Growing Your Own Fresh Herbs
The desire for healthier, better tasting food, culinary sophistication and globalization have all conspired to bless us with a burgeoning selection of herbs in the supermarket — a cause for celebration. Happily, a similarly large selection of seeds and seedlings are also available at nurseries and garden centers for those who want the utmost in flavor and nutrition.
Fresh is always better than the alternative, and this is especially true when it comes to culinary herbs. Herbs growing in a windowsill pot or back-door garden provide you with much more flavor and healthful nutrients than dried or pre-packaged herbs.
Growing Your Own
In an age when convenience in the kitchen is so highly valued, why should anyone take the time and trouble to grow their own herbs? Because growing your own is actually the ultimate in convenience — not to mention flavor — when it comes to cooking.
The perception that growing your own culinary herbs requires excessive amounts of time, energy and arcane knowledge is simply not true. Starting a small windowsill herb garden, for example, is as easy as buying seedlings at a garden center, putting them in a flower pot or planter and watering occasionally. Buying seeds and starting them yourself is only slightly more taxing and, of course, you'll have to wait longer to see results. And don't forget that buying seeds or seedlings is much cheaper and less wasteful than buying a bundle of cut herbs when all you need is a sprig or two.
A larger herb garden outside your kitchen door will obviously require a greater commitment of time, labor and attention but regardless of how simple or elaborate your planting, the true reward is the convenience of always having fresh herbs available to enhance your cooking. And freshly cut home-grown herbs add vigorous aroma and zesty flavor to dishes that dried or store-bought herbs cannot match. How much better does a sprig of fresh basil taste compared to dried? A lot. So much so that you may never buy dried basil again.
In addition to flavor, fresh herbs pack much more nutritional power. Drying herbs not only reduces the volatile oils responsible for flavor and aroma, but also diminishes the antioxidants and other nutrients that many herbs have a reputation for. Freeze-drying, a fairly recent innovation, retains slightly more nutrients and flavor than traditional methods but still cannot compete with fresh.
Finally, there is much to be said for the pleasure and pride of cooking with ingredients that you have grown yourself. You know exactly where it comes from and it satisfies the ancient urges for self-sufficiency and contact with the earth that, though mostly dormant in this age of convenience, still stirs.
What to grow?
The size of your garden (or windowsill) will determine how many herbs you can grow, and your personal tastes and diet will influence the types. If space is limited, it makes sense to restrict your choices to those herbs that are affected most adversely by drying. They include:
Basil — commonly used in savory dishes, including poultry, fish, eggs and tomato-based pastas and pizzas. Dwarf bush basil (Ocimum minimum), which matures at less than one foot in height, is recommended for indoor planting. It grows easily from seed or cuttings. Stems may be cut from the plant and placed in water on the dining table for the ultimate in freshness as a garnish or to flavor dishes however your guests desire.
Borage — adds cucumber flavor to soups, sauces and salads. There is no alternative to fresh borage since drying completely obliterates its flavor. The edible blue flowers are lovely when floated in drinks or used as garnish. It's easily grown from seed or seedlings.
Burnet — another cucumber-flavored herb that does not dry well. Its delicate flavor is sensational in salads. Use the young leaves because older ones can be bitter. Grows easily from seed.
Chervil — similar to parsley in use and complements seafood, poultry, veal and eggs as well as many vegetables, including asparagus, beets, carrots, and potatoes. Chervil grows readily from seed to about two feet tall outdoors and requires some shade to prevent the leaves from becoming purple and tough.
Chives — belonging to the onion family both in flavor and in botany and useful in dishes that require a more subtle and delicate onion flavor. Garlic chives is a type preferred by many cooks. Add freshly cut leaves at the last moment to omelets and soups. Two or three bulbs in a flower pot will yield a cluster about 8 to 10 inches high. Trim the tougher flowering stems low to prevent seeding.
Cilantro — the leaf of the coriander plant which also produces the seed associated with curry, pickles and sausage. Heat destroys its aroma so use only the leaves as a garnish or at the very end of hot food preparation. Popular as a salsa ingredient, its slightly soapy taste is loved by some and hated by others. It grows from either seed or seedlings to about 12 to 18 inches in height.
Marjoram — a species of oregano with a mild floral, green flavor commonly used in stews, tomato-based dishes and finely chopped in salads. It also complements pork, chicken and eggs and works well as a component in herb blends. Grows to about one foot high from seedlings.
Mint — varieties number in the hundreds but are somewhat crudely divided into two groups: spearmint and peppermint. The leaves of peppermint dry well so spearmint is the common choice for planting. Mint complements lighter meats such as chicken, pork, veal and, of course, lamb, but also goes well with many vegetables, including carrots, potatoes, eggplant, peas and tomatoes. Mint is an invasive perennial easily reproduced from root cuttings. Corsican mint is a miniature variety resembling moss and a good choice for small planting areas or pots.
Parsley — consists of two major types: curly and flat-leaf, also known as Italian parsley. The flat-leaf's richer flavor and ability to stand up to cooking makes it popular with many cooks. Parsley has the ability to cancel out garlic and onion odors. Grow from seed by soaking in water for 24 hours, then place the seed about 1/4-inch deep in rich soil and water frequently. Grows to about one foot in height.
Summer Savory — a versatile herb with a peppery yet delicate flavor that is lost when dried. It's commonly used with green beans and in stuffings but also complements roasted meats, fatty fish, potatoes and lentils. Grows easily from seed to about 18 inches. Winter savory's more assertive resinous flavor survives drying slightly better but if you have the space, plant some of it, too!
Tarragon — essential to Béarnaise sauce, its anise flavor also complements eggs, poultry, mushrooms and tomatoes. It is usually grown from cuttings and sold as seedlings in nurseries because the plant does not set seeds readily. French tarragon is the preferred plant and, if grown outside, will last for years and get quite large. Avoid Russian tarragon for culinary use because it has a harsh, unpleasant flavor.
Herbs that are less affected by drying (but are still preferred fresh) include bay leaves, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme. All may be grown indoors in pots during the winter and some are available in dwarf varieties. Inquire at a reputable nursery or garden center regarding the best types for your situation.
Cooking with Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs have brighter and more intense flavors than do dried. At the same time, they are bulkier than dried or powdered forms so in terms of recipe measurements, more is used. A general rule of thumb is to substitute 1/3 teaspoon powdered or 1 teaspoon crushed for every 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh herbs. If this seems contradictory, it may help to remember that up to 90% of fresh herbs is water.
Add delicately flavored herbs toward the end of cooking for maximum flavor and aroma. The degree of pungency, aroma and flavor can vary widely depending on variety, soil, environment, the plant's age and other factors, so if you're not familiar with a particular herb, start out cautiously.
Only the leaves are used with most herbs but you can also use the tender stems of chives, chervil and cilantro. Parsley stems are often used in stocks and soups to add flavor — tie them in a bundle for easy removal when the cooking is finished. When chopping, always use a sharp knife or mezzaluna (a curved, two-handled knife) to minimize bruising. A mortar and pestle is useful for making pastes or pureeing garlic.