By Ellie MacDougall
If parsley is the workhorse of the herb family, chervil is its refined, sophisticated cousin. A native of Europe and western Asia, and naturalized throughout North America, Anthriscus cerefolium is a member of the family Umbelliferae, as are carrots and parsley. It features lacy leaves that echo the shape of parsley but are far more delicate. Its refreshing flavor hints at licorice. Of the two cultivars, one has flat leaves and the other has curled leaves.
Chervil’s history is long and full of symbolism. Because its flavor and fragrance resemble the myrrh brought to Bethlehem by the Three Wise Men, chervil became a symbol of new life to early Christians. This evolved into a tradition of serving chervil soup on Holy Thursday.
Chervil grows quickly. It prefers filtered shade in hot climates and full sun in cool climates. It wants to be well watered to develop its flavor and refuses to grow if baked in the hot sun. It does not take well to transplanting, so simply scatter seeds in place, leave them uncovered, keep the soil moist and thin the plants to about 10″ apart. Under ideal conditions, chervil matures in just six weeks, so it makes sense to sow a succession of plantings every couple of weeks in the spring and late summer. This plant is determined to bolt and self-sow, especially when the heat of mid-summer sets in, so keep its leaves pinched to prevent its small, white flowers from developing and subsequently forming seeds.
Chervil also grows well in pots. All it needs is moderately rich soil, moisture, good drainage and an east window.
Its flavor is classic. While chervil is not widely used around the world, it is a staple herb in France. Carrots, eggs, fish, oysters, veal, cheese, corn, peas and cream soups all benefit from the flavor of chervil. Vinaigrette and Béarnaise sauce are naturals for chervil, and it’s a classic ingredient, along with parsley, thyme, chive and tarragon, in French fines herbes. Because of the way its volatile oils react to heat, chervil should be added to soups, stews and sautés at the very last minute, to prevent it from turning bitter. Chervil tends to lose much of its flavor when dried. You can freeze it for dishes where its appearance is not important (it will go limp when thawed). Blend it with oil, purée it and freeze it in ice cube trays. Or, make chervil butter, which also will keep well in the freezer.
1 Tbs. prepared mustard
1 Tbs. wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup whipping cream, sour cream or chicken stock
1-1/2 Tbs. finely minced shallot or green onions
1-1/2 Tbs. capers
3 to 4 Tbs. fresh tarragon, chervil, chives, parsley, basil and oregano, finely minced
Because of the hazards of making mayonnaise from raw eggs, we suggest soft boiling them first. Boil the eggs for 3 minutes (3-1/2 if they come straight from the refrigerator). Place the yolks in a mixing bowl and set the whites aside as a garnish or for use in egg salad. Beat the yolks until thick, then beat in the mustard, salt and vinegar/lemon. Beat in the oil, one drop at a time. It is important to beat continuously and vigorously until about half of the oil is incorporated and the mixture resembles thick cream. Then you can add oil a little more quickly and rest your arm from time to time.
Beat the cream/stock into the sauce, then fold in the capers, shallot/onion and herbs.When the mayonnaise is done, blanch the herbs for 1 minute in boiling water, then drain, run them under cold water and pat them dry with a towel. Stir them into the mayonnaise.
1/2 to 2 Tbs. quality wine vinegar or a mixture of wine vinegar and fresh lemon juice
1/8 tsp. salt
6 Tbs. olive oil
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 to 2 Tbs. parsley, chives. tarragon, basil and chervil, finely minced
Combine all of the ingredients and shake well before using on salads. Refrigerate.
Sour Cream Dressing
1 egg yolk
4 Tbs. sour cream
1/2 cup vinaigrette
Lemon juice to taste
2 Tbs. fresh parsley, chives, tarragon, chervil and burnet
Please note that this recipe features an uncooked egg yolk. You may wish to substitute 2 Tbs. of an egg substitute to avoid the possibility of Salmonella poisoning. The sauce won’t be quite as rich.
Blend the egg yolk and sour cream in a bowl until thoroughly blended. Beat in the vinaigrette a few drops at a time, as with making mayonnaise. Season with lemon and blend in the herbs.
2 or 3 eggs
pinch of salt
1 tsp. fresh chervil, parsley, chives and tarragon, finely minced
1 Tbs. butter
Beat the eggs, salt and herbs for 20 to 30 seconds until the whites and yolks are just blended. Place the butter in a 7″ omelet pan and set on high heat, turning the pan so that the butter coats the bottom and sides. When it stops foaming, but before it starts to brown, pour in the eggs. Slide the pan back and forth over the heat, spreading the eggs evenly around the pan. In a few seconds, they will become a light, broken custard. Tilt the pan at a 45-degree angle and, using a fork, gather the edges of the omelet from the sides of the pan to make sure they don’t stick. Roll the upper edge of the omelet toward the downward edge of the pan. Turn the omelet onto a dish, dot the top with butter and garnish with a sprinkle of the fresh herbs.
French Leek and Potato Soup
2 medium leeks, white part only, sliced
3 cups sliced celery stalks
3 Tbs. butter
4 cups chicken stock or water
1/3 cup white rice
3 cups baking potatoes, peeled and chopped
2 cups water
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups warm whole milk
1/8 cup sugar
4 to 6 Tbs. soft butter
3 Tbs. minced chervil
3/4 cup croutons
While this is not exactly health food, it is a classic. Bon appetit!
Cook the leeks and celery with salt and butter for about 10 minutes, slowly, in a covered saucepan, until tender but not browned. Add the stock/water, bring to a boil, add the rice and simmer, uncovered, for about 25 minutes. Boil the potatoes with water and salt. When tender, drain the cooking water into the leeks and celery. Purée the potatoes in a food mill or ricer, return to the saucepan and beat in the milk to make a smooth cream. (Or, use a blender or food processor to purée the potatoes with a cup of the milk, then pour into the saucepan and beat in the rest of the milk.) Purée the leek and celery mixture with its liquid, pour into the potato cream and blend with a wire whip. Beat in the sugar and seasonings. Bring the soup to a simmer. Mash the butter and herbs into the serving bowl or individual bowls. Pour the hot soup onto the herb butter and top with croutons.
In 1998 Ellie grew herbs and cooked with them at Blue Sky Farm in Wells.