Although I’ve always had a love affair with cooking, one of the best things for me that has come out of our winter produce program has been more adventures into the world of fresh herbs and spices. And even though I’ve always used fresh herbs on a limited scale, now I’ve come to even further appreciate the explosion of flavors they can create when introduced into your home crafted meals.
Herbs have a bad rap as being finicky and sometimes difficult to grow, though for most of them, nothing could be farther from the truth. This week I’ve chosen six of my favorites to share with you for their ease of growing and for their many varied uses in the kitchen.
Basil has to be at the top of my list. If you are inclined to cook anything in the realm of Italian food, basil is a must-have. Direct sunlight and lots of water will ensure success with this fragrant herb. Start basil easily from seed or purchase plants from the garden center if you are like I am and can’t wait for the seeds to grow. I love to run my hands over it simply to inhale the aroma and fresh basil in a salad is like an explosion of summer in your mouth, no matter what time of the year it is.
If you like pesto, you’ll need to plant quite a bit, but I also like to chop it up and sprinkle over salads, sliced tomatoes, steamed vegetables, on home made pizza, and more. Harvest your basil by picking off the leaves, or cut a side shoot and leave the main stem growing for more to harvest through the summer. Basil can be preserved by making pesto and freezing it, blanching the leaves and freezing them, or drying the herb for later use. No matter how you choose to preserve your harvest, you’ll be glad to have it on hand for later use in soups, stews, spaghetti, sauces and more throughout the winter months.
Parsley goes along with basil in my kitchen and can be found in either the curly variety or the Italian flat leaf. Parsley is one of those often overlooked herbs that can make a world of difference in a recipe. Easy to grow, plant this versatile herb in full sun. Since the seeds can take a while to get started, you are best to begin by purchasing plants at the garden center. The good news is that mine which are planted on the south side of my house, winter over quite well and come back bigger and better the following year, so one purchase can last a long, long time. Like most herbs, parsley will thrive in a sunny location with plenty of water.
Parsley gives a fresh accent to soups, stews, sauces, salads, and more and it’s the one herb that doesn’t seem important until you try to make a dish and leave it out. Preserve parsley by either freezing or drying.
Dill is my next “must have” herb in my garden and I use it liberally in soups, salads, sauces, salad dressings and more. Another one that is easy to grow, I like the fernleaf dill the best because it doesn’t go to seed as fast as other varieties. Plant it in a sunny spot and be certain to keep this one watered because it doesn’t bounce back as easily as some of the others if it dries out. Use dill as mentioned above, or for its most famous use- making pickles!
Dill can be preserved by either freezing or drying and dill weed and seed is often used in soups and salad dressings, so it’s a handy herb to have on hand.
Chives come after dill in my garden and they are another one that sometimes will be harvestable throughout the winter, if the winter is mild. They are also a perennial and should come back year after year once established, even if they don’t thrive through the winter. Plant them in a sunny spot and give them plenty of water, at least until they are rooted in. Use chives on more than baked potatoes- try them in salad dressings or in place of scallions in recipes. Even the pretty purple flowers are edible so use them in salads or as a garnish. Freeze or dry them for later use.
Mint of any kind is a great plant to have in your garden and there are many from which to choose. Peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint, orange mint, and more are all good choices. Mint is traditionally thought of when used in teas, but there are other ways to use it as well. Try it in a mint julep, or use it to flavor salads, fruit, vegetables or to make jelly.
Plant mint in a sunny spot and give it plenty of water, but be careful where you put it. Mint can be very invasive and I’ve seen it crack clay pots when friends have planted it in them. It’s an almost goof-proof herb and it’s easy to get established in your garden. However, because it is so easily adaptable, it’s almost impossible to kill once it’s grown in well and can become problematic if it ends up in a spot that later becomes undesirable.
Last but not least is cilantro. This is one of our favorites mainly because of it’s wide uses in southwestern cooking in our area. I think every recipe for Mexican food has a bit of cilantro in it!
Easily grown from seed, it can also be purchased at the garden center if you want to get a jump on starting a patch. It does tend to bolt quickly so succession planting is the key to having some ready to use for long periods. Cilantro will enjoy a sunny spot and lots of water as well. Freeze or dry this herb for later use.
There are many other great herbs to add into your garden this summer and no matter which ones you choose, you’ll spice up your life considerably by trying fresh ones as opposed to the dried variety found in the spice aisle. Bon appetit!