Help! My recipe calls for a sprig of fresh parsley, chopped. How big is a sprig?--Danielle
Technically, a sprig is a small branch or shoot of a plant. Unfortunately, that's pretty much useless knowledge in the kitchen. The problem though, is that a lot of cooking is about inexact measures such as sprigs, pinches, dashes, handsfull and the all time favorite "to taste". What all of these have in common is that they leave the details up to you and trust your experience, knowledge of the ingredient and personal preferences.
So, how much can you get from one shoot of parsley, or a stalk of rosemary, or a sprig of thyme? As a general rule, parsley will give from two teaspoons up to about two tablespoons (10 to 30 ml) of usable portion. A sprig of thyme will give somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 teaspoon (1.5 to 2.5 ml) of leaves, maybe more. A stalk of rosemary? In my garden, today, it is just under a tablespoon (15 ml).
When I gather herbs from my garden, I am always rubbing them, smelling the herbs or my fingertips, and perhaps breaking off a small piece to taste. This may seem like idle fun, and to be honest I do enjoy the smell of fresh herbs as I pick them, but it also tells me how strong they are, or whether they are getting old and losing flavor or becoming bitter. An older stalk of parsley will give more leaves, and therefore more chopped parsley to use, but you may want to cut back a bit because it becomes more bitter as it gets older.
Now, how to turn that into a practical guide to how much to use? Use a smaller amount to start with, and add more as you go along. Start with maybe a tablespoon of of chopped parsley, prepare the dish and taste it. If necessary increase the amount. Remember that the longer the dish cooks, the more flavor compounds evaporate. When I make chili, I save half of the cilantro until the end and toss it in just before serving. Otherwise the unique flavor it adds to the dish is lessened.
Pay attention as you cook to how your ingredients smell and taste as you use them. Taste them alone before you put them into the food you are cooking. While you prepare the dish, and when you eat it, try to taste the individual herbs you used. As you develop your skills, you will come to automatically translate "a sprig of parsley, chopped" into "I like the taste it adds to the dish and these sprigs are pretty small, so I think I'll use a bit more." I spoke a little about this learned knowledge in an earlier post, Coming to Your Senses.
Invite and listen to feedback. If your SO finds the tarragon a little overpowering, use a bit less next time. If they say a dish was a little under flavored, add a bit more of the herbs next time. Don't be afraid to ask or to experiment. After all, cooking is about sharing with people who matter to you, so taking their tastes into account is always worthwhile.
Finally, have fun! Learning all of the ins and outs of cooking takes time. Enjoy the journey.