Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Herbs Make All Things New Again

 My Early Spring Container Herb Garden

Herbs are the friend of the physician and the pride of the cook.  Charlemagne

Herbs are the secret ingredient used in recipes since before recorded history to bring our food from hohum to vavavoom! Herbs are typically succulent, soft plants used for flavor, scent or medicinal purposes.  In our blog today, we will be chatting about the use of herbs in inexpensive, vegetarian cooking and the dynamite flavor they impart to our food.  Without herbs, our food would be bland and tasteless.  It is worth knowing some basic herbs from growing to storing to using if you want to have the tastiest, most inexpensive vegetarian food possible.

The Vegetarian Cook's Herb Garden
Since herbs are a welcome addition to any kitchen, the herb garden can come in many shapes and sizes depending on space, time, money and personal preference of herbs.  

Herb Garden Design
Formal herb gardens are a beautiful sight.  They are designed with straight lines, sharp angles and symmetrical plantings of a limited number of plants.  In the formal knot design of herb garden landscaping, groups of similar herbs are often interwoven by boxwood or rosemary plants to differentiate them from other groups and to add aesthetic value to the garden.  Often a focal point is included in the garden, such as a birdbath or sundial to add interest.

Informal herb gardens are relaxed and more "farmish" in design.  They are better suited to small yards and can be incorporated into borders, beds, or containers.  Fluid lines, either straight or curvy, with a wide variety of plants tend to be the basis of informal herb garden design.  Casual and lively are the key elements in these gardens.  If you are planting herbs in the ground, most should come back year after year (perennials).  As in any garden, time must be taken for proper watering and weeding.


Rosemary bush in my container garden.
If you live in a small apartment or have a small yard and do not have room for garden beds, then container herb gardening may be appropriate for you. Container herb gardens come in a variety of shapes and sizes and may be found on decks, balconies, courtyards, indoors in a sunny window, etc.  Many popular herbs we use in our kitchens love pot living and will thrive with just a little tender loving care!  Be advised that larger pots are better than smaller ones as they allow the plants roots to have room to grow long and strong.  If you decide to try your hand at container gardening, you might use any flowerpot you have handy or a variety of pots can be found at local thrift stores, or even empty plastic milk jugs with the tops cut off and holes punched in the bottom for drainage.  Herbs planted in containers should be considered annuals as the pot will often not allow them to develop a strong enough root system to come back each year.  Container gardens require vigilance with watering as the soil tends to dry out quickly between rain showers.

The Chosen Few... to begin with....
Once you have decided on your garden design, it is time to pick the herbs to plant in your garden.  Choices abound, making it difficult to limit yourself to just a few herbs.  However, a lot of flavor can be added to vegetarian cooking with just a few plants to start.   A nice starter herb garden might include the following herbs for flavorful addition to your vegetarian cooking:  basil, bay leaves, cilantro, ginger, oregano, parsley, and thyme.   In addition, the following dried herbs should be purchased for use in your vegetarian cooking:  cumin, chili powder, and cayenne.  

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Your Starter Herbs
Let's look at each of the herbs suggested to plant in your starter herb garden as well as those to purchase for use in our recipes.

Sweet Basil (French for Basile, "King")
Basil in my container garden.
Sweet basil is a very useful and popular herb to use in a variety of recipes because of its sweet, clovelike spiciness, with hints of licorice and pepper.  Originally coming from Asia and Africa, sweet basil is often used in Italian and Mediterranean dishes.  Due to sweet basil's delicate leaves, drying is not the preferred way to harvest it.  It is suggested that sweet basil be chopped and the leaves placed in water and frozen in ice cube trays.  Another suggestion is to coat the leaves with olive oil and place in freezer bags in the freezer.  

Sweet Bay Leaf  (Victory)

Sweet bay leaf is the only nonpoisonous laurel plant.  Its leaves are used to flavor soups and stews and added to potpourri.  In the times of old, bay leaf garlands represented victory and were often worn as crowns by the Romans.  Upon being harvested, they are dried and stored in a cool, dry place-away from bright light, heat, and moisture.  Adding a delicious flavor, they are used in marinade, stock, pates, stew, stuffing, curries, poaching fish and rice dishes.  Store one in a dried rice container with a tight fitting lid will allow it to flavor the rice.  Always add leaves at the start of cooking and remove before serving.

Cilantro (Latin for "Smells like bedbugs")
Cilantro in my container garden.
Cilantro is the leafy part of the coriander plant and imparts a licorice and delicate peppery taste.  It is very flavorful when used in Mexican, South American, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes.  Cilantro may be harvested by chopping and freezing in ice cube trays.  After it freezes, it may be transferred to freezer bags and kept frozen until ready to use.  Use cilantro sparingly in tacos, salsa, soups, stews, chicken, rice, salad, tomato sauces, and as a garnish.  

Ginger (Latin for "Spring-like; Flourishing)
Ginger grows from a spreading, tuberous rhizome.  The root is a flattened, beige, segmented bulb.  Fresh ginger has a zing to it that is lacking in the powdered, dry form.  Yet, while spicy, it is very beneficial to your digestive system as well.  While ginger can be grown in large pots, it should be overwintered indoors. To harvest, lift out the root after one year and cut as much as you need, replanting the remainder.  Store ginger in your refrigerator for up to a month.  Ginger's spiciness tastes excellent in curries, pickles, and cakes.

Oregano (Greek for "Joy of the mountains")
Greek Oregano in my container garden.
Greek oregano is one of the most flavorful herbs used in cooking.  A hardy member of the mint family, it can be used in either the fresh leaf form or the dried in leaf/ground form.    A flavorful herb, oregano is a wonderful addition to fish, sauces, soups, pasta, and shellfish found in Mexican, Italian, Greek, and Spanish dishes and used to provide a warm, aromatic scent and robust taste.  It may be harvested by snipping fresh sprigs as needed during the summer.  At the end of summer, foliage may be hung in bunches to dry and stored in airtight containers.

Parsley (Greek for Stone or Rock)
Parsley in my container garden.
Parsley is one of the oldest cultivated herbs, dating back to 3rd century BC and first arriving in the Americas during the 17th century.   Providing a delicate flavor, color, and texture to any recipe, it may be combined with other herbs in cooking to enhance flavor, including basil, bayleaf, chives, dill, garlic, marjoram, mint, oregano, and thyme.  Parsley may be used in omelets, eggs, mashed potatoes, soups, pastas, vegetable dishes, sauces for fish, and as a garnish.  Be sure to add parsley at the end of cooking time so as not to lose its delicate flavor.  Harvest parsley by cutting stalks at the base of the plant for fresh foliage throughout the summer.  At anytime in the season, it may be hung in bunches to dry or freeze whole or chopped.

Thyme (Greek for Courage)
Thyme in my container garden.
Thyme is an extremely flavorful herb used often by cooks and gardeners alike.  Imparting a subtle lemon, yet minty, aroma and taste to foods, it is often used in French and Italian cooking.  Either fresh in summer or dried year round, thyme may be used sparingly in soups, sauces for fish, stuffing, chowders, winter stews, and summer grilling marinades.  Harvest thyme by snipping foliage as needed for cooking in summer.  It may be harvested entirely twice per year by drying or freezing in airtight bags.

Drying Herbs

Drying herbs for use during the winter is very easy to do, and the results are so much more flavorful than what you can buy in the little herb bottles from the grocery store.  To begin, you will want to keep the herbs on their stems when possible and simply lay them out on a screen, cake rack, or kitchen counter in the middle of a warm summer breeze.  The stems may also be tied into bunches and hung upside down in an open closet or bedroom window with window ajar to allow for airflow to aid in drying of the herbs.  Once the herbs are completely dry, keep them on their stems if possible and slide them right into their jars for keeping for winter use.  Upon the need to use the herb, crumble them directly into waiting dish, pot, etc.  Simple, huh?  Keep in mind that fresh dried herbs may be more highly flavorful than those coming from the store, requiring you to taste and adjust when adding to recipes.

Herb gardening takes an initial investment for pots, soil, and plants or seeds.  However, there are many ways that an herb garden can be planted frugally by using empty milk jugs for pots, good soil from your backyard and seed packets begun inside in late winter and moved outside after the last frost.  Once planted, the only real cost during the summer months is watering your herbs with water from your faucet.  Save your jelly jars and lids, wash and dry thoroughly, and use them to store dried herbs in these in the fall.  In this way, herb gardening can be an attainable and fruitful project for those of us on the most strict of budgets.  It is worth your time and investment to find a way to have herbs to use in your cooking.  Even in inexpensive, vegetarian cooking, using herbs is a must and can be an affordable endeavor.

 Herbs make the difference between a bland dish and one filled with flavor!
Madonna and herbs in my container garden.

Owen, Weldon; Herbs, Weldon Owen Pty Ltd; Sydney, Australia; 2011.

The Herb Gardner blog:  http://theherbgardener.blogspot.com/2008/03/understanding-rosemary.html

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