Technically, the word Herb means a plant that isn’t woody. In other words, when you snap a branch of it, it makes a juicy “crunch” sound rather than a dry “crack” sound. Most of us have different associations with the word, though. To some people the word brings thoughts of ancient healers using medicinal plants in carefully blended concoctions, in days long before the discovery of modern pharmaceuticals. To others it brings visions of sunny gardens of colorful foliage and flowers, buzzing with bees, flowing with fragrance. To me, “herb” brings thoughts of wonderful flavors in food. I like to cook and I like to grow plants and the two come together in culinary herbs.
Basics of Growing Herbs
Annual herbs include basil, cilantro and dill.
Biennial herbs include parsley and chervil.
Most other common herbs, like sage, thyme, chives, rosemary, oregano and mint are perennial. Tarragon and marjoram are supposed to be perennial, but aren’t completely reliable.
All need full sun if possible. Rosemary, mint and chives have handled ½ shade in my garden.
All need good drainage. Mint can take the wettest conditions.
Some handle drought well, thyme, rosemary, lavender, oregano, and sage in particular. Annual herbs don’t want drought.
Perennial herbs need very little fertilizer. A handful of an organic all-purpose twice a year is adequate.
Annual and biennial herbs need a little more feed, like the Proven Winners time- release, or biweekly applications of an organic blend.
Some perennial herbs are aggressive. Watch out for catnip, mint, and oregano. Don’t plant these in containers with other kinds of plants. You can contain them in a pot alone so they don’t spread too far in the garden.
Herbs in containers need a nice big pot, or not too many plants in a smaller pot.
Herbs don’t do well on a windowsill inside in the winter, but that will get you through if you have no alternative.
Tender, fairly young leaves are the best, but you can use hard old leaves in winter if you need to.
Herb flowers are a nice edible garnish, but mostly flavorless.
When herbs that have a heavy blooming of small flowers all over the tops, like thyme, are in bloom, try to cut down below those to get at the foliage you want, and throw the flowers away.
Cut whole plant back about 1/3 of the way when it’s done blooming to push new growth and keep size down. Or never permit it to bloom in the first place by cutting hard as buds form. Dry the cuttings for winter use.
Annuals like basil need to be cut frequently even if you don’t need it right then. You can dry the excess, or make pesto and freeze it for winter.
Annuals like cilantro and dill can be sown, or young plants transplanted, in successive crops a month apart. This keeps fresh plants coming on as older ones go to seed.
Dry herbs by spreading out leaves on paper or a cookie-cooling rack, or hanging branches in loose bunches out of direct sun for several days. Pack when crumbly-dry into containers with tightly-sealing lids, or into zip-lock bags.
Classic Herb Combinations
Some flavors are just made to go together. These are some time-honored pairings you’re probably familiar with.
Basil with tomatoes – Viva Italia!
Rosemary with lamb Garlic is considered by many to be essential in these first two combinations.
Dill with fish
Fennel fronds with fish
Sage with beans (dried type, not green) Garlic, too, again
Sage with poultry – think Thanksgiving stuffing
Tarragon with lemon, on anything – fish, poultry, vegetables. It’s perfect on asparagus.
Cilantro with lime on fish or poultry This combination is standard in both Thai and Mexican cooking.
Mint with new peas or new potatoes
Thyme and parsley are so versatile that there isn’t even a standard use for them – they can go into anything. They can be added to any of the above classic blends, except maybe the cilantro/lime blend, and round out the flavors, rather than detracting from them.
My own odd discoveries include:
Tarragon with sesame oil, a weird European/Asian fusion that works very well on fish, in salad dressings and on cooked vegetables.
Rosemary with honey, that’s good in cream cheese spreads, cheese cakes, salad dressings.
New Potatoes with Herbs and Garlic
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp chopped fresh sage
2 tsp minced fresh rosemary
2 tsp chopped garlic
1 lb small red skinned potatoes
¼ cup (or more) water
¼ cup minced fresh parsley
Heat 1 Tbsp oil in heavy medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add sage, rosemary, garlic, sauté until garlic is tender, about 2 minutes. Add potatoes and ¼ cup water. Reduce heat to medium. Cover pan; cook potatoes until just tender, stirring occasionally and adding water by tablespoonfuls if potatoes are dry, about 30 minutes. Add parsley and 1 Tbsp oil and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to bowl and serve.
Broiled Tarragon Chicken
4 Tbsp melted butter
4 Tbsp olive oil or other salad oil
4 Tbsp minced fresh tarragon
1 tsp salt
juice of 2 small lemons
¼ cup dry white wine
2 broiler-fryer chickens, 21/2 lb each
Preheat broiler. Combine butter, oil, tarragon, salt, lemon and wine. Dry the chicken pieces and coat with tarragon mixture.
Broil, with skin away from heat, about 6 inches from heat for 20 minutes. Baste after 10 min. Turn the chicken and broil another 20 min., basting halfway through cooking time. Transfer chicken to a warm platter. Add any remaining basting sauce to the pan juices, and heat, stirring and scraping up the browned bits in the pan. Spoon the sauce over the chicken. Garnish the chicken platter with lemon wedges and sprigs of tarragon.
A Good Version of Pesto
2 cups fresh, cleaned basil leaves
4 cloves garlic
½ cup pine nuts or walnuts
½ – 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Combine garlic and nuts in food processor and chop. Add basil and process until leaves are finely chopped. Leave the motor running and add oil in a slow, steady stream until you’ve reached the desired consistency and calorie count. I usually use much less than the 1 cup listed in most recipes. Turn off processor and add cheese, salt and pepper. Process briefly and check seasonings. Add in a little more oil if needed to thin after cheese addition.
Cover immediately with plastic wrap pressed down onto the surface to help prevent browning.
When using pesto, never actually cook it, just toss it into warm pasta, soup, rice, etc. just before serving.
Chilled Sorrel Tarragon Soup
Makes 7 cups
1 cup butter
2 large onions, halved crosswise and thinly sliced
5 cloves garlic, crushed
12 cups, tightly packed, fresh sorrel leaves, rinsed and trimmed
4 cups chicken broth
1 medium potato, peeled and cut into 6 pieces
1 cup loosely packed chopped flatleaf Italian parsley
1 Tbs fresh lemon juice
2 Tbs chopped fresh tarragon
1 tsp mace
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
In a heavy soup pot, melt butter over low heat. Add onions and garlic, cover, and cook 15 min, stirring occasionally.
Add the sorrel, stir well, and cook, covered for 5 min.
Add all the remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 50 min.
Process the mixture, in small batches, in a food processor until smooth. Transfer the soup to a bowl and cool. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, 4 hrs.
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