Nothing gives a dish more pop than a sprinkle of fresh herbs. They can elevate pedestrian potatoes or pastas to the sublime, make for a melody of flavors and aromas in soups to desserts and turn the simplest ingredients into something sensational.
Think cucumbers paired with dill and chives, ribbons of basil over heirloom tomatoes, spears of rosemary infusing grilled meats, mint and stevia leaves flavoring your iced tea.
They're so easy to grow, your journey to culinary inventiveness can be just a step outside your kitchen door.
Many herbs lend themselves to container culture, as long as they have plenty of sunshine. "They are some of the easiest plants to grow at home in a small space," says Sean Cavanaugh, chef at John J. Jeffries restaurant in Lancaster.
Kathy Musser of Cloverleaf Herb Farm in Mount Joy agrees. "Even if you live in an apartment, you can have an herb garden on a deck or balcony," she says. "Herbs are very adaptable as long as you have six hours of sunshine and well-drained soil."
Musser suggests those with space constraints tuck several herbs into one large container. "Keep it close to the kitchen where you're more likely to use them," she says.
For those with more space, Musser advises pairing herbs with vegetables so that your tomatoes and basil are all in one place. Or consider putting them in front of your ornamental borders.
As for what to plant, Susanna Reppert-Brill, owner of The Rosemary House herb shop in Mechanicsburg, suggests starting with your favorite recipes. "Look at what you're already eating and using, then go from there," she says. "If you like Italian herbs on things like pizza, grow basil, thyme, oregano and rosemary. If you like Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine, grow lots of parsley and chives. If you love Thai cooking, toss in lemon grass and ginger."
Tina Sams, editor of The Essential Herbalist, believes if you're going to plant only one herb, it should be basil. Brill agrees: "I couldn't be without basil, even if you have to plant it every year."
In our region, some perennial herbs such as chives will overwinter, offering a harvest from March to December. Others are more tender, like rosemary. "It's tricky to overwinter in Central Pennsylvania," says Brill. "I'll bring it indoors, where it sulks and eventually dies. But the upside is that it grows quickly, so I just treat it like an annual."
Musser is a fan of thyme and mint, as long as the vigorous mint is held in check in its own container. But she suggests that more people try growing both the summer and winter varieties of savory.
Nicknamed the "bean herb," summer savory enhances the flavor of fresh beans with a taste similar to a combination of mint and rosemary, while the more pungent, peppery winter savory is a good match for dried beans and lentils.
For a cucumber taste, without "the peptic effect," Brill suggests growing salad burnet. "That's something you have to grow, you can't find it bottled up in a jar," she says. "I use it on sandwiches, salads, vegetable soup, to get the cucumber flavor without seeds." The young leaves have the best flavor and can also give a cool flavor to iced drinks.
Brill also suggests growing lovage, not only to create tall garden interest, but also for its celery and parsley flavor. "In the heat of the summer it can get bitter, but it's great in the spring and the fall."
Sams likes the cucumber flavor of borage, which enhances salads and chilled soups as well as summer drinks. The blue flowers are also a pretty addition to salads (milder than the peppery nasturtiums) and can be candied.
For those who like herbs that bite back, Sams says horseradish is essential. Named the Herb of the Year by the International Herb Association, it's grown primarily for its pungent roots, but the tender young greens can add kick to a salad.
More popular in scenting sachets, lavender also has culinary uses. Sams suggests searching out "smaller, sweeter varieties like Munstead or Hidcote that are more delicate. The Provence varieties are too camphor for cooking."
Sams uses herbs in just about all of her cooking, and not just because they taste great and give her a nutritional boost. "I never eat anything pale like pasta or rice without something green. I just can't have that expanse of white," she says.
It's that appeal to all of the senses that makes chefs such fans, imparting the simplest dishes with intense flavors and aromas. "Fresh herbs make it easy to change the complexity of the dish," says Cavanaugh. "Ground lamb, for example, can be made into two very different meals by using two different sets of fresh herbs."
Carol Herr of Sassafras Farms in Willow Street enjoys substituting herbs in favorite dishes to create completely new flavors. "If you go to a lot of covered-dish events, you can just take the same recipe and keep changing the herbs to have completely different dishes," she says.
Herr suggests tasting herbs before putting them in a dish, savoring their flavors and allowing them to inspire meals. "The flavor can be very different if you're only used to using dried herbs," she says, adding that fresh herbs have a melody of subtle and sophisticated notes. "Take tarragon for example; you just can't compare the two." Fresh herbs add a "green" taste to cooking that is lost in the preserving process.
Those who love fresh herbs go through withdrawal in the wintertime when snow cover prevents frequent snipping. "We do some drying and freezing, but then they're no longer pretty," says Brill. "We use them in stews and pot roasts then."
Sams also preserves some garden herbs for wintertime use, "but they're really not as good." Freezing pesto in ice cube trays is a tradition when frost threatens the last of the tender crop. Other hardier herbs may still produce through the winter holidays.
"In the winter, I use fresh until they're completely done, then I do without," says Sams. "So that when spring comes, it's yahoo!"
recipes to go!
Thyme Chicken Nuggets
6 whole chicken breasts, boneless
2 cups finely ground bread crumbs
1 cup Parmesan cheese
1½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon each, thyme, savory, parsley
½ teaspoon each, marjoram, chives
1 cup butter, melted
Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut chicken into nuggets (approximately 5 pieces per chicken breast). Combine bread crumbs, cheese, salt and herbs. Dip chicken into melted butter and then coat with herbed bread crumbs. Place on baking sheet sprayed with non-stick cooking spray and bake for 20 minutes or until done. These are very easy to prepare and produce a moist, tender chicken nugget.
Recipe courtesy Susanna Reppert-Brill, The Rosemary House
Dijon Roasted Potatoes
⅓ cup oil
¼ cup Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
½ to 1 Tablespoon fresh-chopped rosemary
Combine ingredients, pour over pan of small new potatoes or potatoes cut into chunks. Toss. Roast at 400°F for an hour.
Recipe courtesy Kathy Musser, Cloverleaf Herb Farm
Herb Garden Muffins
1 cup flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
¼ cup sugar
1 Tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon rosemary, fresh
1 Tablespoon sage, fresh
1 Tablespoon lovage, fresh
¼ cup oil
1 cup milk
Mix flour, whole-wheat flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Chop the fresh herbs until fine and add to dry ingredients. In a small bowl, mix oil, slightly beaten egg and milk. Combine liquid ingredients until just blended. Batter will be lumpy. Pour into prepared muffin tins. Bake at 400°F for 20-25 minutes. Yields 12 muffins. Enjoy while they are still warm.
Recipe courtesy Susanna Reppert-Brill, The Rosemary House
Cucumber Lime Salsa
1 or 2 Tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup finely chopped onion (I like spring onions, but Vidalia are great too)
1 lime — zest and juice
2 medium cucumbers
¼ cup chopped cilantro (a smaller amount of flat parsley would probably work if you don't like cilantro)
A couple shakes of Tabasco (optional)
Crushed garlic (optional)
Add the chopped onion and cilantro to the oil. If using Tabasco and/or garlic, mix that in, too. Zest lime into the mix. Cut the lime in half, and pierce each section with a knife to get out lots of juice. Add juice to oil blend. Peel and core the cucumbers. Chop as finely as possible. Do not use a food processor. Chill to blend flavors and serve with chips.
Recipe courtesy Tina Sams, The Essential Herbalist
Mint Bean Salad
3 cups green beans
3 cups yellow beans
1 red onion, diced
½ cup chopped mint
⅓ cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Break the beans into bite-sized pieces. Blanch for 5 minutes. Add onion and mint. Dress with olive oil and lemon. Serve hot or cold. Change the recipe by exchanging different herbs for the mint.
Recipe courtesy Carol Herr of Sassafras Farms
2 packages (10 each) refrigerated biscuits
¼ cup pesto
½ cup shredded mozzarella
1 beaten egg white
Bacon, ham, pepperoni (optional)
Separate the biscuits. On a lightly floured surface, flatten each biscuit into a 4" circle with your hand. Spread ½ teaspoon pesto on half of each circle to within ½" of the edge. Use half the cheese to sprinkle over the pesto on each circle. Brush edges with egg white. Fold plain half of each over the filling. With tines of fork, seal edges together. Prick top once with fork. Transfer pockets to a greased baking sheet. Brush tops with egg white. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake at 400°F for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden. Serve warm. Makes 20.
¾ cup basil leaves
2 cloves crushed garlic
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tablespoon pine nuts (or walnuts)
¼ cup olive oil
Purée all ingredients together in food processor.
Fresh Herb Dip for Crudités
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup sour cream
Up to ½ cup snipped and chopped fresh herbs
I use whatever is out there. For this gathering, which included sage, purple basil, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, holy basil, oregano, chives and parsley, I added caraway seed and dehydrated onion.
Fennel and Orange Salad
3 Tablespoons orange juice
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups packed baby arugula
1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
3 large navel oranges, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
⅓ cup sliced almonds, toasted
Blend first 4 ingredients to make a dressing.
Arrange arugula on 4 plates. Toss together fennel, orange slices, onion and dressing. Spoon over arugula and sprinkle with toasted almonds.
Recipes courtesy Tina Sams, The Essential Herbalist
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