Cooking with fresh herbs brings fragrance and color to the table

One of the most delightful things about learning to cook is learning how herbs, which are virtually calorie free, can enhance even the simplest basic main ingredients, helping us achieve ever more kudos from the dear ones in our lives whose lot it is to consume what we've created in the kitchen.

Our store of dried herbs (and we all have them in the pantry) are fine, as long as the bottle they're in isn't decades old. And, indeed, a teaspoon of relatively new dried herbs can do the job of a tablespoon of minced fresh herbs. But when you mince fresh herbs, you're rewarded with those wonderful fragrances and fresh colors that add so much to whatever goodie you're whipping up for dinner.

Problem with fresh herbs is, obviously, their shelf life. And they're expensive, especially if you shell out $2 or $3 and only need a teaspoon or two for the dish you're preparing. Ergo, our exercise du jour is to suggest ways in which you can use up all the goodness of the bunch of whatever you've just bought.

One way, by the way, is to heat peanut oil to about 375 degrees in a wide saucepan. Trim the stems from fresh thyme or oregano or even basil. When whatever you're going to garnish (main dish salad, pan-fried fish, even French fried potatoes) is done, drop the herbs into the hot oil and flash fry them for about 45 seconds, until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon, shake off any excess oil and garnish whatever. Wonderful. The herbal fragrance alone enhances whatever you've fixed about a hundred-fold.

Of course, this is a rather labor-intensive lily gilder that even most restaurants don't do anymore. So save this step for a special dinner you're hosting.

Meanwhile, some suggestions for getting the most out of the fresh herbs you spend big money for.

Fresh herb salad

As always, we begin with the quasi-familiar. You can add warm grilled chicken or steak or fish (e.g., salmon) for a main dish offering.

About 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

About 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided

Freshly ground pepper and sea salt

2 small heads tender lettuce, like Boston, red- or green-leaf (or combination), separated into leaves, rinsed, patted dry

1 small head radicchio, cut into shreds

1 package (1-ounce) each, fresh herbs, e.g. flat-leaf parsley, chervil, tarragon or dill, rinsed, patted dry

12 to 18 slices soft, fragrant cheese, e.g. brie (Saga is yummy) or Camembert

Sliced baguette, for serving

In a large bowl, combine 4 tablespoons of the olive oil with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, freshly ground pepper and a smidge of freshly ground sea salt. Add lettuce and radicchio and toss to lightly coat with dressing. Arrange on 6 chilled salad plates.

In a bowl, toss together the herbs with 2 more tablespoons oil and 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice, plus some freshly ground pepper. Taste, adding more oil or lemon juice if desired. Arrange herbs atop lettuce in salad plates. Arrange 2 or 3 slices cheese and 2 slices fresh French baguette on the side of each plate. Top with grilled meat or fish if desired. Makes 6 servings.

Dill dip

You can make this creamy concoction to serve with crudites and/or crackers. If there's any left over, try it on freshly grilled (or even steamed) fish. Or vice- versa.