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Feathery fronds

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From medicine to pickles, Dill has been tickling our tastebuds for at least 5,000 years
Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNSA kuku is like a less eggy version of a frittata, with a high herb-to-egg ratio.
Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNSMix fresh chopped dill and parsley into good butter, give it a squeeze of lemon and a bit of garlic, and use it as a rich bed for sharp-tasting radishes.

I thought I knew dill.

It’s essential, after all, for my egg and tuna salads. It’s a natural in just about any seafood-based or cream-sauced dish. And I adore dill’s traditional tang in borscht, fermented vegetables and vinegary dressings.

But those specialties of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe represented only my childhood exposure and, quite honestly, narrow view of culinary traditions around dill. The herb’s true depth and breadth, until recently, eluded my comprehension.

A big bouquet of fresh, fragrant dill helped to fill the gap in my gastronomic knowledge. Preparing a week of meals to do this gorgeous greenery justice, I determined that distinctive dill is far more versatile, far more exotic, than I ever imagined.

The exploration commenced with yogurt-dressed Israeli couscous, progressed to Egyptian split-pea stew and culminated in garam masala-spiced pilaf. Dill, I realized, was the key flavor in all of these recipes, influenced by ingredients and techniques of the Middle East — even India.

Browsing my recipe files, I located dill in Turkish zucchini fritters, Greek feta dip and Persia’s version of frittata. My grasp of culinary geography had tilted on its head.

The herb’s first recorded use was about 5,000 years ago in Egypt, where it was regarded as a “soothing medicine.” About 2,000 years later, Babylonians were growing dill in their gardens, and Greeks burned dill-scented oil in their dwellings, according to “The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Dill.”

As dill spread beyond its native Mediterranean region, numerous cultures came to regard the herb as a digestive tonic and remedy for gas and hiccups. Dill water is an ancient aid for calming colicky babies. Indeed, the herb’s name comes from the old Norse word “dylla,” which means “to calm” or “to soothe.”

Dill certainly is a balm to springtime menus, matching the texture of tender greens with its own lacy leaves. Dill lightens up root vegetables, potatoes and cabbage, upon which many seasonally conscientious eaters still rely in early spring. There’s no second-guessing the appeal of dill paired with fatty, oily, cured fish indispensable to Northern European diets.

And Americans’ appetite for pickles — 2.5 billion pounds annually — couldn’t be sated without dill, which in kosher recipes constitute the country’s favorite variety, according to thespruceeats.com. Home cooks often seek out dill’s whole seed heads for making pickles. But cooks nurturing dill for its leaves in home gardens should discourage the herb from bolting.

Fortunately, dill is one of the easiest herbs to start from seed and is recommended for succession planting. To do it, start seeds in several batches, spaced out over time, so when one crop has been harvested, the next aren’t far behind.

Dill cultivation contains some contradictions, given that the plant grows best in full sun but cooler temperatures — between 43 and 79 degrees, according to The Herb Society. Hot weather causes the plant to flower early, curtailing leaf production, so many sources recommend sowing dill in mid to late summer in moist, well-drained soil.

Conditions hospitable to dill also favor cilantro and parsley, and the three related plants are frequent companions in the garden and kitchen. Fennel is another relative with feathery fronds easily mistaken for dill. The latter’s stems, however, are hollow.

Delicate dill leaves do darken and decay easily. To keep dill fresh and vibrant, place the stems in a jar of water in the refrigerator. While dill is available by the bunch in grocery stores, explore the herb’s depth and breadth in your menus, incorporating it raw or just at the end of cooking to safeguard its flavor and color.

Spring Green Pilaf

1-1/2 cups basmati rice

4 tablespoons butter

2 leeks, rinsed well and light-green portions thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 teaspoon garam masala

Salt, to taste

16 ounces vegetable stock

1 cup shelled edamame or peas, defrosted if frozen

12 ounces asparagus, sliced into 1-1/2-inch pieces

1/2 teaspoon chile flakes

1/4 cup pistachios, shelled and salted

Small bunch fresh dill, finely chopped

In a bowl, rinse the rice and cover with cold water.

In a pot over a medium heat, melt the butter. Once it begins foaming, add the leeks and cook for 8 minutes until softened. Add the garlic, garam masala and salt, and stir for 2 more minutes.

Drain rice, add it to leeks and stir to coat in butter. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 10 minutes.

Add the edamame or peas and asparagus. Add the chile powder and salt; stir gently. Cover and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to steam for 10 minutes.

Toast the pistachios in a pan. Turn off heat and add the dill; stir for 2 minutes. Scatter nuts and dill on top of rice.

Makes 6 servings.

— Recipe adapted from “Posh Rice” by Emily Kydd.

Fresh Herb Kuku

6 eggs

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh chives or scallions

1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1/3 cup fresh chopped dill or 2 tablespoons dried dill

1 large potato, peeled, cooked and mashed, or 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons oil or melted butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Break the eggs into a large bowl. Add the baking powder, salt and pepper. Beat with a fork. Add the garlic, chives, parsley, cilantro, dill and mashed potato or flour; mix together thoroughly.

Place the butter or oil in an 8-inch, ovenproof baking dish or skillet and put dish in preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Pour in egg mixture and bake uncovered for 30 minutes or until a light golden-brown. Serve from baking dish or a platter. Cut into small pieces and serve hot or cold.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

— Recipe adapted by Tribune News Service from “New Food of Life; Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies” by Najmieh Batmanglij.

Pistachio and Feta Dip

3-1/2 ounces (scant 1 cup) roasted unsalted pistachios

Generous 1/4 cup olive oil

10-1/2 ounces good-quality feta cheese, broken into small chunks

1 handful fresh dill, coarsely chopped

2 handfuls cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

1 large garlic clove , peeled and crushed

1 fresh red Thai chile pepper (seeded if desired), coarsely chopped

Heaping 3 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt (regular or low-fat)

Finely grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon

Sea salt, to taste

In bowl of a food processor, combine the pistachios and oil; puree for 30 seconds, then add the feta, dill, cilantro, garlic, chile pepper, yogurt and lemon zest and juice. Puree for about 1 minute or until mixture has a nice, rustic texture. Any chunks of feta that are left should be no larger than a pea.

Taste and season with a small pinch of salt. Serve at a cool room temperature.

Makes 11 or 12 servings (about 2-3/4 cups).

— Recipe adapted by the Washington Post from “Persiana: Recipes From the Middle East & Beyond,” by Sabrina Ghayour (Interlink, 2014).

Spring Radishes

2 bunches radishes with leaves (look for a variety of colors and sizes)

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter (get the fancy stuff), softened

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 to 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon finely chopped garlic

Kosher salt, to taste

Flaky salt, such as Maldon

Crusty rye or French bread, for serving (optional)

Wash and dry the radishes. Slice each in half from stem to root. Using kitchen scissors, trim root so it trails off decorously. Snip away most leaves, letting each radish retain a sprightly leaf or two.

Drop the butter into bowl of a food processor. Sprinkle in 1 tablespoon each of the chopped dill and parsley. Pour in 1 teaspoon lemon juice, the garlic and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Swirl until smooth. Taste. Add more herbs and lemon, if you like.

Find a big rustic cutting board or platter. Spread on butter in two or three dramatic swaths. Dot butter with radishes, cut sides down. Sprinkle with the flaky salt. Serve as is, or with warm bread.

Makes 4 appetizer servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.