For many years I didnít realize the virtues of fresh herbs, and until a few years ago, I didnít know the joys of growing my own array of herbs. My endearing husband built a large planter out of old shelves, and I gleefully filled it with cilantro, Mexican oregano, chives and rosemary. The cilantro died within the week, the chives followed soon after, the rosemary shot up to an astounding two feet, and the oregano was, wellÖperfect. Or perhaps delicious would better describe it. I never cooked with Mexican oregano before, and instantly became enamored with its spicy taste and aroma. Fresh oregano found its way into all my dishes, and Iím sure my family came to wish it had followed in the path of the chives.
Despite my less than tremendous success with herb gardening in the past, I have high hopes for this summer. Cilantro found its way into the flower bed, and has graciously volunteered 3-4 plants the past few years. I bought several packets of basil, cumin, epazote, and lavender. Iíve given up on the chives, and realized we donít use rosemary enough to grow it again. But the Mexican oregano is a keeper. Hopefully my hopes can out-last an ambitious five year old, and a slightly forgetful gardener like me.
I know my high hopes will expand into culinary inspiration, as I see my herb garden growing. The flavors of fresh herbs are bolder then dried herbs, and contain nutrients that were lost in the drying process. Fresh can replace dried in any recipe. Simply substitute 1 Tb fresh for 1 tsp dried herbs. I added fresh basil to a cabbage slaw recipe the other day (a very un-Pa Dutch thing to do), and was pleasantly surprised with the results. This morning, it appeared in my sonís scrambled eggs. He loved the eggs, and I loved the extra vitamins he was getting from the basil.
Fresh herbs have always played an important role in cooking and life. In the Middle Ages, mint was added to drinking water that had turned stale. In the pioneer days, herb gardens were planted close to the house. Dutch settlers even planted chives in their cow pastures to flavor the milk.
Herbs are classified into four categories: culinary, aromatic, ornamental, and medicinal.
Gardeners with a slightly greener thumb then I, fill their herb plots with varieties from all four categories.
Basil, dill, anise, and coriander are all annuals. They bloom and die in one season. Biennials are plants that live two seasons, blooming in the second season. Parsley and caraway are biennials. Plants that grow and bloom every season are perennials. Chives, mint, marjoram, fennel, thyme, and tarragon are in this category
Starting an herb garden isnít difficult. Plant different herbs in 12 x 18 inch plots, or in planters with a good drainage system. Herbs will not grow in wet soil. Mint is a voracious grower, so keep it confined in a well-draining pot.
Whenever I buy a bunch of cilantro from the supermarket, it always withers or becomes slimy before I can use all of it. With it planted in my garden, I can snip the exact amount I need and not worry about using it before the slime monster attacks.
These two recipes add life to bread, bagels, corn on the cob, and meats. You can also try adding fresh herbs to biscuits, lettuce and pasta salads , potatoes, roasted chicken or fish, veggies, and even scrambled eggs (yes, it works!).
Herb Butter Roll
1/2 pound unsalted butter, softened
2 Tbs plus 2 tsp fresh herbs, minced (try chives and parsley)
1 Tb plus 1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
Mix the ingredients until evenly combined. Lay out a 1 foot piece of plastic wrap. Put the butter in the bottom center of the wrap, in a mound about 8 inches long. Wrap the butter, to form a tube about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Twist the ends. Refrigerate until firm or freeze up to 1 month. Sliced as needed.
Herb Cream Cheese
2 (8-ounce) packages of cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup fresh basil, minced
1/4 cup fresh chives, minced
2 Tbs fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced
Combine all ingredients until the herbs are evenly incorporated. Serve with toasted bagels.