When it comes to cooking, one would be hard pressed to outdo a meal created with fresh herbs. Sweet-smelling basil pesto shreds sprinkled over warm pasta, delicate grassy dill flecks peppering a potato salad, aromatic oregano bubbling in a succulent tomato sauce. Sometimes fresh is just better. And walking out of the back door to snip fresh herbs is not only convenient, it’s good for the soul. Getting one’s hands dirty to create a fresh herb garden provides a sense of accomplishment, while getting back to nature.
Getting started with an herb garden is not a difficult undertaking. In fact, the most important factor is something a gardener doesn’t even have to provide himself — sunlight. Herbs need a lot of it — about six to eight hours a day. Finding the proper location for herbs to thrive is instrumental to their success. While growing them in a window inside may seem like the perfect addition to brighten up a kitchen, in reality, herbs do best when planted outside. In the seedling stage, indoors will suffice for a short while, making it all the more easy to get started. All one needs is ample light and good soil. Start small — seeds can even be put into ice cube trays (with a hole in the bottom for proper drainage) or cardboard egg cartons. In a short amount of time, the seedlings will pop up and be ready for planting outside in the ground or in a container. It all depends on the size, space and location the herb gardener has to work with. “You can start seeds inside, but in order for them to thrive you need strong sun, good warmth and fresh air,” says Janie Blumberg at Reese’s Plants.
While planting herbs in containers can be a good option, ground planting sometimes yields a more successful garden as there is more space to work in and it is easier to water (container plants take much more water). One way isn’t better than another — having a container near the kitchen for easy snipping is sometimes all one desires with an herb garden. But it’s always smart for the gardener to make sure she knows what she is willing to handle, as some herb gardens can become overwhelming which leaves the gardener with too much to harvest. And who wants to waste fresh herbs?
There are a variety of herbs to consider — annuals, perennials and evergreens. Annuals complete their life cycle in one year, while perennials live more than a year and evergreens live throughout the year. Gardeners need to pay close attention to the growing season to ensure their preferred herbs will survive when planted. However, most herbs will thrive in a warm climate.
Helping herbs and plants thrive has been instrumental to the team at Reese’s Plants for more than 30 years. They suggest one simple thing before planting: a gardener need simply ask himself what he likes to cook and eat, then plant the herbs that complement those preferences. Basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano and parsley are staples in most homeowners’ gardens. If someone is new to gardening, planting a selection of these herbs is a great starting point.
Other, perhaps lesser used, herbs are also gaining popularity. Marjoram is ideal in seafood dishes, fennel can be infused in vinegars, and mint is a flavorful addition to drinks. Some people also like to plant a large variety of herbs in the spring and summer for the sole purpose of drying them and using them throughout the winter months. It’s a wonderful way to add freshness to a hearty winter stew. Others, still, use herbs as ground cover. Rosemary can be found as an accent plant or a hedge with the added benefit of being clipped for that perfect pork tenderloin.
Maegan Horton, executive chef at Blue Marlin, likes to add herbs to her dishes, as they are a wonderful complement to delicate seafood. She often combines the herbs with citrus, primarily lemon and occasionally orange, as they help to maintain the flavor of the herbs. She also herb roasts many of her selections, where the dish is cooked at a high temperature and with dry heat for a shorter period of time. “Herbs are a great starting point for any home cook, as they are quite hard to mess up and they always turn out fantastic,” says Maegan.
Herbs are also very prevalent in the raw foods movement. “Herbs play a significant role in filling out the flavor palette that is afforded by the fresh ingredients we use,” says Tim Landholt, kitchen manager at Good Life Café, a raw vegan café in Columbia. They often use herbs to complement dishes but find that some herbs, like basil, mint and rosemary, can define a meal on their own. Mint, as an example, is often added to smoothies at Good Life Café to provide a cool iciness without adding extra sugar calories.
To be sure, the uses for herbs are endless. And they aren’t just for eating. Herbs are a fragrant ingredient in sachets and also add essential flavors as bouquet garni, where herbs are tied together with string and added to soups, stocks and other dishes to infuse their herby deliciousness throughout. They can also be found as table décor — in floral arrangements or tabletop displays at parties or in restaurants.
Herbs are also likely to be found in many of today’s cocktails. Herb-infused artisan cocktails are all the rage — where high-quality ingredients are blended to make new and unique drinks. It’s about having fun and being creative. What might not taste great to one person could become the signature drink for another.
But one thing is for sure — if someone wants to plant an herb garden, they need to give it the time and attention it deserves. “Spend time in your garden daily,” recommends Janie. “Be a part of it instead of just planting it and leaving it. In order to have a garden that survives and thrives, you have to see problems as they occur so you can fix them. Use good organic matter and create a healthy soil environment.”
When it comes to pests, Philip Reese recommends refraining from the use of pesticides, as they not only kill the pests, they kill the beneficial insects, like lady bugs, that eat the pests. “We use insecticidal soap and it works well, but oftentimes we let nature take its course, and we hope for the best. This helps to keep the garden as organic as possible.”
Through attention, good soil, ample watering and great sunlight — prudent herb gardeners will reap what they sow.
Helpful Tips for Using Herbs with Meat
Courtesy of Nick Piotrowski, executive chef, Ruth’s Chris Steak House — Columbia
• Rub ribeye and NY strip steaks with chopped fresh rosemary before grilling.
• Add fresh thyme to traditional beef stew and pot roast recipes.
• Finish filet mignon with butter and chopped fresh parsley.
Herb Roasted Salmon
Courtesy of Maegan Horton, Blue Marlin
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds salmon (4 6-ounce pieces)
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a 9 by 13 inch pan with 1 teaspoon of the oil. Combine all of the ingredients and coat salmon with the mixture. Roast salmon until it is fork tender, about 12 minutes. (Time varies based on preference. This is about medium well.)
Basil Lime Martini
Courtesy of Reese’s Plants Staff
2 ounces Vodka
1 ounce agave nectar or 1 ounce simple syrup
4 basil leaves (plus a few extra for garnish)
Freshly squeezed lime juice
Muddle the basil, simple syrup and lime juice together; Add vodka. Combine in a cocktail shaker with crushed ice. Shake until the mix turns frothy. Strain.
Bourbon Peach Smash
Courtesy of Reese’s Plants Staff
1/2 peach, cut into thick slices
3 or 4 fresh mint leaves
1 lemon wedge
1 ounce water
1/2 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces bourbon
1 sprig mint
1 thin peach slice for garnish
Muddle all ingredients except whiskey in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and whiskey. Shake and strain into an ice-filled, old-fashioned glass and garnish with a peach slice and a sprig of mint. Makes one drink.
Slaw with Cilantro
Courtesy of Christina Brockington, Good Life Café
1/2 head to 1 head of cabbage, sliced very thin
3 to 4 pears, sliced thin
1 bunch of cilantro*
Slaw dressing (see recipe below)
Slice the cabbage and pear very thin. Clean the cilantro and remove the large inner stem. Rough chop the cilantro and add to cabbage and pear.
Bragg apple cider vinegar (with the “Mother”)
(If too tangy, add maple syrup.)
Toss with the salad and let sit for 30 minutes.
*Per Christina, cilantro is considered the poor man’s detox. It detoxes the liver, helps remove free radicals from the body and is good for heavy metal detoxing.