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Tom's Herb Column - Where there's a dill, there's a way

For millennia, the dill plant has been a carefully cultivated and revered herb. However, most people today only know of it because of the flavoring of a single type of pickle to which it has given its name. Today, I would like to shed some light on one of my favorite herbs, the often overlooked sibling of caraway and fennel, that most remarkable herb -- dill.

The dill plant, known scientifically as Anethum graveolens, is primarily a Mediterranean plant which originally grew quite happily in the soil of Greece, Italy, Egypt and Spain. The plant usually grows to between twenty-four and thirty-six inches in height, with one hollow stem and leaves which have long, threadlike segments. In summer, ovoid clusters of yellow flowers form, which form seeds in the autumn. The plant itself resembles fennel, but with a shorter stem and and a matte appearance on the leaves, whereas fennel is more glossy and has multiple stems from one bulb. (Brown, 45) There are carvings on the interior of Egyptian tombs that talk of the medicinal properties of dill. Dill was also known quite well in the Middle East where the Jewish Talmud listed dill as being valuable enough to use as payment for temple tithes. Dill was actually the subject of a rather sore point in the Bible, where Jesus upbraided the pharisees for paying their tithes to the temple in herbs, including dill seed, without tending to the more weighty aspects of their vocation, such as justice and faith. (Matthew 23:23)

The dill plant grew as far east as western Russia and all across the Italian and Iberian Peninsulas. When the Roman Empire began to move north into central and northern Europe, the herb-loving Romans took their beloved dill with them to plant in their colonies in Germany, Britain and even Scandinavia. By medieval times, the dill plant had become a fixture in herb gardens throughout Europe and was highly regarded for its medicinal values as well as its supposed magical properties. The name 'dill' has been taken from two distinct sources. The Old Norse dilla as well as the Saxon dillan lent their use to its name. (de la Mare, 37) Both of these words mean 'to lull', which was part of the mystique of the dill plant. It was said that the plant was used by magicians to cast sleeping spells upon the unwary but that carrying the herb would protect one against those same spells. Bundles of dill were thrown into the fires on Saint John's Night along with yarrow, trefoil, verbena, roses and rue as a throwback to pagan ceremonies on Midsummer's Night. (Seymore, 41)

Whatever its supposed mystical properties, dill does have a few actual medicinal properties that can be used today. For example, it is a carminative (antiflatulant) when ingested as well as being a mild photosensitizer (making the skin more sensitive to sunlight). Carvone, which is the active oil in dill, is also an insecticide which increases the effectiveness of other growing herbs to repel insect invaders. (Rinzler, 68) The seeds were regularly eaten to stave off hunger pangs (particularly in long church services) and the ground seeds are still a home remedy for colicky babies when steeped in boiling water and fed to the child. However, dill's main usage is as a condiment and flavoring agent for food. In the sixteenth century, dill leaves (called the weed) and seeds have been used as the primary flavoring agent in pickled cucumbers and gherkins in Europe and Britain. In Scandinavia, dill is especially popular for use in their dish of cold cured salmon called gravlax. Dill has also been popular since that time for flavoring herb vinegars and wine. Today, many uses of dill have not changed much. It is still the primary ingredient in the flavoring of pickled cucumbers and gherkins and gravlax is still just as popular in other parts of the world as it is in Scandinavia. The dill seed has sometimes replaced caraway seeds in rye bread, is used in cool summer salads and is added to not only vinegars but also mayonnaise, yogurt dressings and to cream or cottage cheese. (de la Mare, 38)

Dill is relatively easy to grow in the home. Dill likes to be planted in cool weather. In warm winter areas that don't experience a hard frost, you can plant dill in fall or winter. In cooler areas, plant dill a week or two before your last hard frost. After you first plant the dill seeds, plant more seeds again every 10 days or so for a continuous crop. When growing in containers, use a deep container to because of the dill plant's long roots, and remember that you will eventually have a plant that is around three feet tall. Plants grown in containers may require staking. When growing, remember that dill enjoys light but can take some partial shade. Obviously, harvesting your own dill would be preferable to buying it, but when needs must one can go get dill from the supermarket. When shopping for dill, be sure and look for fronds that are firm but not stiff. They should be a vivid green color but not dark green as this is an indication of oxidation and old age. Yellow dill or limp dill means that the plant is REALLY old and should be discarded. When storing, it is helpful to remember that dill does not handle the humid cold of a refrigerator well, so I recommend storing it in a ziplock bag with some paper towels to wick off moisture.

Dill has a flavor that most texts refer to as being a cross between caraway and fennel. Myself, I feel that the flavor of this plant is unique unto itself. It has a very fresh, slightly clorophyllic tang with a floral nose. Honestly, the best description I can give for it is "cool". Not "cool" in the mouth-numbingly arctic cool way of spearmint or the watery chill of cucumber. This is the cool of rich cream or a north wind in fall. Brisk, but invigoratingly so. The seeds are more pungent to taste than the leaves and, as always, be sure to use double the amount of dried dill instead of fresh if you must use dried in the first place. Please remember that dill does not dry well so you may have to use more dried dill than the simple doubling to get the same flavor.

Here are some recipes that I have found that I think highlight the extraordinary taste of dill.

Fish Stew with Calvados, Parsley and Dill
From Herbal Pleasures - Cooking and Crafts by Katherine Richmond
Serves 4

2 lb, assorted white fish
1 tbsp chopped parsley, plus garnish
8 oz, mushrooms
8 oz can of tomatoes
salt and pepper TT
2 tsp flour
1 tbsp butter
2 cups apple cider (OPTIONAL - You can use hard cider instead of apple cider here if you would like a deeper flavor profile)
3 tbsp Calvados
1 large bunch, fresh dill sprigs plus garnish

Roughly chop fish and place it in an oven-safe casserole or stewing pot with the parsley, mushrooms, tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Work the flour into the butter until you get a consistency of small pea-like bits of butter and flour. Heat the cider and stir in the flour and butter mixture a little at a time. Cook, stirring, until it has thickened slightly.

Add the cider mixture, calvados and dill to fish and mix gently. Cover and bake for about 30 minutes. Serve garnished with sprigs of dill and parsley.

Dill and Potato Cakes
From Herbal Pleasures - Cooking and Crafts by Katherine Richmond
About 10 cakes

2 cups, self rising flour
3 tbsp butter, softened
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh dill
scant 1 cup mashed potatoes, freshly made
2-3 tbsp milk, as required

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Sift the flour into a bowl and add the butter salt and dill. Mix in the mashed potatoes and enough milk to make a soft pliable dough.

Roll out the dough on a well-floured surface until it is fairly thin. Cut into neat rounds with a 3 inch cutter.

Grease a baking tray, place the cakes on it and bake for 20 - 25 minutes until risen and golden brown.

Salmon and I have a love-hate relationship. I have had it any number of ways and I simply get back to the fact that I rarely like the flavor of salmon. It's too aggressive for my palate so I rarely eat it. However, the main exception to this is cured salmon, either smoked or in the case of gravlax, salt cured. I have actually made this recipe and can guarantee that it comes out well. I ate an entire fillet in one sitting once, with some dill infused oil, capers and black bread. Very delicious!

Julia's Traditional Gravlax
From Julia and Jaques Cooking At Home by Julia Child and Jaques Pepin
Makes between 2 and 2 1/2 lbs, serving 15 to 20 as an appetizer

One 2.5 to 3 lb salmon fillet, skin on and ALL bones removed (very important that the bones be removed)
1.5 tbsp salt, plus more as needed
2.25 tspn sugar
4 tbsp cognac, plus more as needed
Fresh dill sprigs, about one cup packed

Trim the salmon fillet, cutting away any thin, uneven edges and the thin end of the tail.

Cut the fillet in half crosswise so you have two pieces of the same length and about the same width and then lay them skin side down on the work surface.

Stir the sugar and salt together in a bowl. Sprinkle half the mixture over each fillet and rub it in with your fingers. Drizzle about two tablespoons of cognac over each piece and rub it in. Spread the dill sprigs over one fillet, then set it in the baking dish. Lay the other fillet on top, align the sides neatly and cover with a sheet of plastic wrap.

Lay a pan or board on top of the fish and make sure that it isn't resting on the rim of the dish. Weight the board with cans or other heavy objects to compress the fillets and place in the refrigerator. After one day of curing, remove the weights and top tray, turn the fish over so that the top fillet is now on the bottom, baste with the liquid that has accumulated in the dish and replace the weights. Turn and baste after the second day and slice off a slice of fish to taste test. Add more salt and/or cognac as needed. Cure for another day, turn and baste once more. After the fourth full day, the cure will be complete and you can serve the gravlax.

One of my favorite ethnic foods is Indian. I adore Indian food as I adore no other cuisine on the planet. Their use of spices like cardamom, cumin, coriander and cinnamon (not to mention the hot pepper spices!) in savory foods always makes me aware of just how great it is to taste something that challenges your ideas of what spice belongs where. One of the dishes that is sometimes served with hot curry is called raita, which is technically a bound salad but is often used as a condiment or a side salad. Yogurt based and used to cool the stinging palate after a bite of searingly hot curry, raita is one of my favorite things to eat that has dill in it. If I have some extra cucumbers to hand, I will toss together a raita as a light lunch or dinner. I now give my personal raita recipe to you, the reader. I hope it serves you well.

Cucumber-Dill Raita

1 large (12 - 18 inch) cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
1 pint, Greek style yogurt or plain yogurt
1 medium bunch dill, chopped fine
1/2 red onion, chopped fine
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cardamom
2 tbsp salt plus extra to taste

After you finish peeling, seeding and dicing it, put your diced cucumber in a handy bowl and sprinkle the 2 tablespoons of salt over the top of it. Add your red onion and toss well. Allow these two things to sit for at least fifteen minutes but no more than thirty. There should be a good amount of liquid that gets drawn out of the onions and cucumber after that amount of time. Pour that liquid off and reserve it.

Greek style yogurt can be found in most farmers markets or health food stores and is thicker and tangier than normal yogurt. However, if you cannot find it, do not fear. Simply buy a pint of regular yogurt and when you get home and before you start chopping your veggies, line a colander or strainer with some cheesecloth or paper towels and dump the yogurt into this. Set it over a bowl and put paper towels on top of the yogurt. Then place a couple of cans or something else heavy that you wouldn't be upset if some yogurt got onto on top of the yogurt to press the moisture out. Set it over a bowl or in your sink and allow it to drain for an hour or so. When the draining is done, hit it with two teaspoons of white wine vinegar to give it some oomph and continue on.

When the cucumber mixture has been drained of the excess water, mix it into the yogurt a little at a time. When the mixture has been completely incorporated, add the chopped dill and stir again. Add all the spiced and continue to stir until the mixture looks homogeneous. At this point, put some plastic wrap on your bowl and put it into the fridge to mellow. I recommend about twenty-four hours for the flavors to completely develop, but you could go as short a time as one hour. Before serving, taste and adjust the salt level accordingly. If it needs a little more acidic oomph, add some lemon juice or white wine vinegar. Remember that raita is supposed to be cooling and refreshing, not tart.

Work Cited and References

Bremness, Leslie. The Complete Book of Herbs. New York: Viking Studio Books. 1988

Brown, Deni. Herb Society of America - Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. New York: Dorking Kindersley Publishing. 1995

Child, Julia and Jacques Pepin. Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home. New York: Alfred A Knopf. 2000

de la Mare, Walter. A Book of Herbs and Spices. Topsfield, MA: Salem House. 1987

Hoves, F. N. Useful and Everyday Plants and Their Common Names. London: Cambridge University Press. 1974

Richmond, Katherine. Herbal Pleasures - Cooking and Crafts. New York: Anness Publishing. 1995

Rinzler, Carol Ann. The Complete Book of Herbs, Spices and Conidments. New York: Facts on File. 1990

Seymore, Miranda. A Brief History of Thyme and other herbs. London: John Murray. 2002

Stobart, Tom. International Wine and Food Society's Guide to Herbs, Spices and Flavorings. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1970

Whiteman, Robin. Brother Cadfael's Herb Garden - An illustrated Companion to Medieval Plants and their Uses. New York: Little, Brown and Company. 1996
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