Seasonal Seasoning Butters


At this glorious time of year, perennial edibles are coming up everywhere. Many of them are herbs used as seasoning for generations, and at this time of year I start making seasoning butters to take advantage of them at their best. The butters change throughout the season, according to what is available and fresh and goes well with other herbaceous ingredients that I’m considering.

I used to make a lot of the classic Montpellier butter, and I still make it sometimes, but overall I tend to prefer something a little more spontaneous. I do think that the anchovy fillets ground into the classic butter add a rich and savory resonance to nearly anything, without being identifiable as anchovy. But I don’t keep the fillets around much anymore, so instead I substitute a good grade of fish sauce actually made from anchovies. Do not use the inexpensive ones made from hydrolyzed fish protein, which range from execrable to mediocre. Red Boat is a good grade of fish sauce made in the classic fermented fashion, and it’s not very expensive when you compare it to true Italian colatura, which taste very similar and costs at least three times as much.

The other things you need are a clove of garlic, about 8 ounces of good butter, 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup of good olive oil, half a lemon, and herbs. Which herbs depends a lot on what is fresh, good, and available to you. Give some thought to whether the flavors can harmonize. Personally, although rosemary is throwing out fresh growth right now in my area, I don’t find rosemary to be a good team player and if I use it, I use it by itself. Other people view this very differently, so see what you think. For this amount of butter and olive oil, you need the equivalent of a large bunch of fresh herbs, and for herbs I consider a large bunch to be the amount I can just barely get my thumb and forefinger around.


My most recent butter included a large bunch of half garlic greens and half perennial arugula, with several sprigs each of tarragon and thyme. At this early point in the year the new growth of thyme is tender and just needs chopping, but later in the season I would pull the leaves off the wiry stems. If I didn’t have a permaculture garden, I would use the green parts of a bunch of green onions and a few large leaves of mustard greens with the center stem removed.

Set the butter out to soften a bit. Chop the garlic, and separately chop the herbs. Heat a small saucepan over medium heat, put in the chopped garlic and sauté until it’s cooked but not colored, add the chopped herbs, turn the heat to low, and cook for a few minutes until the herbs look definitely cooked but still bright green. This usually takes about five minutes for me. Put in one or 2 teaspoons of fish sauce and a good pinch of salt. Set the pan aside and let cool to room temperature. Put the cooked herb mixture in the food processor, add the butter cut up into pats, and process until the butter is well incorporated but you can still see distinct pieces of the herbs, not green mush. Squeeze in some lemon juice; I use about a tablespoon. If you want to, you can grate off a little of the lemon zest and blend that in too.
Pack into a small airtight container or bowl, store in the refrigerator, and use within a week or two. As for how to use it, it can go on almost anything else that you are cooking in a simple fashion and want to add a little extra pizzazz  to. Generous globs melting on top of cooked green vegetables are wonderful, and it is good on scrambled or fried eggs or on top of omelettes. Some slices of the butter put on top of broiled fish or seafood are very good, and it’s also good on roast chicken or chicken pieces. It is excellent folded into plain white rice. Try it on egg noodles with some Parmesan and maybe a little bit of cream. For all these applications I use generous amounts, but of course you can use a lighter hand if you prefer.
Every week, walk through your garden or farmers market or a good grocery store and see what flavorful herbs are around, and make seasoning butter accordingly. Bronze fennel is beginning to leaf out on my property, and fennel butter with some thyme and a small amount of tarragon is going to be delicious. My lemon balm is just coming up, and I am speculating about whether a generous amount of lemon balm and green garlic and a bit of rosemary would create a context in which rosemary could shine without taking over.
Personally I think that some alliums are always needed for a really good flavor, and if green garlic was not in season I would use perennial green onions or garlic chives, both of which will grow extremely happily in almost anybody’s soil. But don’t get too concerned about specific ingredients, just think about what is fresh and what tastes good together. The whole idea is to have the pleasure of something on your plate that tastes of the growing season.

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