T here is nothing like fresh basil on a pizza, the aroma of a chicken roasting with sprigs of rosemary, or delicate chive blossoms decorating a summer salad. If you’ve never grown culinary herbs before, there are plenty of reasons you should. They are some of the easiest edible plants to grow, you will save money, and perhaps most importantly, your cooking will take on a whole new dimension.
“If you are new to herb gardening, a good way to begin learning about herbs is to think of fresh herbs as a kind of palette of paints to work with in the kitchen,” writes Rosalind Creasy in her book, “The Edible Herb Garden.” Fresh herbs provide maximum flavor with minimum effort. Herbs also make fabulous, aromatic garnish. So take a few minutes to think about how Mother Nature’s herbal treasures could spice up your cooking.
Planning your herb garden
Before you make a trip to the garden store, take some time to plan out your herb garden. First, consider your culinary tastes.
“Take a look in your spice rack to see what you are always running out of,” says Joanne Lopata, a Master Gardener with Washington State University Spokane County Extension Service. Which herbs would you like to experiment with? How much time do you have to spend in the garden? Lopata advises beginners to start small.
“Spokane is a challenging climate,” she says, referring to our short growing season and unpredictable weather.
Lopata recommends selecting three or four herbs, perhaps grouping them in tasteful combinations. A “spaghetti herb box” would include herbs that could be added to tomato sauce or olive oil such as sweet basil, Greek oregano, parsley and rosemary. Toss garden fresh sauce with pasta and dinner is ready.
If you are a tea lover, consider planting a “tea time box” with lemon verbena, lemon balm, chamomile, and cinnamon basil. A pizza lover’s herb garden might include anise, chives, oregano and cherry tomatoes. By thinking about which dishes you like to cook, you’ll be able to follow Lopata’s advice of “use the herbs you grow and grow the herbs you’ll use.”
Once you’ve decided which herbs you’d like to grow, it’s time to select a location for your garden. Keep in mind that many herbs are Mediterranean in origin and like six to eight hours of sun a day. Try to select a sunny location as close to your kitchen as possible.
Herbs can be planted in a bed of their own, or as part of a vegetable or flower garden. “You’ll want to amend the soil with organic material to provide good nutrients and drainage,” Lopata says.
Keeping in mind that the average last day of frost is May 15, think about starting your herb garden in mid-May or early June. Test the soil by grabbing a handful. If it clumps together, it’s too wet.
If you have limited space, you might want to consider a container herb garden. Herbs will grow in just about any kind of container, from a rusty old wheelbarrow to a collection of pots and metal pails. Just make sure to drill some holes in the bottom for drainage, and use only potting soil in your containers. Chives, parsley, rosemary, dill and basil grow well in containers.
You can start your herbs by planting seeds directly in the ground, or by planting starts. While starting herbs indoors gives you a jump on our short growing season, some herbs such as fennel don’t transplant well. Anise, basil, chamomile, dill, borage, calendula, chives, chervil, parsley and sage are among some of the herbs that grow well from direct seeding. Follow the instructions on the seed packet, but “don’t plant the whole seed packet in case of crop failure,” Lopata says. By reserving some seeds, you will be able to re-seed if something doesn’t go quite right.
Lopata prefers to seed her herbs directly into the garden. “I don’t start mine inside. I’ve had too many failures,” she says. If you are transplanting starts into your garden, remember to harden them off by putting the plants out for a few hours a day and bringing them in at night.
Cooking with herbs
In “The Edible Herb Garden,” Creasy likens her experience of cooking with herbs to “cooking in full color and stereo” as opposed to black and white. She loves the added flavor herbs provide, and notes that “another incentive is that cooking with herbs can be a very healthful way to add excitement to meals,” without added salt and fat.
The best time to harvest herbs is in the early morning. Don’t wash the herbs until you are ready to use them. Pick a variety of herbs and keep the bouquet in a jar of water, either on your kitchen counter or in the refrigerator, Creasy suggests.
If you’re not used to cooking with fresh herbs, start with a small amount. They will change the texture and taste of your cooking pretty significantly and you don’t want to overwhelm the dish you’re making or your audience.
For hot dishes, add the herbs in the last few minutes of cooking, as the flavor of fresh herbs is lost by extended cooking. For cold foods, such as marinades and dips, add the herbs several hours ahead of time, allowing the flavors to develop in the refrigerator.
Fresh herbs can replace dried herbs in just about any recipe, but remember that dried herbs have a stronger flavor. If your recipe calls for one teaspoon of dried herbs, you will need to use two or three teaspoons of the fresh herb as an equivalent.
Making your own tea from homegrown herbs can be satisfying, soothing and much cheaper than buying it at the grocery store. Popular herbs for tea include chamomile, mint, lemon verbena, cinnamon basil and lemon balm. Rinse your teapot with hot water and add one handful of fresh herbs, followed by a quart of boiling water. Allow the tea to steep for 3 to 5 minutes (do not over-steep or the tea could be bitter). Strain into cups and serve with lemon, sugar or honey. For a refreshing iced tea, double the amount of herbs and pour the tea over ice after brewing.
If you fancy something a little stronger than tea, try an herb martini: two ounces of vodka, a splash of dry vermouth and a handful of Italian herbs. Fill a martini shaker with crushed ice, add the herbs and muddle well. Add the vodka and dry vermouth, shake, and then strain into a martini glass.
You can also make flavored vodka by adding one to two tablespoons of coarsely chopped fresh lavender, mint or rosemary to two cups of high quality vodka and letting it sit a room temperature for a day or two. “Drinking flavored vodkas, like using flavored vinegars and oils, is a way to enjoy the fresh taste of some of humanity’s favorite herb flavors,” Creasy writes.
Lopata says drying herbs is the most common method of preserving them. Do not dry herbs in direct sunlight, she says, they will lose flavor and may become discolored. Instead, find a warm, dark room with good air circulation, perhaps a laundry room.
Either tie the herbs in bunches and hang them up, or lay them flat on a tray. It will take about a week to dry, depending on the herb. You will know they are properly dried when the leaves are crackly. For the best flavor, try to keep the leaves in tact and crumble the herbs into the dish when you are cooking.
“Sage, thyme, savory, dill and parsley dry well in the microwave,” Lopata says. Put several stems of herbs on a double layer of paper towel, cover with a single layer of paper towel and microwave on high for two to three minutes. You might need to experiment with your microwave and each specific herb. Make sure to label the herbs as you go, as you might not recognize them after they dry. Store dried herbs in glass jars and plan to use within one year.
“Although dried herbs maintain good color and flavor, freezing fresh herbs offers the most success for fresh flavor,” Lopata says. It is also the quickest method of preserving them for later use. Herbs that freeze well include basil, parsley, sweet marjoram, fennel, dill, chervil, thyme, chives, tarragon and mint. Although the color and texture will change, the herbs will still be full of flavor and suitable for cooking. Lopata suggests washing the herbs and shaking them dry, removing the leaves from the stem (chop large leaves if desired), and placing the herbs in tightly sealed freezer bags.
Another way to freeze fresh herbs is to place chopped herbs into ice cube trays filled with water, or put them in a blender with a little olive oil and pour into ice cube trays. You can also blend chopped herbs into softened butter, freeze in ice cube trays and use the thawed herb butter cubes on vegetables. The herbs frozen in water are perfect to add to soups or stews. Plan to use frozen herbs within six months.
“Preserving in vinegar is one of the best ways to keep the flavor of basil over the winter. Use a wide-mouth jar to make it easy to add the herbs” Creasy writes.
She recommends using white wine or rice wine vinegar for milder herbs, and red wine vinegar for more pungent herbs such as oregano and rosemary. You can use flavored vinegars in salads, marinades or any recipe that calls for vinegar.
To make herb vinegar, use about ½ cup of fresh herbs for each pint of vinegar. Place the herbs in a clear glass bottle, add the vinegar and close with a tight fitting lid. Place in a sunny window for two weeks, turning frequently. At the end of two weeks, strain the vinegar and return to the bottle, adding a fresh sprig of herb for decoration.
Here are some recipes to try with your first harvest.
From “The Edible Herb Garden,” by Rosalind Creasy, who recommends serving this pesto over fettucine and adding cooked snap green beans with the noodles.
3 garlic cloves
2 cups fresh basil leaves
¼ cup pine nuts or walnuts
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
In a blender or food processor, combine the garlic, basil leaves, nuts, salt, pepper and half the oil. Puree, slowly adding the remaining oil.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and add the grated cheese, mixing thoroughly. Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap, as basil pesto turns brown if exposed to air. If you are going to serve this pesto over pasta, you might need to add a few tablespoons of cooking water to the pesto to make it the right consistency for the pasta.
Yield: About 1 ¼ cups.
Herb Baked Chicken
Courtesy of WSU Spokane County Extension
2 ½ pounds boneless skinless chicken breast
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon dried ground rosemary
¼ teaspoon dried ground marjoram
3 tablespoons oil
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Place the chicken pieces in a baking dish sprayed with nonstick spray. Mix salt, pepper and herbs in a small bowl. Brush chicken with oil and sprinkle with seasoning mix. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes.
Yield: 6 to 7 servings.
Couscous with Grilled Summer Vegetables and Herbs
From “The Naked Chef Takes Off,” by Jaime Oliver. The couscous in this recipe is not boiled or steamed, but soaked in water, giving it a slight bite and an interesting texture.
9 ounces couscous
1 1/3 cups cold water
3 red bell peppers
1 handful of asparagus, trimmed and peeled if necessary
2 or 3 small firm zucchini or patty pan squash, sliced
1 small bunch of scallions, trimmed and finely sliced
2-4 fresh red chilies, seeded and finely sliced
3 good handfuls of mixed fresh herbs (basil, cilantro, mint, flat-leaf parsley)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Red wine vinegar
Olive oil and lemon juice dressing:
10 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Place the couscous in a bowl with the cold water. This will start to soften the couscous and the water will disappear. While the couscous softens, blacken the peppers by placing them directly on a gas flame or under the broiler. Turn the peppers so all sides are blackened. Place the blackened peppers in a sandwich bag or in a covered bowl for 5 minutes to make the peppers easier to peel. Remove the skins and seeds and roughly chop.
On a very hot skillet, lightly char the asparagus and squash on both sides, then toss them into the bowl of couscous with the peppers, scallions, chilies, and torn herbs. Mix well.
Add the olive oil and lemon juice dressing and toss well. Finally, taste and season with salt and pepper and a couple of dribbles of red wine vinegar.
Yield: 4 servings.
Savory Mashed Potatoes with Garden Herbs
From “The Edible Herb Garden.”
2 to 2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold or Russet-type potatoes (approximately 4 large potatoes), peeled and cut into quarters
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 teaspoons finely snipped fresh chives
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh tarragon
Dash of nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large saucepan, cover the potatoes and garlic with water and boil for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Be careful not to overcook them. Drain off the water.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat the milk and cream. When the mixture is hot but not boiling, add the butter and continue heating until the butter has melted. Force the potatoes and garlic through a ricer or mash in a bowl until smooth. Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and over medium heat. Slowly stir in the warm milk mixture with a spoon until it has a creamy texture. Fold in the herbs. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Yield: 4 servings.
Yogurt Herb Dip
Courtesy of WSU Spokane County Extension
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon snipped fresh dill
1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives
1 tablespoon snipped fresh parsley
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Vegetable dippers, such as carrot and celery sticks, cauliflower and broccoli florets
In a small bowl, stir together the yogurt, dill, chives, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Cover and chill for one to 24 hours. Serve with the vegetable dippers. You can add a bit of low-fat sour cream or mayonnaise for a less tangy taste.
Yield: 1/2 cup.