Mouths to Feed: Sprigs of Joy

We are a species that likes to catalog our firsts: first step, first kiss, first job, first time I ever saw your face, and so on.

Which makes it fairly banal that I remember the first time I ate chervil. Except that it was chervil. Moreover, I was with Peter, my then-fairly-new husband, at Payard Patisserie, a tres chic French cafe on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, about two blocks from the office where my obstetrician had just confirmed that I was pregnant with what would, in due time, become our first child, George. 

Life fairly gleamed with wonder, from the punctilious waiters striding briskly across the mosaic floors, to the glass cases piled with exquisite pastries, to the soigné women sitting in the back room with little dogs on their laps and very expensive handbags by their sides. Peter and I, all aglow, ordered lunch. 

And what a lunch — simple but perfect, everything just so. Peter had a croque monsieur; I had a salad made with perfectly poached chicken, tender new potato, supple lettuce and a marvelous herb I didn’t recognize. I summoned the waiter. He told me it was chervil. 

Well then. Chervil. I was captivated. The herb had a delicate, feathery leaf, like parsley meant for fairies, and a flavor likewise subtle, with delicate springtime grassy notes and hints of carrot and anisette. 

I resolved then and there to make it a regular part of my own culinary repertoire. Easier said than done. Despite its outsize charms, it is nearly impossible to find here in the U.S. The French use it frequently; it is a key component in the classic fines herbes blend, and a favorite addition to omelets, sauces and pureed vegetable soups. The Germans and Danes make liberal use of chervil as well. But it is rare in every other cuisine on the globe, including ours. 

Part of the reason for that may be its ephemeral growing season. Chervil does not like heat or bright sun. It leafs out briefly in springtime, then quickly flowers, bolts and becomes inedible. Some epicurean gardeners create cool, shady bowers simply in order to have fresh chervil all summer long, but I’ve never managed to pull that off. 

Instead, once or twice in a lucky springtime, I used to come across a few limp sprigs of it in those little plastic clamshells that herbs are sold in. I always buy it. Back home, I’d sprinkle it over eggs or mild fish, mix it with herby spring pasta or toss it into salads. It never failed to make a dish taste magical. I hope you will start to seek it out; maybe together we can keep it from disappearing.

I hadn’t seen it in a few years when I stumbled upon some pots of chervil at Maple Lawn Garden Center in Garrison while plant-shopping with my lovely, garden-wise friend Marilyn last spring. We both enthusiastically bought it up. She’s lived in France; she knows what’s what. Back home, my chervil didn’t last terribly long; the plants’ roots were already pot-bound by the time I repotted it. But for two blissful weeks, I had fresh chervil in my kitchen. In honor of my first encounter with the herb, I made a spring-y chicken salad.

Last November, George turned 22. Last week, I once again found chervil at Maple Lawn. And today, I revived this dish. 

Chervil’s Latin name derives from the Greek for “herb of joy,” which seems just right. 

I doubt George remembers his first encounter with chervil. But I will always associate it with him, and therefore with joy. 

Just So Spring Salad

Just So Spring Salad

Serves 4

  • 2 heads Bibb or Boston lettuce, or other mild spring lettuce
  • 2 radishes, thinly sliced
  • 2 poached chicken breasts, sliced, or 2 to 3 cups shredded chicken 
  • ¼ cup parsley leaves, roughly sliced
  • ⅓ cup chervil sprigs
  • 1 tablespoon minced chives
  • Sea salt to taste
  • ½ cup Dijon vinaigrette (see recipe below)

Arrange the lettuce on a platter. Toss the chicken and radishes with half the herbs and a little salt, optional. Place on the lettuce. Drizzle with the vinaigrette. Serve with additional vinaigrette on the side. 

Creamy Dijon Vinaigrette

Adapted from Thomas Keller

  • 1 large egg yolk (see note)
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • ¾ cup canola or other mild oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ cup good olive oil

Place the first six ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Add 2 tablespoons water, and process until thick and smooth. With the engine running, drizzle in the canola oil; whir until emulsified. Add the salt and pepper and process briefly. Add the olive and process just to blend. 

Store remainder covered in refrigerator for up to three days.

Note: Egg yolk makes the vinaigrette emulsify and turn creamy. Before using, be sure you know and trust the source of your eggs. Raw egg should not be served to small children, the elderly or anyone with compromised health. 

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