When I smelled yarrow for the first time, I knew I was onto something. It’s scent is sweet, and potent.
I have this trick for finding herbs: when I see something that looks interesting, I rub the leaves in my fingers and sniff it. if it isn’t aromatic and fun, I move on. Yarrow was one of the first herbs I discovered like this, along with wild mints.
Since then I’ve seen a couple different chefs use it, mostly just garnishing dishes with it’s leaves. But yarrow is so much more. It is an ancient herb. The Greeks were known to use it as a medicinal since it promotes blood clotting, from there it became associated with war, and soldiers would carry it with them, just in case.
When I first started playing with it in the kitchen, I would take the whole plant, stem, flowers and all, and put it into stock or broth. The resulting broths took on the flavor, but they had an incredibly bitter aftertaste. I adjusted the broths with sugar and vinegar, which helped a bit, but for the most part I disregarded it as a novelty, and assumed the aroma couldn’t be separated from the bitterness.
I knew there had to be someway to enjoy this new herb. But how? When I started to see it growing again this year I vowed to unlock it’s secrets.
At first smell, yarrow comes off as something in between anise and flowers, it’s got a very sweet, licorice like scent. Tasting a small bit of the leaves will flood your sinuses with a perfume very similar to cardamom. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it. Here’s some things I’ve noticed after using it in the kitchen for a while.
Notes on cooking with yarrow
- Yarrow is a soft herb, very similar to tarragon, you can substitute them for each other. Also, mixing yarrow with other soft herbs like tarragon, chervil, or parsley is a great way to enjoy it’s flavor if you find it a bit powerful for your tastes.
- Just like other soft herbs, high heat will destroy yarrow’s flavor. You don’t want to really “cook” it. For example, if you wanted to flavor sauteed meat or vegetables with yarrow, add it at the end of cooking just to heat it through for a moment, with the heat turned off like you would chives or parsley. Seasoning something with yarrow and then sauteing will destroy the flavor.
- Since yarrow’s flavor is destroyed by high heat, a great way enjoy it is in cold preparations, where things are perfumed with herbs or marinated. Making gravlax with yarrow instead of dill would be wonderful.
- Yarrow makes a great aromatic oil for vinaigrettes. Since yarrow is tiny and feathery, combining it with something neutral like parsley is a good technique to stretch it and enhance the green color. My favorite experiment was using 50% yarrow to parsley to make a yarrow flavored oil. I blanched and shocked parsley leaves, then puree in a highspeed blender with chopped yarrow and equal parts oil. For example, for half a cup of packed, blanched and shocked parsley, add 1/2 cup of flavorless oil, like canola or grapeseed, and 1/4 cup packed yarrow, then puree in a blender and let the mixture sit for a couple days. After the oil takes on the flavor of the yarrow, strain it and reserve.
- Yarrow will be nice in desserts since it’s naturally sweet, especially those that use cream. I have seen sorbets made from it, as well as ice cream.
- Fruit really likes yarrow. A mix of fresh fruit like peaches, plums, or nectarines topped with yarrow flavored yoghurt would be great.
- I have tried making stocks and broths with yarrow, they are incredibly bitter. It seems like cooking with liquid really brings out the bitterness in this herb, I don’t recommend it.
Penne Aglio Olio with Yarrow
I have made plenty of things with yarrow, one of my favorites was a simple pasta. I like the flavor of anise with spicy, garlicky things as well as sweet, similar to Italian recipes where fennel and hot chilli are used together. This is a simple, dressed down way you might try it.
Serves 4 as an entree, to be accompanied by a big green salad
- 8 oz dried penne, finest quality available (look for masciarelli or rustichella pasta, they’re by far my favorite, although spendy)
- 4 tbsp fresh garlic, finely chopped
- Kosher salt
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tbsp grapeseed or canola oil
- 1 tsp crushed red pepper, or more depending on how much you like spicy food
- a large handful of yarrow, leaves picked from the stem and chopped to yield 2 tsp
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 4 anchovy filets in oil, rinsed and chopped (optional, but I recommend it)
- Parmesan for serving (purists would pooh-pooh it)
- Make a pile of the yarrow and crushed red pepper flakes, then mince them together finely.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil and season it with salt until the water tastes like the sea. Add the penne and cook until al dente, the time of which may vary depending on the brand of pasta you use. High quality Italian dried pasta will take longer to cook than something like Creamette.
- While the pasta is cooking, heat the garlic in the pan with the oils and chopped anchovy on low heat until the garlic is fragrant and lightly browned. Do not allow the garlic to burn. Remove the pan from the heat and swirl it for a minute to cool the pan so that the wine doesn’t explode grease all over your face. Add the wine to the pan.
- When the pasta is done, drain and add to the pan. Toss the pasta to coat with the oil and cook for a minute to evaporate any raw wine flavor.
- To finish the dish, add the yarrow-chilli mixture and toss just to heat through. Transfer the pasta to each of 4 bowls, garnish with some parmesan and an extra drizzle of extra virgin oil if desired, then serve immediately with a big green salad.