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Its bright green leaves look like carrot tops, not too surprising being that it is a member of the carrot family. It also produces characteristic umbels of tiny silvery white flowers at the end of its very short growing period. Chervil goes to seed quickly in the heat, and in fact, unlike most other culinary herbs, prefers a cool, moist and shaded location. To promote growth and a longer season, pinch off the tops. Successive plantings will help to give you a longer harvest. Chervil also has a very long tap root, and does not like to be transplanted so be sure to sow the seeds in the desired location. Chervil is one of those herbs that does well growing in containers. As the plant matures, the leaves tend to turn a purple, bronze color. At this stage they also lose the pungency of their taste, so use only the young green leaves.
These tender young leaves have been used in spring tonics for thousands of years, dating back to the ancient Greeks. Dandelion, watercress and chervil were combined to combat the nutritive deficiency brought on by winter (and lack of fresh greens). This combination of greens with all their vitamins and minerals were thought to rejuvenate the body. Even today European herbalists recommend this tonic. In Norway and France bowls of minced fresh chervil leaves often accompany meals. People liberally sprinkle this on salads, soups and stews.
As with most herbs, chervil is an aid to sluggish digestion. When brewed as a tea it can be used as a soothing eye wash. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 TBLS. fresh chopped chervil and let this steep for 20 minutes. Be sure to cover this to keep in all the volatile oils. When cool, moisten a cotton ball with some of the mixture and place over closed eyes for 10 minutes. Definitely refreshing.
Chervil is also linked to the Easter celebration in parts of Europe, where it is eaten as part of the ceremony for Holy Thursday. Chervil is associated with Easter because its aroma is similar to that of myrrh (one of the gifts to the baby Jesus from the three wise men) and because of its early spring sprouting symbolizes renewal.
Chervil is one of the staples of classic French cooking. Along with chives, tarragon and parsley, it is used as an aromatic seasoning blend called "Fines Herbes." Most frequently it is used to flavor eggs, fish, chicken and light sauces and dressings. It also combines well with mild cheeses and is a tasty addition to herb butters. This blend is the basis for ravigote sauce, a warm herbed veloute served over fish or poultry. When a recipe calls for "Pluches de cerfeuille" -- it is leaves of chervil that are required. Chervil is what gives Bernaise its distinctive taste. Chervil, being a spring time herb, has a natural affinity for other spring time foods: salmon, trout, young asparagus, new potatoes, baby green beans and carrots, salads of spring greens. Chervil's flavor is lost very easily, either by drying the herb, or too much heat. That is why it should be added at the end of cooking or sprinkled on in its fresh, raw state. One way to keep chervil's flavor is to preserve it in white wine vinegar. Because its flavor is so potent, little else is needed as flavoring when added to foods. This makes it a low calorie way to add interest to meals. Chervil's delicate leaves make it an attractive herb to use for garnishes. Despite this fragile appearance, it keeps well. Kept in a zip lock bag, chervil will last up to a week in the refrigerator.
I think that chervil has been overlooked in American cooking until recently because most of us have only tasted dried chervil, which is basically tasteless and musty at best. Not too long ago I got my first taste of fresh chervil and was amazed at how flavorful it is: sweet and grassy with a touch of licorice. If you have never tasted fresh chervil, I highly recommend buying a small plant for yourself at your local nursery. I guarantee you will be as enchanted as I was. Now I often pinch off a few sprigs and sprinkle them on my salads, garnish potatoes, or toss it in with my omelettes.
A tangy alternative to basil pesto and also simple to make, this is especially good spread on fish hot off the barbecue. Also tasty mixed in with goat cheese or cream cheese for a appetizer spread.
1 cup fresh Chervil
1/4 cup Romano/Pecorino cheese
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
3 TBLS olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor until well chopped and blended. Best used right away, but it can be kept for a few days.
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.