Fab 5 Herbs for Foodies

I love to garden. Also, I love to cook. What better way to combine those two passions than by herb gardening. Fresh herbs add a flavor element to any dish that is far superior to dried seasoning. Herbs provide flavor that can lessen your use of salt, which is a good thing. Herbs are attractive plants, too, and they draw to them pollinators and beneficial insects, including butterflies. In fact, I can’t think of a drawback to planting herbs. Considerations, yes, but drawbacks-no.
What is the number one consideration? I would say proximity to the kitchen. After all, you will be using the fresh herbs while you are cooking. That could be in the summer when the weather is fair, but it might be in the winter, when the weather is nasty. You may think that you will remember to cut the herbs you need to cook dinner, but I know I’m not that organized. So consider locating your herb garden near the kitchen, or at least close to an accessible door. Yes, you can grow them inside, but they last so much better outside.
My second consideration would be which herbs you cook with most frequently. For me that list is: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, plus Oregano, Basil and Chives. Most people would add Cilantro to that list. I am one of those strange people that think Cilantro tastes like dirty socks. I thought the same thing about miso soup and I now eat that regularly, so there is hope. Most people like Cilantro, so it should be included in any herb garden plan.
There are a few horticultural details that you should know about the most popular herbs. As with all plants, some herbs come back year after year (a perennial in horticultural terms). Others only last one season (an annual). Still others are biennial, meaning they grow the first season, flower the second and then die. Often the biennials will reseed plentifully. Examples of these types are: perennial-Thyme, annual-Basil, biennial-Parsley. Most annual herbs need to have their propensity to flower be nipped in the bud, so to speak, in order to produce the most foliage, which is usually what you are using for cooking. That’s why you want to pick off any flowers that Basil forms. It’s also why you will see the term slow-bolting applied to Cilantro. In the case of Basil, it is tender and needs to be planted outside after all danger of frost.
In general, herbs are not too fussy about the conditions in which they grow. Most herbs were originally found along the roadside. Give them good drainage and plenty of sun and they will perform admirably. If you are planting in the ground in the Willamette Valley, I would prepare the soil as if you were growing vegetables. Our soils tend to be clay, so working in compost or other organic matter is a good idea. Using organic fertilizer and encouraging worm activity will also help improve the structure of your soil. Herbs work very well in containers. I would recommend planting one herb per container and using a high quality potting soil.
Variety is the spice of life, so someone said. Variety means there are different kinds and that is true with herbs. Let’s use Rosemary for an example. There is upright Rosemary and creeping Rosemary. This may seem obvious, but upright Rosemary grows tall (to 4-5 feet), while creeping Rosemary is more of a groundcover. In the case of Thyme and Oregano there are simply different flavors. There is lemon Thyme, caraway Thyme, French Thyme and lime Thyme. Although they all have a “thyme-like” taste there are subtle differences. In the case of Basil, there is a size difference to the leaves in certain varieties as well a difference in flavor. There are small-leaved and large-leaved Basil varieties, as well as Thai Basil, lemon Basil, Pesto Basil and more.
Now to my favorite part, how to use herbs in cooking. In my garden I have planted upright Rosemary. It is a nice screen for privacy, it attracts bees to help pollinate and it makes wonderful skewers for barbequing scallops. Just cut long shoots and use as you would any regular wood skewer. You may remove the leaves if you want, but leaving them on increases the flavor. Also, I like to use Rosemary in spaghetti sauce. It is a great flavor to add to foccacia. At first, my husband was a little put out by the “chewiness”, or largeness of the leaves. Finely chopping the leaves helped.
There are many recipes in which I use Thyme. I enjoy making soups. One of my favorites is cream of broccoli. I use a recipe that was printed in the Corvallis Assistance League cookbook. It calls for thyme and a bay leaf as the primary seasoning. I grow lemon Thyme now because of a tip from my friend, celebrated food columnist Jan Roberts-Dominquez. She gave a cooking talk at Garland Nursery and she spoke about cooking artichokes and using lemon thyme in the cooking water to add flavor. That sounded so good that I added lemon Thyme to my herb garden. It is very attractive, as well, with yellow variegation to the leaves.
Okay, I revealed that I do not like Cilantro. Cilantro, of course is “the” herb used in salsa. Practically ever recipe I have ever seen calls for the use of Cilantro in salsa. This is what gives it the particular flavor. Cilantro is also called chinese parsley and is used in asian cooking. The dried seed of cilantro is coriander. So many uses for this annual herb.
Instead, I chose to flavor my salsa with Oregano. I discovered this alternative flavoring in a low-fat mexican cookbook. I latched onto this substitution and have been happily preparing my version of salsa ever since.
The herb that I use the most in cooking, hands down, is Parsley. Not the frilly parsley. Italian parsley is what I use the most. It seems to be called for in most recipes that call for any type of herb. Parsley is a biennial. I usually replant it yearly.
I’m a Rachel Ray fan and her recipe that I make the most is for turkey loaves with wild mushroom gravy. It calls for fresh sage in the loaf portion. Fresh herbs are not as strong as dried, so you usually end up using more than dried. I was surprised that the sage flavor did not overwhelm the dish.
Finally, Basil and Chives. My sister loves to eat fresh Basil, sliced tomatoes and sliced fresh mozzarella. You can add a cracker or not. I prefer making pesto. I’m cheap and don’t add the pine nuts. There are so many variations of pesto, but mine is simply Basil, olive oil and parmesan cheese. I freeze it in small containers and pull it out as needed. It’s great with pasta and pork. It’s even great by itself on crackers. Chives. I should use Chives more than I do. They’re great in salads and on baked potatoes. I think they look great in an herb garden because of their form and texture. Their spiky, pink flowers are cool looking, too, and are great in salads, also.
Hopefully, this has inspired you to try growing a few herbs, if you haven’t in the past. You won’t be disappointed. Happy dining and happy gardening.  Brenda

About Brenda Powell

I'm one of the owners of a family-owned retail nursery. I have a degree in horticulture from Oregon State University. I love to garden and read. My technically savvy but horticulturally challenged husband, Mitch, spends most of his time as slave labor in the garden. Thank goodness he adores me! My goal in this blog is to share my enjoyment of gardening, my love of nature, and my addiction to books. Did I mention I like to cook, too?
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One Response to Fab 5 Herbs for Foodies

  1. Sunny says:

    There is some thought that a particular gene makes you genetically predisposed to not like cilantro…from Wikipedia: Some perceive an unpleasant “soapy” taste or a rank smell and avoid the leaves.[7] The flavours have also been compared to those of the stink bug, and similar chemical groups are involved (aldehydes). Belief that aversion is genetically determined may arise from the known genetic variation in taste perception of the synthetic chemical phenylthiocarbamide; however, no specific link has been established between coriander and a bitter taste perception gene.

    As to different varieties of things like thyme…my husband hates onions and therefore, will not eat “regular” chives. He will, however, eat the garlic chives! Yay for me 🙂

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