Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Thursday Thirteen: Herbs

I have to admit that I am not much of a gardener. Friends know to never, ever, bring me a house plant. You can literally watch it die in my hands. It’s that bad. For some reason (my husband would say it is because he helps water) I have had some success with herbs. This is great, because I like being able to walk out on the deck and snip a few items to cook with just as I need them.

Not many things enhance a dish as much as using fresh herbs. And, given the cost of buying these in the store versus a few bucks for seeds or small plants, it makes a lot of sense to get my hands in the dirt. Research has even shown that getting dirty is good for your mood.

I definitely got my hands in the dirt. Three hundred pounds of dirt to be exact. This year’s container garden is my most ambitious yet. I am hoping something survives my “brown thumb.” Wish the plants luck, they will need it. This year’s “porch garden” includes the following herbs:

1-2. Genovese Basil and Black Opal Basil. Basil is one of the most used herbs and it works well both cooked in a recipe and for a garnish. Opal basil is deep red-purple in color and has a milder flavor.

3. Chives. Part of the onion family, both the stems and the flowers can be used in cooking. The flowers are most often used as a garnish. Avoid cooking this herb for long periods of time or at high temperatures. Chives have natural insect-repelling qualities. Chives are one of the four fines herbes of French cooking. The other three are tarragon, chervil and/or parsley.

4-5. Oregano, Italian and Turkish. Oregano is referred to as wild marjoram. Its flavor is a recognizable element in Greek, Italian and Mexican dishes. Unlike most herbs, the dried form can have more flavor than fresh. Oregano has a high content of antioxidants such as phenolic acids and flavonoids.

6. Italian Parsley has many varieties, but is commonly recognized in two varieties, curly and flat-leaf, or Italian, parsley. It has a sharp, tangy flavor that adds “life” to any dish it garnishes. Flat-leaf parsley is more commonly used in cooking, while curly parsley is often the garnish at the side of the plate.

7-8. Sage, berggarten and common. Sage was used for ceremonial and medicinal purposes long before it became a pantry staple. It does not play well with other herbs, however, and it has a strong flavor that complements fall dishes like winter squash, poultry and fatty meats like lamb.

9. Tarragon is best fresh as its flavor tends to change when dried. The slightly licorice-like flavor goes well with light dishes such as fish and tomatoes. Tarragon is recognizable as the main flavoring in Bernaise sauce. French tarragon, interestingly, cannot be grown from seed.

10-11. Thyme, French and lemon. Thyme comes in many varieties and is a hardy perennial. It is used in all types of dishes either vegetable or meat, and can even be used in some desserts. Egyptians used this herb for medicine and embalming as early as 3500 B.C.

12. Rosemary. This is easily my favorite herb. I often just put my face down near the plant and inhale. I use rosemary soap. I even use this herb in desserts like Blackberry Crumble and love it infused in caramel. Rosemary has medicinal uses and is purported to be a stimulant, and even dangerous in large quantities. Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding are cautioned to not eat large quantities of this herb. I am not sure how large a quantity this indicates. By the way, it is not uncommon for pregnant women to need to avoid certain herbs. Licorice root, for example, stimulates ovulation and is a good one to avoid during pregnancy.

13. Lemon Verbena. This is a new variety to my herb garden. I am not sure how I am going to use this lemon-flavored herb yet. The information I have on it says it can be used for fish and poultry dishes, vegetable marinades, salad dressings, jams, herbal teas and even a sorbet.

I also planted some other interesting things; edible flowers, bee balm, spring greens mix and red lettuce. Next market day, I will get lavender, marjoram, perhaps some mint, and more lettuces to finish my container garden. The bee balm and lavender are for any stray bees in my neighborhood. I am worried about the bees. Expect a post on that topic soon.


Rachel said...

funny you should mention herbs and pregnancy/breastfeeding. I used fenugreek tablets and fennel tea to stimulate breastmilk when I had difficulty the first few weeks, and by golly, they may be old wives' tales, but they did the trick. Although, funnily enough, fenugreek tablets made Jess and me smell like curries! To this day, when I open my bottle of fenugreek, I remember breastfeeding and the feeling of relief when I got a good supply established.

Matt said...
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Matt said...

One thing that I do with my herbs to make them easier to tend is to try to focus on ones that are periennel (sp??) and will self sow. That means they will come back up next year with no additonal planting, and usually means they are hardier.

I was also going to mention lovage as one you might want to check out. It's very hardy and gives a strong celery taste to foods in place of celery. You can freeze the leaves in the summer and use them all winter.

The Expatriate Chef said...

Oh, I will have a whole new insight next time I open the jar of fenugreek!!!! Heh! Thanks. Herbs are interesting in their medicinal properties. I find I learn new things all of the time.

The Expatriate Chef said...

I still have 80 pounds of soil and a couple containers, so I will look for lovage. I like trying new things. Many of my herbs are perennials like thyme, rosemary and sage. I have not had good luck with the rosemary coming back in our climate zone, though. Thanks for the good advice!

Katje said...

I tried real, fresh tarragon for the first time last year, and was smitten. So that's new in my container herb garden this year. I managed to keep my lavendar alive through the freezes, so I won't need new plants for that. Rosemary, thyme, lemongrass (well, that's in the ground), comfrey, basil... oh, and my big bowl of chocolate mint! I LOVE this stuff... toss it onto any dessert to garnish, or just sneak a leaf to nibble. It's three years old and still going.

And there might be something at the Powell Garden plant sale that needs to come home with me next Friday, who knows?