Herbs should be grown right next to the back door -- where you can reach them instantly. A handful of basil, a few leaves of tarragon -- they seem so minor in themselves that you wouldn't necessarily trudge to the far end of the garden for them. Yet they make all the difference in a meal, so it's best to keep them at your fingertips.
By and large, fresh herbs don't benefit from long cooking. Rosemary is an exception -- nothing will keep it down. It's a standout in foccaccio, a flat bread baked at high temperatures after being painted with olive oil, garlic and rosemary.
Nowhere do fresh herbs make more of a difference than in the great salads of summer. When you use fresh herbs and really good vinegar you can keep a very tight rein indeed on the olive oil. Fresh Tomato Dressing is wonderful on green salad, but try it over freshly cooked pasta, too -- or steamed green beans.
FOCCACCIO (Makes two 12-by-18-inch foccacci)
1 teaspoon honey
3 cups warm water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
6 cups whole-wheat flour
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 4 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
2 or 3 garlic cloves, chopped (optional)
1/4 to 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
Dissolve the honey in 2 1/2 cups warm water, and stir in the yeast. Stir the salt into the flour. Make a well in the center, and pour 2 tablespoons oil and the yeast mixture into the well. Starting from the center, stir with a spoon or with your hand until the dough incorporates all the flour.
Turn the dough out on the table and put about 1/2 cup of warm water in the mixing bowl. Use this water instead of flour to keep the dough from sticking to your hands and the table while you knead. You will probably be able to use up the water, ending with a soft, pliable dough that's very elastic. Knead well, about 20 minutes.
Form the dough into a ball and place it smooth side up in the bowl. Cover and keep in a warm, draft-free place. After about 1 1/2 hours, gently poke the center of the dough about 1/2 inch deep with your wet finger. If the hole doesn't fill in at all or if the dough sighs, it is ready for the next step. Press flat, form into a smooth round, and let the dough rise once more as before. The second rising will take about half as much time as the first.
Turn the dough out on a slightly floured board. Shape it into a smooth round (or rounds, if you are going to make two), and let it rest until quite soft. With floured or wet hands, pat it from one side to the other to press out all the accumulated gas. Keep patting and pressing -- or flinging and twirling -- being careful not to tear the dough, until it is the size and shape you need. The dough fills two 12-by-18-inch cookie sheets or two large pizza pans.
Combine remaining olive oil, chopped rosemary and garlic, and paint it on the bread. Let rise in a warm place again for about half an hour. Bake 15 to 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven, until it's slightly browned, then remove from oven and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Return for 3 minutes more -- until cheese is fragrant.
This makes enough for a party -- two loaves' worth. If you don't want that much, just form half the dough into a normal loaf without the extra olive oil, garlic, rosemary and cheese and continue baking the rest into a foccaccio.
FRESH TOMATO DRESSING (Makes 1 1/4 cups)
2 medium tomatoes, fresh and ripe
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 or more tablespoons fresh basil
1 or 2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1 tablespoon capers (optional)
Chop tomatoes coarsely and place in a blender with olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, basil, garlic and mustard. Blend smooth, and stir in capers if desired..