For those cooks who pine for the spontaneity of pinching off a sprig of oregano or basil leaf, consider this: Grow your own.
I know, I know. You planted them a while back in the harsh sun, forgot to water them, and they disappeared into the earth. That happens when you neglect any plant, and especially the more delicate ones.
Think of herbs as you would puppies, said Paige Pelini, co-owner of Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis, especially if you’re growing them in pots, where they need attention every day. In the ground, they’re more self-sufficient, but they still need an inch of water a week. That’s not a lot of effort for plants that have such an impact on dinner.
There’s not much more to growing them than that. Really. Pelini and Bonnie Dehn of Dehn’s Garden in Andover, Minn., offer their tips on putting together a kitchen garden of herbs.
The basic four
Plant only a few herbs until you are comfortable with the results. A typical starter kit includes parsley, basil, chives and mint. For parsley, you have two options: the curly variety, its familiar wave a garnish on many restaurant plates, and the Italian flat-leaf that’s more often used in cooking. Whichever your preference, don’t relegate it to a bit part on the menu. Toss it in salads. Add it to soups. Experiment.
For basil, the choices of variety are plentiful. The traditional leaves found in the produce aisle are for Italian basil, the type used to make pesto. Toss those leaves into salads, too (use as you would spinach). Once you’ve tried the traditional leaf, branch out to other basils: cinnamon, for example, one of Dehn’s favorites. “I pick off the blooms and use them for potpourri. I use the leaves with chicken and fish, as well as turkey and pasta salads.”
Pelini uses chives as a quick pick-me-up on a dish. Dehn reaches for them daily, sprinkling them everywhere, from baked potatoes to casseroles. “Remember those little blooms – the flowers are edible, even the buds, which taste like an onion-flavored mushroom. Saute the buds or put them on a shish kebab,” she noted.
You can’t have a mojito without mint, which is also terrific to drop into lemonade or iced tea. “Bruise” the leaves so they give up their flavor. Use a muddler when the leaves are for cocktails, or stir firmly with a spoon. Be sure to grow mint in a pot and not in the garden itself. “Mint doesn’t play nicely with others,” said Pelini about the herb’s tendency to take over.
More to plant
Confident about your ability to grow herbs? Go beyond the basics. Pelini loves thyme. “Fresh thyme is so completely different from dried, and there are so many options, like lime thyme and lemon thyme.”
What would potato salad – or salmon or deviled eggs – be without fresh dill?
Then there’s cilantro, the three-in-one herb that can be planted weekly. “You need successive plantings of seeds because you harvest the whole bundle. Cut it off at the ground and plant another handful of seeds,” said Pelini. Fresh cilantro has a lemony flavor. “But as soon as it starts to get feathery, it’s coriander and it’s a much more pungent and soapier flavor, good for Thai and African cooking, but not the Southwest cooking that we associate so often with it. When it goes to seed, there’s anise flavor in the seeds, used in sausage,” Dehn said.
Oregano is hard to find fresh and worth growing if you use it in your cooking.
Then there’s rosemary, in some ways the grande dame of the herb garden. “People love rosemary,” Pelini said. The plant is not winter-hardy and will need to come inside when the temperatures drop. Dehn reminds cooks to leave the stems intact on the plant and pick only the leaves. “I put a dozen leaves in pasta water. I use it instead of salt. It flavors the pasta; even tuna noodle salad will taste wonderful,” Dehn said.
Tips for cooks
• Most herbs can be stored in the refrigerator, but not basil. Keep it in a glass of water or plastic bag in a darkened corner of your kitchen.
• Always wash herbs before you use them. “You never know where the neighbor’s dog was,” Dehn said.
• When cooking with fresh herbs, you will use three times more than if the herb is dried.
• To preserve the herbs for cooking throughout winter, dry them with a dehydrator and store in an airtight container, away from light or heat. Or freeze the herbs. Pelini doesn’t freeze any herbs in water. She prefers to flash freeze most, such as dill, then crumbles it into a container. Or for basil she blends it in a food processor and freezes it in blobs before putting them in a plastic bag or container. Dehn stores her frozen herbs in double-wrapped plastic, “filed” in a very large Tupperware container to keep track of them in a chest freezer.
See you at the garden center.
How to plant herbs
Forget the 2-inch pots that come with kits, says Bonnie Dehn. Use at least a 5-inch pot or larger. Try planting four kitchen herbs in a single big pot. You’ll need at least 2 gallons of dirt, preferably good potting soil (more soil, less peat moss and vermiculite). The herbs need good nutrition, too, and that means fertilizing them, preferably organically.