I’ve grown fresh herbs for the last 25 years and each spring it’s a right of passage to go to the nursery and get the annuals in the ground. I know that in just a few weeks I will have an abundance of goodness right outside the kitchen door. There really is nothing quite like fresh herbs. They add a bright freshness to your summer dishes that you just can’t get any other way. All summer long I will be posting recipes that use fresh herbs, so as we go along you will see what I use them in, how I cook with them and how I care for them to keep them producing all summer long. I hope you will join me on this journey and plant some of your own, they’re easy and oh so wonderful.
First things first, if your not a big gardener and the thought of trying to grow something scares you, fear not, herbs are nothing more than weeds. The silly things grow like crazy with little more than a daily dose of water. Some are perennial and come back every year and some are annual and you have to plant new ones each spring because they don’t survive the winter. It just depends on where you live and what the climate is like. I live in St Louis, so keep in mind that if you live in a warmer climate your results will be different than mine. For instance cilantro just doesn’t grow in our climate, it bolts too early (goes to seed) and once it does, it’s done and it wont come back. I tried it one year and have never wasted my time on it again. I just buy it at the store when I need it. If you can, put them in the ground, they do so much better that way and the perennials come back, if you plant them in pots the perennials don’t come back because they freeze in the pots over the winter. Then there are the perennials that I plant in pots on purpose because if you don’t they will take over everything, and I mean Everything. Mint and Lemon Balm are the two that come to mind.
Fresh herbs come in two basic categories, Soft and Woody. Soft herbs are basil, chives, parsley, tarragon, and dill. They have soft stalks and when you cook with them you want to add them at the very end of the cooking process or they’ll loose their punch. Woody herbs are oregano, thyme, rosemary, and sage. They have woody stalks and when you cook with them you can add them during the cooking process because they stand up to the heat without loosing their flavor.
So, you ask, what’s in my garden? Here is the list. I’ll start with the perennials first.
Chives: This is the first herb to come up in my garden each spring, about mid March it will start to sprout. By mid May it has bloomed and gotten heavy. I cut it back to the ground yesterday and within a few weeks I will have a new crop. Chives have a very delicate oniony flavor and they are great in scrambled eggs, on baked potatoes, in salads and pastas.
Tarragon: This is the next one to come up and it grows like crazy. Right now mine is about 3 feet tall. I will probably cut it back to the ground at least 3 times this summer and it will grow back. To me fresh tarragon tastes like grass. It doesn’t have much flavor so I don’t really use it that much except for light pastas and risotto. However when I cut it back I give it a good rinse, pull the leaves off the stalks and spread it out on a baking sheet in a 250 degree oven for an hour or so until it’s dried and use it all winter. Dried tarragon is one of my favorites, with a slight licorice flavor I use it in all kinds of things, from chicken dishes to bernaise sauce. Much cheaper than buying it in the store.
Oregano: Oregano comes up about the same time as the tarragon. It will have died back during the winter and have lots of dried brown stalks left, when I start to see green I cut them back and let it go to town. By mid June it will have bolted and gone to seed. I just cut back the buds and dry them as I did the tarragon and use them all winter. It will regrow and you will have fresh oregano until mid October. I use fresh oregano in pasta dishes and in a Mediterranean tomato salad.
Thyme: My thyme is just now coming back, it will bloom and then you will get lots of new stalks to use so just let it go. I went out this morning and cut back the brown stalks that showed no sign of new life. Don’t get over zealous and don’t do this until you have a good crop of blooms or you will cut back on what regrows. Some years I have thyme that is still green and usable in January if we don’t get a deep freeze. It’s wonderful with roast chicken, and in soups and stews.
Sage: My sage plant went crazy last year, I swear it was 3′ in diameter. I whacked it back to the ground a couple of weeks ago and it’s already a foot tall. Sage is wonderful in pasta dishes and sauces and what would Thanksgiving be without fresh sage in the dressing. Just remember that sage can be bitter and a little bit goes a long way so use sparingly. I will have fresh sage that is still green enough to use until mid December most years.
Rosemary: I put this under perennials because sometime it comes back for a year or two and sometimes it doesn’t. It just depends on how cold it got that winter. This year I had to replant. I just love rosemary, it’s my Mom’s secret ingredient in Vegetable Beef Soup and her Thanksgiving dressing. It’s wonderful with both beef and chicken when roasting and I always use it in roasted or fried potatoes.
Basil: Can you have too much Basil? I don’t think so. I always plant several different kinds. My favorites are Sweet Basil, Thai Basil, and Lemon Basil. The Thai Basil has a somewhat licorice flavor to it and it’s great with Asian cuisine, the Lemon Basil has the softest lemon flavor to it, it gives that hit of lemon without the harsh citric tones. Great in pasta and risotto. And then there is the old standby Sweet Basil, perfect for caprese salad, you name I’ll put it in it. The more you cut back and use your basil the more it grows and the bushier it gets. I cut mine for a salad 2 days after I planted it. Just cut right above where the leaves are on the stalk and it will multiply. It will also go to seed and get buds on it. You need to pinch these off or it will die back. Most people throw these away, DON’T! They’re where all the really good flavor is. Pull them off the stalk and add them to a baked potato like you would chives. They are an explosion of flavor, my favorite way to eat a baked potato. If they get really out of hand pull them off the stalk and pop them in a 250 degree oven for an hour or so until dry and you can use them all winter. You can also use the buds during the cooking process like you would a woody herb, so they are great in pasta sauces.
Dill: Again, the more you cut it and use it the more it grows. I use it in salad, eggs salad/deviled eggs, lemon dill sauce for chicken or fish. it’s just wonderful.
Parsley: I prefer the flat leaf to the curly and I always plant two bunches. It adds a great crispness to a green salad, makes a wonderful garnish to finish off a light pasta or a great chimichurri.
Then there’s my all time favorite tabouli salad, you have to have lots of parsley for that.
Mint: I put this under annuals even though it’s perennial because it’s the one I plant in a pot and it wont come back. You really don’t want to put this in the ground, it will take over everything. I still have nightmares about it from the first house I had an herb garden in. I learned my lesson, never again. Mint is great in Mediterranean salads and with fresh fruit and berries. Don’t forget the Mojitos and Mint Juleps for Derby Day. It’s worth planting.
There you have it, my herb garden. I can’t wait to get cooking.