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February 19, 2007

Crush Crush Crush! It’s Herbes de Provence


There are rare cases in which an ingredient has a story all its own to tell. Typically, you see balance struck by allowing this ingredient to share top billing with the main part of the dish. For instance, when you see the name chicken breasts with Herbes de Provence, you know you will eat chicken. But, you ask yourself, what does this Herbes de Provence have to tell me? What is its secret, and what wisdom can it impart? 

The name itself sets the mind to wondering and puzzlement. You search through the catalogue of your memory – it suggests something leafy, but you can’t recall ever having seen an Herbs de Provence bush. You think it through, and then you realize that before you even consider following a recipe, you must first acquire it. The plural nature of the name, apparent to even those of a distinct un-Frenchlike demeanor, provides a clue. You are looking for a mix of herbs. 

Here the road forks – you may go out and buy it already assembled or you may assemble it yourself. 

You might have seen bags of it sitting on the shelves of high-end grocery stores. It’s my duty to warn you, however, that if you go this route, you place your fate into the hands of others. You are at the mercy of their imaginations. Leave the work for others, and you risk kitchen ruination. Do it yourself and they will call you a builder of worlds. 

There are no strict codes for what herbs you must use and how much of each ingredient. But, plan on using thyme. Why thyme? It serves as a foundation, a robust herb that takes no guff from anyone and is capable of keeping a diverse crowd amiable. Potential companions include rosemary, oregano, marjoram, savory, basil, lavender buds and bay leaf. 

A few words on our friend the bay leaf. As a young boy, my mother often sat me on her knee and warned of the dangers of eating bay leaf. It is poisonous, she said, and to eat it will cause you to drop down dead. 

I would look up at her with bright, wide eyes and ask why you cook with something that is poisonous, and she would answer my question by introducing the side of my face to the back of her hand. There were tears, yes, but I have nothing but fond memories of those times. It was tough love, and it made me the man I am today. 

Since then, we have learned many things, like that cancer is not caused by mushrooms growing in your stomach, that the moon is not made of blue cheese and that moles are not agents of some super-secret race of dirt people who are even as you read this conspiring against us. We have also learned that the leaf of the bay laurel plant is not poisonous, but that no length of time spent in simmering liquid will cause it to soften. 

You will want to crumble it into small pieces, the smaller the better. Crush and crush and crush some more. Crush until the people around you begin to doubt your sanity. Lift your hand to your nose and sniff. Zesty! Sniff again. Treat yourself, you deserve it. 

Here is how you make Herbes de Provence. Take your assembled herbs and mix them together. You have accomplished one of life’s more difficult tasks. A pat on the back is certainly in order. 

The assembled mix of herbs has the aroma of something that can successfully tangle with roasted meats and hearty vegetables. Or, you may apply it to chicken breast. 

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees (slow and low cooks the breast thoroughly without drying part of it out) and brown the chicken in butter and Herbes de Provence. Transfer to a shallow baking dish. 

Scrape the butter and herbs from the bottom of your pan onto the chicken breast and pour over the top either white cooking wine or chicken broth. If you are feeling daring, and of course you are, consider vermouth. 

Pop it into the oven for half an hour, interrupting it every 10 minutes for a quick baste. You might feel mildly voyeuristic, popping in on a chicken breast when it is at its most vulnerable. Dismiss those thoughts. Your chicken desperately wants to be moistened, and lacks opposable the hands to do this itself. 

Look at what you’ve created. It looks scrumptious. Is it delicious? Mais oui! 

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