Want taste, convenience? Grow herbs
A convenient thing about growing culinary herbs is that many of them can grow in containers, taking less space than vegetables, although the primary reason is the chance to have wonderful varieties of your favorite herbs, just outside your door. Growing your own means you can use them fresh often, and preserve them in all kinds of interesting ways.
There is a considerable difference between purchased dried herbs and home-dried; the home-dried ones seem to retain a lot more flavor and color. They’ll keep best if you store them out of the light and don’t crush them until you’re ready to use them. Crushing is easy to do by just rubbing them between your palms, although it does make a little bit of a mess. There’s always a dusting of green bits on the counter when I’ve been using dried herbs. This can be avoided by crushing and measuring them over a plate. Compost any stems or stringy bits that refuse to crush. Measure after crushing.
A lot of people argue that drying basil is a waste of an herb. I disagree. Dried basil is very different from fresh basil, but it adds a richness of flavor and depth to some recipes, such as quiche, that I’ve found I don’t want to be without. For some reason, my home-dried basil is always tough, but this is a small price to pay for its usefulness in cooking.
Thyme goes in practically everything, in my opinion. I like it in vegetable pot pie, soups, and in dishes with a lot of onions or potatoes. It is also excellent with tomatoes, corn, sharp cheddar and on toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches. I like it best fresh, and it is evergreen, but I also dry a winter supply, for convenience.
Winter savory is a bit similar to thyme, although it has bigger, tougher leaves.
Sage can be used either fresh or dried as well. Obviously good in stuffing — and not just at Thanksgiving — it also goes well with squash and onions.
Seasoning, or cutting celery, is an interesting and handy little herb to have around; it delivers celery flavor, without the big, crunchy stalks, and can be grown in a pot. It looks sort of like parsley. Regular celery is preferable for its crunch, but more difficult to grow.
Rosemary is wonderful but should be used sparingly. It’s delicious minced and sprinkled over pizza dough that has been brushed with olive oil and crushed garlic. Add some coarse salt, bake, and you have a wonderful dinner bread (recipe from The Italian Vegetarian, by Jack Bishop). A little bit of rosemary, fresh or dried, adds a nice sweetness to pizza sauce that is very good.
Another book, the Italian Farmhouse Cookbook, by Susan Herrmann Loomis, offers a spectacular recipe for rosemary lemon garlic salt. Combine garlic, lemon zest and minced fresh rosemary with coarse salt; store in the refrigerator. Use on everything. Or at least on your garlic toast.
Oregano, most often used dried, goes in spaghetti sauce and minestrone, of course, but it’s also good sprinkled over sandwiches and pizza. Fresh oregano, minced, is delicious in summer salads, sprinkled over tomatoes, and on toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches. It is also good anywhere you’d use dried oregano.
When substituting fresh herbs for dried — or vice versa — the general rule is that you use more of the fresh herb.
Both parsley and fresh mint also are very good minced in green salads; so is basil.
Plant a lot of parsley; it is always useful to have on hand. If you plant root parsley it makes a good winter root vegetable crop, tasting sort of like a cross between parsley and carrot. Parsley is best planted in cool weather; so is cilantro. If your cilantro bolts when hot weather hits, you can harvest fragrant, lemony coriander seeds.
Dried herbs are useful, but herb ice cubes are another handy option that preserves the fresh flavor. Make them to keep a summer supply of cilantro and chives, a winter supply of basil, and to guard against loss should a hard freeze kill off your overwintering parsley. Put fresh herbs in a blender with a bit of water, puree, pour it into ice cube molds and freeze. Transfer the frozen cubes to a freezer container or bag, and melt one or two whenever you need some of the minced herb.
The thawed basil cubes make a good winter vinaigrette. Parsley would, too.
Chives are nice to have on hand, for adding delicate little bits of oniony flavor to things — fried eggs, mashed potatoes, green salad. Unless they are garlic chives, in which case they will be little bits of garlickyness. The flowers are pretty little purple balls, and are edible. Chives tend to die after blooming, but will usually reseed themselves.
Tarragon is another excellent culinary herb. Its slightly licorice flavor goes with eggs, fish, and in vinegar. Make vinaigrette out of the vinegar. To grow, buy cuttings, not seeds. It dies back in winter, but is not typically dried, because it loses flavor. To preserve a winter supply, you can make tarragon salt. Mince the fresh herb, add one part salt to four to six parts herb. Mix together and store in the refrigerator; it keeps for months.
Do this with basil, too; it preserves the fresh herb flavor. I like to saute kale in olive oil to put on pizza. Add some crushed or minced garlic, and when the kale is wilted, stir in either some basil salt or a basil ice cube, with salt and pepper. (If you use the basil salt, it probably doesn’t need more salt.) If it’s summer, of course, just use fresh basil.
If you haven’t spent much time playing with herbs, try one or two — or 10. From culinary uses it’s a short step to herb tea, and soon there’s no looking back. Your garden will be a fragrant, herbal delight.
Nicole Montesano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.