonings. The truth is, she was leery of every herb but parsley. Once, on a visit, my mother was cooking a special dinner for my grandmother and her friends. When my mother reached into a shopping bag and pulled out a jar of dried thyme leaves, my grandmother rushed over and said apprehensively: "Gloria, you're not going to put any of your odd things into it, are you?"

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Grandma! Did you truly live your life without the pleasures of dill--not to mention thyme, basil, marjoram, rosemary, chives, oregano, chervil. . . ?

She wasn't alone. There are still cooks who suffer from the it's-not-familiar-I-don't-use-it syndrome. Raise your hand if you've strewn dill flowers into the pan with your roasting lamb . . . wrapped hard-boiled eggs in lacy leaves of dill . . . flavored cream cheese with ground dill seeds to spread on your tomato sandwich . . . sprinkled dill seeds over your apple pie.

As you can see, there's more to dill than leaves, and more that dill can grace than pickles. Here's a delightful experiment that shows nuances of flavor in the different parts of the dill plant. Get out four clean small jars. Into one, drop some young dill leaves (without stalks), torn enough to release their oils. Chop up a few of the stalks you left out of the first jar and put them into the second jar. Into the third jar, put a small handful of freshly dried dill seeds, lightly crushed with the tip of a wooden spoon. Into the last jar, put dill seeds at the plump greenish half-ripe stage, crushed the same way.

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Cover the dill with your favorite mild oil, cap the jars tightly and refrigerate them. After a couple of days, dip a finger in each to taste. Interesting, no? The semi-ripe seeds are the subtlest, the stalks the most forceful. In between are the delicate leaves and the muskier seeds. These oils are delicious with lemon juice as dressing for leafy salads and delicate pastas.

(Note: Always refrigerate oil with anything in it from the garden--otherwise, you can unknowingly produce botulism. And even when refrigerated, throw it out after 10 days.)

Now--try the same experiment with a fine white wine vinegar.

Unless you grow your dill, you'll most easily find dill seeds at the half-ripe stage when cucumbers are ready for pickling--that's July and August in most parts of Southern California. At that time of year, produce bins are heaped with flowering dill. Some of the umbrellas of blossoms will still have petals on them, some will be in the dried-seed stage, and some will have seeds in-between. I love the seeds at this last stage, tender yet slightly crunchy.

One thing to remember about using dill in cooking: Thick branches can be slipped under fish, poultry, meats or vegetables when grilling, roasting and poaching--they'll add an exquisite dimension. But the leaves and seeds themselves are delicate; whether fresh or dried, add them at the last minute for maximum flavor.

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In fact, dill is an ephemeral plant. Branches start drooping the minute they leave the plant. The dill you buy at the market--unless it's a farmers market and the dill was picked at sunrise--will always be somewhat limp. So grow your own and taste what really fresh dill is like, even if it's just a small crop in a one-gallon container.

Dill is a cool season annual. That is, it's happiest when days are warm and nights are cool. If your nights will be hot within the next month, wait and sow your seeds in autumn. Plants take a month or so to reach the baby stage and in another two weeks will usually have attained most of their size. Common cultivars of dill are best set at the back of the border, since, with its flower stalks, it can grow three feet tall. Smaller cultivars are half that size.

Grow dill in full sun in well-draining soil on the moist side. Dill doesn't like being moved, so sow the seeds where you'll want them to grow. Let some flowers set seeds--if the soil is hospitable, they'll give you a new crop of dillies. When the flowers are brown, the seeds are ripe. At that point, pull out the plants, since they'll soon look woefully rank.

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