Shaped like mini-cilantro or a micro-flat leaf parsley, chervil is one of those specialty herbs that is generally passed over but is adored by those who are familiar with it. It’s kept out of the limelight due to its delicate condition. And someone who opts to try it for the first time might end up cooking with it – heat destroys its flavor – and wondering what the fuss is about.
Chervil is a cool weather crop. One whiff of heat and it bolts to seed, and we get a lot of heat here. But our winters are perfect for a long chervil season – cool, gentle, sunshine-filled days (it’s not gloating if it’s informative ) that allow the plant to slowly unfurl and keep its fennely and delicate minty flavor.
Pair it with a sweet baby spinach for a special salad. I did that the other night and it was almost perfumey, like a cold dessert but without the cloying, meal ending sugar bomb – fresh and green, with a little anise. I had a beautiful sea bass at Providence for my birthday last year and Michael dotted the fish with tenderly plucked chervil leaves, one leaf for each bite. It was just enough to let both ingredients benefit and it made me rethink its absence in my kitchen. I’m generally a mean cook with a hand more suited to rough and tumble comfort food than delicacy. It took a tiny, feathery herb to keep me in check. Go figure.
Like I said earlier, heat kills it, both when living outside and in the kitchen. You could try dehydrating it but the flavor comes from the play between the juicy, green plant tissue and the oils that make it an herb. You might as well just use fennel seeds if you want the big anise flavor. And really, some things weren’t mean to hang around. You enjoy them while they’re here. Persimmons are like that – there are no safe jamming or canning recipes for the fruit, only freezing. Avocados, too. So enjoy the window while it lasts. At least until the basil starts go in the ground.
Chervil is as “easy” to grow as other cool weather herbs – like dill and cilantro. But I’ve never had much success growing dill OR cilantro, even though I’ve been told over and over again that it’s pretty easy. Chervil does benefit from a little shade time, so if you have a spot with a little late afternoon protection, seed it there and see how it does. It is water hungry, so irrigate accordingly. A few local farmers market vendors do grow it – ABC Rhubarb and Kenter Canyon – and they do pick the morning of their markets. This is important as, the fresher the pick, the better the flavor. Given that, it fits the homegrown rubric for a growing crop that is best when picked right before use.