Some of my fondest childhood memories took place in and around our garden. The 20 x 30 foot fenced in plot behind our house served as our personal farmers market when we were cooking at home. Tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, eggplant, peas, beans, yellow squash, corn and a variety of peppers were the staples each year. I remember checking the garden each day to search for ripe cherry tomatoes and sweet peas, which I would usually just eat off the vine. Our garden salads were true to the word and the experience of watching the veggies grow and picking them at their peak of ripeness was something that I will always carry with me. These days the garden is smaller, but it’s still a part of my life. I am lucky enough to have a nice 10 x 10 garden where I grow my cooking essentials. It consists of a blend of herbs and vegetables that I use on a daily or weekly basis. It is truly a pleasure to harvest and share homegrown produce with friends and family. And starting a small garden is easier than you may think.
A Practical Herb Garden
Many of us simply do not have the time to maintain a garden at home. If this sounds like you, I encourage you to start a basic herb garden. Many herbs are easy to grow, add great flavor to dishes and are expensive to buy on a regular basis. You can plant them in the ground if you have space, in pots on your deck or balcony, or even indoors on a windowsill that gets some good sun. You don’t have to plant a little bit of everything – my advice would be to plant what you like and what you will use regularly. The table below lists some of my favorite herbs that are very simple to grow.
|Basil||A must for fans of Italian food. An annual, but easy start from seed and to root from cuttings.|
|Chives||Add to scrambled eggs or accent a seafood dish. Be sure to use the blossoms, which are a great garnish for soup!|
|Dill||Add small sprigs to your salad or add to a buerre blanc for a salmon or trout dish.|
|Mint||Excellent for summer drinks, spring rolls, or combined with garlic, ginger and cilantro for a unique salad dressing. Once you establish your plants they will come back each year. Also very simple to root from cuttings.|
|Oregano||A versatile herb that I use throughout the year in sauces, seafood dishes, and in salads. Easy to grow and root from cuttings.|
|Parsley||The flatleaf or curley varieties are excellent for adding a “green” flavor to any dish. Use the entire unchopped top of the sprigs in salads for a refreshing, clean change of pace.|
|Rosemary||A powerful, “piney” herb that compliments pork, beef and chicken. Chop up and add to roasted potatoes or use the leftover woody stems as skewers for chicken kebobs.|
|Sage||Use this excellent, unique herb with scallops or roasted chicken. Try frying whole sage leaves for an inspiring garnish. It’s not just for Thanksgiving time!|
|Thyme||My favorite perennial herb – add to eggs, pan sauces, stock, and marinades. Pairs well with garlic, onions, and potatoes. Incorporate into compound butter.|
Tips for Cooking with Herbs
So you’ve planted your herbs, allowed them to grow and mature, but simply can’t find the time or enough occasions to use them? Below are three simple suggestions to help stretch your herbs throughout the year:
Aromatic oils – add a tablespoon of your favorite chopped herbs, 5 or 6 black peppercorns and a bay leaf to about a cup or two of olive oil. Heat until simmering, strain, and allow to cool to room temperature. Once cool, you can put the oil in a small container, label it and pop it in the fridge. Use a spoonful to sauté veggies or to enhance a salad dressing. Allow a few tablespoons to come to room temperature and add a pinch of salt for a fast, simple and tasty dip for fresh bread.
Compound butters– let two sticks of unsalted butter come to room temperature. Fold in fresh herbs, garlic and freshly ground pepper (or any combination). Roll up in plastic wrap (in the shape of a dowel – about the diameter of a half dollar or quarter) and place in the freezer. When needed, you can cut “coins” off the roll and use for cooking. This is a great method for inserting butter under the skin of poultry since it will hold its shape and not melt immediately in your hands like refrigerated butter. The compound butter will keep for months and is great for finishing pan sauces or for a quick and tasty topping for a baked potato or steamed veggies.
Stock – don’t throw away those herb stems! If you have leftover thyme, sage, or a few cloves of garlic, you can make a quick vegetable stock using a few scraps of onion, carrots, and celery as a flavor base. After you simmer the veggies and herbs for 30 or 40 minutes, strain, cool, package and freeze. You can easily make a few pints of stock for future use – most importantly, you won’t have to buy expensive stock from the grocery store next time you make soup. I routinely make chicken stock and vegetable stock. Make sure to label (name and date) your stock, as it will lessen in flavor the longer it’s left frozen.