Growing and Cooking with Herbs

The Portia Club from Wamego came over today for a tour of the house and garden and a discussion of growing and cooking with herbs. They are a very lovely group of women to chat with.

Here are  some of the things we talked about:

(1) Using herbs in the landscape versus growing them in pots. Some herbs such as Golden Oregano make wonderful groundcovers without being invasive. Some such as Sage are attractive accent plants when in bloom. Parsley is a good plant for butterfly gardens. Anything in the mint family, however, will have a tendency to take over the garden if not harvested on a regular basis and so should be grown in pots. The pots can be placed in the ground, though, if you want to hide the pots in the landscape. Many herbs are suitable for container gardens.  Basil, Parsley, and Cilantro come to mind for potted arrangements as well as some of the fancy Sage varieties.

(2) Herbs want sun. I’ve tried growing herbs in shade to part shade. I haven’t found any that are happy with those conditions. They don’t all like heat, however. Cilantro, for example, will go to seed as soon as it gets hot. So in hot areas, late afternoon shade will help extend its growing season. Others, such as Basil, are very intolerant of cold temperatures. So don’t put basil outside when temperatures might still dip into the 40’s. Grey leaved herbs such as Sage and Lavender are more drought resistant than green leafy herbs such as basil which will need regular watering when it is hot.

(3) Overwintering of herbs.  This year I left large pots of Rosemary, Oregano, and Spearmint outside over the winter. They came back fine. It was the first winter that I have had luck doing this.  Two things were different from other years. One, of course, was that we had a milder winter – it was still definitely a winter with freezing temperatures, though. The other difference was that I had the herbs in large pots so I think that they had enough soil to give the roots a bit of insulation. Some people have luck bringing their herbs inside for the winter. Expect the herbs to go through a period of adjustment and make sure that they have enough sun if you are going to try this.

(4) Cooking with fresh herbs. When cooking with fresh herbs, the thing to remember is that they are fresh. Their fresh flavor is what you want to come across. I like to use them in cold sauces and dips – added right before serving. Their fresh flavor can also be harnessed by using them in compound butters – in a food processor blend softened butter and herbs with citrus zest, citrus juice and/or spices. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate. If using herbs in a cooked sauce, add them right at the end of cooking to get the best flavor.

(5) Other ways to capture flavor. The flavor of herbs can also be preserved by using them to flavor simple syrups and vinegars. (See my post, The Underrated Chive.) Simple syrup is made by heating sugar and water (either equal parts or twice as much sugar as water) until the sugar is dissolved. Herbs, such as spearmint or lemon balm, can be added during the cooking and allowed to sit in the syrup for about 20 to 30 minutes after removing from heat. They should then be strained out before the syrup is bottled. Simple syrups can be used to flavor drinks such as iced tea or cocktails or to flavor desserts. Flavored vinegars can be added to salad dressings and sauces.

(6) Drying herbs. Generally herbs should be harvested before blooming – unless it is the blooms that you are harvesting –  and before the weather starts to turn cool. The real key to drying herbs, though, is to dry them quickly so that they don’t rot before they are dried out. Herbs such as Rosemary, with a lower moisture content can be suspended in small bunches in an airy, dry space out of direct sunlight. For herbs with a higher moisture content, such as Parsley, the method with which I have had the best luck is spreading the cleaned leaves out on a large baking sheet and placing them in the oven using just the pilot light or the lowest heat until the moisture has evaporated. Then I transfer them to a zip top freezer bag and freeze. Some herbs such as chervil, however, just don’t dry well.

Happy gardening! Happy cooking!

Top photo: Sage, Rosemary & Oregano

Middle photo: Golden Oregano by Day Lilies

Bottom photo: Potted Herbs (Sage, Thyme, Oregano, Thai Basil, Tarragon)