Dill, like life, comes in stages. First are the delicate fronds, to be chopped and used fresh. The tiny leaves can also be dried, to spike the likes of sauces and eggs dishes. Next there are flower heads to pickle cucumbers, and finally the seeds, for breads, soups and more kinds of pickles.
Oddly enough, though, many Americans have experienced dill in reverse of its natural order. My earliest memory of the herb, for instance, featured flat, gray-green dried seeds that came in a squat tin container. I was too young to notice what recipes my family used them in, but we certainly couldn't have used them often, since the same container sat in our spice drawer for what seemed like the entire duration of my grade school years.
But a later encounter with another form of dill was a culinary awakening. As adolescents, my siblings and I netted crayfish from a creek that flowed through my brother-in-law's dairy farm in Brown County. When we had enough to fill a big pot, my sister cut dill heads from her garden and then boiled the crabs (as we called them) with the starburst-shaped blossoms. She dumped the hot, drained crustaceans onto spread-out newspapers, brought out cans of beer for the adults, and then our whole clan set to. I couldn't get enough of those succulent, dill-scented creatures. They were the essence of summer, a rite of passage, a party. To this day, dill smells like happiness to me.
Dried dill weed became a force in my life during the 1980s, when I worked at the Ovens of Brittany. I ordered it by the quart. We slathered dill mustard sauce on hot, open-face veggie melts and Turkey Divans (one of the first croissant-based sandwiches to hit the Midwest). We put dill weed into spinach turnovers, Danish egg salad and the wildly popular Tomato Dill Soup.
Today I'm all about fresh dill, and for that I credit the Dane County Farmers' Market, where dill by the bunch has been a regular part of the scene for at least two decades. From late spring and on into fall, I use it to accent an array of foods for which it has a special affinity: radishes, spinach, carrots, beets, cucumbers, beans, cottage cheese, sour cream, yogurt, eggs, fish, potatoes, tomatoes and, of course, all kinds of pickles.
My favorite recipe for dill right now is one I "discovered" last year - a chilled Bulgarian cucumber soup with fresh dill and toasted walnuts. Actually, I got the recipe from my next-door neighbor, who got it from her mother, who got it from her friend. Like many similarly passed-along recipes, it's so good that I, too, feel compelled to share it (see recipe below).
The International Herb Association has named dill Herb of the Year for 2010. Let's raise our cups of cucumber dill soup and celebrate the happiness herb.
Cucumber Yogurt Soup with Fresh Dill and Toasted Walnuts
- 1 cup chopped walnuts or hickory nuts
- 5 cups plain yogurt
- 2 cups peeled, seeded and finely chopped cucumbers
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic, pressed to a paste with a fork
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
- salt and pepper to taste
Place nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees 5-6 minutes. Toss nuts and continue to bake until they're fragrant and lightly toasted, another 6-8 minutes. Cool the nuts to room temperature. Combine them with remaining ingredients. Chill before serving. Makes 6-8 servings.