Herb butters are the best way I know to dazzle a dinner guest. Besides being less hazardous than a hundred-proof flambe, they are embarrassingly easy to make and you'll rake in the compliments. They're also a terrific way to show off all the work you've put into your herb garden.
Nothing beats the savory flavor of herb butter with a warm loaf of bread, but don't limit yourself--use them when grilling steaks, broiling or sautéing fish; scrambling, poaching and frying eggs; basting chicken, dotting on carrots, squash, zucchini or roasting new potatoes. The herbs pack the butter with more punch, so you use less, saving fat and calories.
You can use either butter or margarine, but the flavors are different--especially when cooked. Butter develops a remarkable nutty flavor--incredible with most vegetables, but margarine is better for high-temperature cooking because it doesn't scorch as easily. (A margarinal note: soon after it arrived here near the end of the 19th century, margarine had heavy opposition from the U.S. dairy industry (as you can imagine) and consequently the government. Because of heavy taxes and other obstacles, margarine took to the backroads--bootlegged. The popularity has since been enforced by two world wars and flip-flopping health claims, and Americans today eat almost three times as much margarine as butter. Sorry, Elsie).
To prepare the herb butters, start by softening the butter or margarine. (All these recipes call for 1 pound (4 sticks), but you can halve them). Using an electric or stand mixer, beat until light and fluffy, scraping the sides often. This will take anywhere from 3-5 minutes, depending on how powerful your mixer is and how bored you get. I tend to lose track of time and have whipped some for as long as 10 minutes with wonderful results: incredibly light and very spreadable. (By the way, homemade spreadable butter or margarine costs about a third of the purchased "tub" kind--a budget bonus.) If you want to lower the fat, beat in a small amount of skim milk (no more than 1/3 cup per pound of butter).
Once the butter is well mixed and fluffy, add the minced herbs and beat until well combined. The basic instructions are the same for all the recipes listed here.
Herb butters are best made ahead so the flavors can blend--chill them at least 3 hours and serve slightly softened. They'll keep in the refrigerator for a month and can be frozen for up to 3 months.
Marjoram - Thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sweet marjoram, or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried (soaked in white wine or water)
1 1/2 tablespoon minced chives
1 tablespoon minced thyme
1 tablespoon minced parsley
Delightful with fresh bread, fish or vegetables--brush on new potatoes, cover and bake for 45 minutes.
1 small clove garlic, minced or pressed
1 tablespoon lemon rind
1 tablespoon orange rind
A perfect accent for baked or broiled chicken, fish or duck.
2 tablespoons minced rosemary
2 tablespoons minced chives
Robust flavor is excellent with chicken, game hens or a hearty bread.
6 jalapeno peppers (more if you're brave), seeded and well-chopped
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
Try this with corn on the cob, chicken or potatoes.
Consider these recipes a springboard: other herbs good for butters include lemon thyme, basil, tarragon, sage and dill--and don't forget seeds, too. As a general rule, use 1 tablespoon fresh herbs per 1/4 pound butter.
When it comes to presenting your butters, options are as flexible as the flavors and limited only by your imagination. To eat with a crusty bread, pack it in crocks. For a more dainty look use a madeliene pan or small molds. (You can remove the butter more easily from a mold if you set it in a pan of hot water for a few seconds.)
You can use a butter curler to make short or long curls or a melon baller for balls. Add texture if you like with the back of a fork (peanut-butter-cookie style).
For individual portions, form the herb butter into a log, roll in minced herbs and slice into rounds. In a hurry? Shape into a mound on a plate using a rubber spatula (or your hands, I won't tell) and surround with the fresh herb of your choice. If that's too messy for you, shape it on wax paper instead of a plate and chill for a few hours--the cold butter will be easy to transfer to a clean plate.
Or you can pat the butter onto a waxed-paper-lined shallow pan, chill and cut out shapes with cookie cutters, smoothing the edges with a finger dipped in hot water and garnishing with fresh herb sprigs.
No matter how you serve them, let your creative side shine. In sixteenth-century Italy, feasts were the form of entertainment, and Renaissance hosts went to elaborate extremes to impress their guests. They concealed live birds in intricately folded napkins and hired top artists to carve fanciful butter sculptures. Modern lifestyles call for less exertion, (not to mention expense) but no less fun.
About the Author Syndicated cooking columnist Leigh Abernathy has been an avid gardener for over 10 years and has been writing about eating what she grows for over five. Her articles have served as the inspiration for everything from family activities to half-a-dozen junior high science fair projects and as research for a masters candidate's thesis. When not playing in her gardens or kitchen, she's working on her cookbook or coaching judo at a local college.