Cooking is basically finding good recipes, and following them. But good cooking is being able to cook by taste. It is the ability to know what to add to make something taste even better. This is where herbs play a starring role.
Knowing what herbs to add to soups, stews, rice & beans makes the difference between a ho-hum meal and one that is terrifically tasty. For example, I use prepared pasta sauces but they are improved by the addition of fresh herbs. Herbs release their flavors through scented oils. The best way to take advantage of their flavor is to add them to the dish at the end of cooking so the flavor is not cooked out. Packaged foods must process at high temperatures, which usually cooks most of the fresh flavor out of the sauce.
Adding fresh basil, marjoram or oregano–or all three–to your packaged pasta sauce makes all the difference in the world. Do you like it spicy? Add a dash of cayenne pepper. How about Mediterranean? Add a small sprinkle of whole fennel. Common sense comes into play here. Because fennel is a seed herb, it must cook longer to release its flavor, unless the seeds are well-crushed before adding. Adjust the flavor to your own palette and to the preference of your family.
My kitchen garden, pictured above, provides my favorite basics for any savory dish. A vintage grinding stone with English thyme growing from the center decorates the brick path. From left clockwise: garlic chives, French tarragon, sage [with golden oregano growing underneath], onion chives in bloom [flowers are edible too], more English thyme and finally, garden oregano in front of the stone. Out of view are rows of sprouting cilantro/coriander and sweet basil. Both are annuals that must be planted every season. But save the seeds for this.
I also grow tender perennials in pots to bring inside to winter. My bay tree and lemon verbena are on the front porch and my lemon thyme is nestled in the container garden. Because dill is a self-seeding annual, it grows spontaneously and with abandon in its own patch in the garden. Lemon balm, another tough perennial, also has its own specified area as it is in the mint family and can crowd out other plants.
Lemon balm’s cousins, spearmint and peppermint, are mints so invasive they grow lushly in a large bed with tough perennial flowers for color and companionship. I love the look of spruce-green spearmint. My variety is curly spearmint that is also slightly soft-of-leaf, like the herb lamb’s ear or betony. The mints also bloom, which is a bonus, but their blue flowers are small. My rosemary plant is now four years old and I am immensely proud of it. I found a sunny basement window it likes to live in for the winter. When spring comes, it sits on the semi-sunny porch. Other herbs that I use for their fragrance and health benefits grow as decorative elements in the garden.
Ask any herb gardener–it is a satisfying part of cooking to snip and add fresh herbs from your own organic garden. Everything tastes fresher. How to use them is another large subject, but here are some basics:
- Basil added to anything with a tomato base adds sweetness and depth. Basil is also a necessary fresh ingredient in home-made pesto sauce for pasta. Try it as a green on sandwiches and in salads. Keep cutting the blooms from basil to lengthen harvest of leaves to the end of summer. Then allow the plants to go to seed. When the seed heads are fully formed and fairly dry, rub the heads into a box to release the seeds and allow to dry. Keep in cool storage for growing next season.
- Cilantro is used extensively in Mexican and Mediterranean dishes. It is the piquant’ taste in salsa, that wonder-dip for corn chips. When cilantro goes to seed, it produces coriander seeds. They are used in flat breads and sweet breads for their bitter orange flavor and in curry dishes. If you like the taste of coriander, use it in anything! This plant is like two different herbs. When green, it is cilantro; when it bolts and goes to seed, it is coriander. Let your planting go to seed at the end of harvest and save seed to plant next season.
- Sage is the traditional poultry seasoning and is essential to sage turkey stuffing. It is hardy and can usually be picked still fresh outside for the Christmas turkey. Sage is also an ingredient in sausage and BBQ sauces and is wonderful used sparingly with pork dishes. Sage tea with lemon thyme, ginger and honey is a soothing and healing cold recipe. Sage heals the throat, lemon thyme is antiseptic and brings down fever and is delicious, ginger warms the blood and honey is antiseptic. Add dried sage to your campfire to keep away mosquitoes. Blue sage flowers are edible. When flowers go “over,” prune them so that the sage shrub produces new growth.
- Onion and garlic chives add onion and garlic fresh flavor. They are best used fresh or in stir fries, but minced onion chives are also the specks of green in traditional chicken soup. Use them minced on salads, in sandwich fixings, potato salad, or anywhere you would add their cousins onion and garlic. Be sure to cut the blossoms as soon as they begin to pale to prevent them forming seeds that will grow like grass all over your garden. Onion chives bloom purple now and garlic chives have a white allium flower in late summer. The flower stems are too woody to eat but the flowers are edible.
- French tarragon has an unusual green/licorice flavor that pairs well with pork, fish and chicken. I love it in chicken salad with celery and/or fresh grapes or apples. It is also the green herb in tartar sauce for fish and is great cooked with fish on the grill or in the oven. To make French tarragon vinegar, put several clean sprigs in a small bottle of white vinegar, cork it and let sit in a cool place for a couple of weeks. Remove sprigs and label. Use the vinegar to make salad dressings or marinade. All culinary herbs make unique vinegars.
- Oregano is commonly used in everything Italian. The annual marjoram can also be used in place of oregano. It is a taste preference. The flavor is more intense and traditional if oregano is dried before using but it can also be used in greater quantities fresh.
- English thyme is the meat herb. Add the tiny leaves fresh or dried to roasts. I have a BBQ sauce recipe that calls for powdered thyme which is delicious. English thyme is also antiseptic and is a healing element in teas.
- Lemon thyme is my favorite tea herb. It is much more subtle than hardy English thyme and has a rich lemony taste. As a lemon herb, it is also great with fish or chicken. As mentioned above, lemon thyme is an excellent tea for its antiseptic benefits. All lemon herbs were used to reduce fevers and for cold and flu treatments. I usually have at least two in my garden. Right now I grow lemon balm, lemon thyme, and lemon verbena. Snip lemon herbs into minced pieces to use in lemon cookies and lemon breads. Cook lemon herbs with water and sugar for a lemon syrup to use in beverages.
- Lemon balm is an easy to grow perennial lemon herb. Because it is in the mint family, plant it by itself as it can be invasive.
- Dill seed and weed is best known for pickling. But try sweet dill weed before seeds set in and saute’ it with butter for new potatoes. Use it fresh in salads. Dill weed with new peas is also popular. Dill is delicious with salmon and other fish dishes.
- Spearmint and peppermint are great for delicious teas that also calm the nerves and settle the stomach. Cold mint tea is a soothing summer drink full of vitamins. Add mints to lemonade for a perky, fresh taste. Curly spearmint is a very pretty garnish in tall drinks of any kind. Cut it in spears of 6 inches; keep them in water in the refrigerator like cut flowers. The spears stay fresh and firm for a couple of days.
- Bay laurel leaves add depth and enhance the flavor of all soups and stews. Because the leaf is tough rather than tender, add it at the beginning of cooking and remove before serving. Bay in hot spiced cider is a surprisingly delicious addition. Fresh leaves are best as they are sweeter and richer than dried. Bay laurel is a tender perennial tree that must be over-wintered indoors.
- Lemon verbena is a tender perennial shrub. Grow it in a large pot and bring it indoors in winter with your bay tree. Lemon verbena has an intense, yummy lemon scent that is as good in tea as it is to enhance lemon chicken or lemon drop soup. Dry the leaves for your potpourri or scented soaps. Sprigs of lemon verbena can be added to dishes and then removed before serving.
- Rosemary is especially good for chicken and pork. It has an intense flavor; a little goes a long way. Rosemary is also good in pasta dishes. Try grilling vegetables and meats with a sprig of rosemary.
HARVEST AND STORAGE:
- In general, trim herbs of flowers after they bloom for better flavor in the leaves and a longer season for annuals.
- For most intense flavor, cut herbs in early morning after the dew has dried.
- Harvest herbs at their peak for drying, before they bloom or after they rebound from blooming. All herbs can be bunched in rubber bands and air-dried by hanging them in a dry, very low humidity room. I use the beams of my country kitchen and enjoy fresh herbs hanging from the ceiling. The basement and garage are not good drying locations. Basil may drop some leaves, but hanging is still the most efficient way to dry it. Only chives do not air dry well. They are best stored by snipping them into small pieces and placing them in small freezer bags. Freeze them for adding to soups and stews and stir fries. Lemon verbena leaves will fall from their branches as they dry. Collect the leaves only and lay them in open-weave baskets on top of cabinets. All herbs can also be dried in this way, but in single layers.
- When herbs are crisp, store them in air-tight canning jars and label and date. Crush them into dishes as needed. Shelf life is about a year if stored out of direct sunlight.
Next time, we will talk about some wonderful healing herbs you may wish to add to your garden. They are also decorative and fragrant! Happy gardening.
From the Farm Grove Barn