Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Dill Weed Does Certainly Behave Like a Weed
I love the herbs in my garden—piney rosemary, I adore your lush evergreen foliage and sweet purple-blue blossoms. Chives, you shout of springtime—your tender onion-like greens are the perfect foil for fingerling potatoes, tender fresh asparagus, and creamy Easter deviled eggs. Dear oregano, you are a bit of a tramp—you self-sow and new clumps of you appear in the most unexpected places, but you easily transplant and seem to adore being sheered.
And then ... there is dill weed. No one need ask why your surname is "weed." Compared to you, even oregano is tame. But your green fronds are so lacy and delicate, your flowers glisten gold in the summer sun, and (best of all) your scent reminds me of my mother's pantry where stone crocks held crisp briny garlic dill pickles.
But It's Not Just for Pickles
Let's play a bit of word association. When I say "dill," what is the first word that pops into your mind? If you did not say "pickle," you need read no further. You don't need this article.
However, if your thought of dill is synonymous with pickles, please keep reading. Dill appears in so many other ways in so many different cuisines. Here are a few.
Dill in Russian Cuisine
The Ural Mountains bisect western Russia and Kazakhstan. In this vast area, the soils, the weather, and life are hard and severe. Here, peasants relied on root crops for their subsistence. Few families had even enough money to afford a simple beast of burden; they worked the soil with their bare hands. A standard meal consisted of boiled water plus what foodstuffs could be gleaned from the land—usually potatoes, turnips, cabbage, and beets.
Thus a steaming bowl of beet borsch is a meal commonly associated with Slavic/Russian culture.
No, I didn’t make a mistake (or two). True borsch is served hot and is spelled without the “t."
According to Dara Goldstein, author of A Taste of Russia, there are over 100 variations of this sturdy beet soup. She says that as one travels west, more and more beets are included in the base.
The authors of the book The Joy of Cooking created a version of borsch that I totally love. Unlike the food of Russian peasants, it includes a bit of beef—what a blessing that would have been for my maternal grandparents! I have adapted the original recipe.
Recipe 1. Russian Borscht With Meat
- 3 to 4 medium beets (about 3/4 pound), leaves removed
- 1 pound boneless beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
- 2 ribs of celery, chopped
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 5 cups beef stock
- 1 (28-ounce) can of diced tomatoes, drained
- 2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and diced
- 2 medium turnips, peeled and diced
- 2 cups shredded cabbage
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Sour cream for garnish
- Fresh dill for garnish
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Wrap each beet in aluminum foil and place them on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast in oven until tender, about 1 hour. Set aside to cool.
- While the beets are roasting, combine the flour, salt, and pepper. Dredge (coat) the beef cubes in the flour, and then shake to remove excess flour.
- Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large stockpot. Add half of the beef cubes and brown on all sides. Remove from heat; repeat with remaining beef cubes. You don’t want to cook all of the beef at one time—the pan will be crowded and the beef will steam instead of turning brown. You NEED that browning to give the beef cubes an attractive brown color (instead of grey), and to add flavor.
- Reduce the heat to medium; add the onion, carrots, and celery to the pan. Sauté until the onions are softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, until garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes.
- Add the reserved meat, beef stock, tomatoes, potatoes, and turnips.
- Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for about 30 minutes.
- Remove the peel from the roasted beets and cut the beets into matchstick pieces. Add to the pan along with the shredded cabbage.
- Simmer, partially covered, until the vegetables and meat are tender about 30 minutes.
- Stir in red wine vinegar and lemon juice. Simmer for 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Add more salt and/or ground black pepper if desired.
- Serve with dollops of sour cream and sprigs of fresh dill.
What makes this recipe work?
- Roasting the beets makes them sweeter, less "earthy" tasting.
- Onion and garlic provide a bit of heat.
- Beef adds a meaty umami flavor and enhances the broth.
- Tomatoes, red wine vinegar, and lemon juice provide tartness in contrast to the sweetness of the beets, carrots, and celery.
- Potatoes help to thicken the soup a bit.
- The sweet, bright, lemony flavor of dill and the creamy tang of sour cream pull all the flavors together.
Dill in Norwegian Cuisine
The crystal-clear fjords and ice-cold arctic waters of Norway have influenced a rich heritage of fishing that has existed in this enchanting country for thousands of years.
No Norwegian lunch would be complete without gravlax. The name literally means “dug salmon” and refers to the medieval practice of burying (gräva—"to dig") raw fish (laks, "salmon") in the sand above the high-tide level to cure it. Today gravlax is cured by burying not in sand but in a dry rub of sugar, salt, and fresh dill. This produces a fresh, delicate, sweet-salty herby fish that is traditionally eaten on open-faced sandwiches.
Recipe 2. Norwegian Gravlax
- 1 (2-pound) salmon fillet, skin on
- 3 tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 bunch of dill, coarsely chopped
- Trim salmon fillet. Scrape the skin well to remove scales and use tweezers or pliers to remove any bones.
- Blend together salt, sugar, and black pepper. Sprinkle half of the salt mixture in the bottom of a roasting pan, then sprinkle one-half of the dill over.
- Place the salmon in the pan, skin-side down.
- Sprinkle on the remaining salt mixture and dill. Press with hands to ensure that salt adheres to salmon flesh.
- Cover and refrigerate for 3 to 4 days, turning fish over every day.
- Scrape seasoning and dill from fillets before serving.
What makes this recipe work?
- Much like the process of preparing ceviche, gravlax produces an incredibly moist fish
- Although one must plan several days in advance before serving the gravlax, it is an easy dish to prepare.
- It is easy enough to make for your family, but fancy enough for company.
- And, it is a perfect accompaniment to a summer picnic or potluck
Dill in Turkish Cuisine
"Anitalectric" posted a fresh salad on the website Food52 in which dill plays a starring role. She likens the salad to a deconstructed dolma. Although her concept creates a refreshing vegetarian meal that my family enjoys, I don’t think this meal can technically be called a deconstructed dolma. To me, this is more akin to a Turkish Sarma. Dolmas are served hot and contain minced cooked meat. On the other hand, sarmas are vine leaves stuffed with rice, currants, pine nuts, herbs, and spices which are served cold.
I have made a few changes to her original salad and present it here:
Recipe 3. Turkish Sarmas Salad
- 1 cup raw white rice
- grape leaves from a jar, chopped (enough to make 1 cup)
- ¼ cup golden raisins
- ½ cup chopped dill leaves
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
- 1/4 cup crumbled feta
- 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
- Cook rice according to the instructions on the package. While rice is cooking, place chopped grape leaves in a sieve and rinse under running water to remove excess salt. Squeeze out excess moisture and add to the simmering pot of rice (without stirring).
- When the rice is cooked, stir gently to combine the rice with the grape leaves. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add all remaining ingredients except for pine nuts. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
- Garnish with toasted pine nuts and serve at room temperature.
What Makes This Recipe Work?
- The inclusion of whole grain (rice) and feta cheese (protein) provides a balanced vegetarian meal option.
- Golden raisins are sweet and provide a perfect contrast to the slightly bitter taste of the grape leaves.
- The dill leaves and lemon lend a citrus-like tang to the dish.
- Feta cheese is creamy, and pine nuts provide a contrasting crunch.
- Toasting the pine nuts enhances their sweet, nutty flavor.
Dill in Afghani and Persian Cuisine
Shayma Saadat has posted on her blog SpiceSpoon a dish which typical of Afghani and Persian cooking. Fresh dill plays a major part in this fragrant side dish, Chelo Shimit (Rice and Dill).
Fast Facts About Dill
- Related to: parsley, carrots, fennel, cilantro
- Native to: eastern Mediterranean and western Asia
- Etymology: Dill comes from old Norse word dylla, meaning to soothe or lull
- Mentioned in: Egyptian medical texts 3,000 years ago
Do You Want to Grow Dill in Your Garden?
It's not difficult, assuming that you live in the proper climate. Here are a few facts you need to know:
- Genus: Anethum
- Species: A. graveolens
- Height: 16–24 inches (40–60 cm)
- Flowers: White to yellow
- Sun: Full sun
- Soil: Rich, well-drained
- Companion Planting: Best for cucumbers; poor for carrots and tomatoes
- Type of Plant: annual
- How to cultivate: start from seed in early summer—does not transplant well. The soil should be 60 to 70 degrees F. for best results.
- Days to germination: 10 to 14. After another 10 to 14 days, thin plans to about 12 to 18 inches apart.
- Good companion to cabbage and onions. Do NOT plant near carrots!
- Light requirements: Full sun
- Water requirements: Regular watering
- Soil: Loamy
Dill has no fat, sodium, or carbohydrates. A one-cup serving is only 4 calories, but provides 14% of your total daily needs for Vitamin A, 12% Vitamin C, 2% Calcium, and 3% iron.
Questions & Answers
Question: Do any other cultures use dill?
Answer: Dill is famous for Scandinavian foods, and as noted in this article Russian and Middle East foods as well. But following well-worn Eurasian trade routes, it also made its way into Indian cuisine, where it is used in dal with lentils or fried with other spices as a tadka, a last-minute topping before serving.
© 2016 Linda Lum