Spice Hunting

Your guide to the world of herbs and spices—how to spot them, where to get them, and how to cook with them

Spice Hunting: Dill Weed

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[Photographs: Max Falkowitz. unless otherwise noted]

If I had to pick an herb for versatility, ease of use, and intensive flavor, dill would win hands-down. (Sure, you could say parsley, but how many ingredients does parsley actually go with rather than just gussy up?) And as spring has hit in earnest, I've been revisiting the herb these past few weeks to give it all the love I can.

Dill is an ancient and widespread herb. Though it originated in the vicinity of Eastern Europe, desiccated samples have been found in pharaoh's tombs. It's made inroads to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, to say nothing of its popularity in Western Europe. But as far as I'm concerned, dill's greatest success is in America, where its uses have expanded way past regional recipes and into the territory of a general-purpose herb.

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English peas, radishes, fresh ricotta, mint, dill, and walnuts from Olympic Provisions. [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

I'm most fond of dill with lean vegetables and fatty dairy: It's my go-to herb in salads, beaten into an emulsified dressing to draw out its lemony flavor. It plays excellently off delicate leafy greens and heartier chunky vegetables like beets, legumes, and fennel. On the other side of the health spectrum, dill is brilliant with butter, cream, cream cheese, and (my favorite) sour cream—Eastern European garnishes are founded on dill and sour cream for a reason. When I have dill and dairy, I'm never lacking for quick appetizers: spreads on toast, crumbly pastries, and toppings for soup.

But if you've only used dill in European recipes, you're missing out. Dill's international pedigree is also worth exploring. In India, it's stewed as a green, frequently with yellow split lentils in dal. While longer cooking removes much of dill's bright, lemony character, it still lends lightness to otherwise heavy lentils.

Vietnamese and Lao cooks also use dill to lighten up dishes, especially coconut milk-based fish and shellfish curries. For these it is best to stick with firm, white fish, which are perfect canvases for strong herbs and spices. These cuisines also use dill in steamed and broiled fish applications.

Dill also has some interesting potential in sweets, acting as a savory counterpart to lemon when you need to cut the sweetness syrup-soaked sponge cakes, light-but-sweet sorbets, and many citrus-based desserts. If used in more than sparing amounts it can overpower, but as a miniscule garnish it works exceptionally well.

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Broad beans with dill butter.

Dill is one of the easier herbs to grow at home, requiring only sunshine for a good chunk of the day and moderate to warm weather (it can be grown inside during winter). The other advantage of growing your own is the leftover dill seeds lying about, which taste nothing like dill but work curiously well with it. Should you prefer to do your harvesting at the supermarket, be warned that dill and fennel leaves look deceptively alike, all the more frustrating when they're sold side by side.

All this and we've barely scratched the surface on dill's uses. It's the only herb I know that takes so well to pickling, steaming, stewing, garnishing, and even sautéing. This week's recipe comes straight out of spring: fava beans, shallots, and dill, coddled in butter and spiked with lemon. How do you use your dill supply?

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