Healthy, creative cooking using fresh herbs from the garden
Herbs are the easiest thing to grow in a back yard garden according to culinary artist, Robert Brown who presented a very informative and hands-on workshop at the Montour Preserve on Sunday, August 4. They are edible botanicals and many produce flowers and seeds for next year’s crop. They have played significant roles throughout history, used in many aspects, both medicinal and culinary. Many are aromatic, and with proper sunshine, good quality soil and fertilization, “they are a no-brainer to grow” according to Brown.
Herb gardens were very popular in Victorian England but have made a resurgence here in the United States over the last 20 years or so, and the ‘Growing Local’ campaign has made growing herbs more of garden necessity than ever before.
Parsley is probably the most popular, and easiest to grow. With more than one variety, it is an annual, but can easily be dried for winter season. Herbs are classified by their growth patterns, so some will come up every year, such as mint and chives, which can be very prolific. Other herbs, like basil and cilantro need to be planted every year, but one plant can produce an enormous amount. “With good sun, these plants are fail-safe,” added Brown.
Some plants, such as rosemary, may be a bi-annual and sprout again the following season. Herbs are often overlooked for their garnishing purposes. “Get extremely creative. Put herbs in floral arrangements for ornamental purposes.” Lemon thyme makes a nice ground cover and yarrow can be planted to add some spot color in the garden. Large basil leaves can be wrapped around cheese cubes for an appetizer. Basil is known as the “Queen of herbs” and comes in many varieties. “It works well for most recipes,” Brown said. “It is the most delicate of herbs.”
Some easy recipes were demonstrated and tried by the participants. Beer bread takes only a few ingredients, and the fresh herbs added makes it quick and easy with many options. “Try adding your favorite herbs, such as dill or oregano and blend them all together with shredded cheese.” Brown said he has been teaching cooking classes on soups and stews for many years, and uses herbs for all his culinary dishes.
To harvest herbs and preserve them, a good pair of kitchen shears is a must. “I like to cut my herbs first thing in the morning,” Brown replied, “when everything is nice and fresh.” To store in the refrigerator for awhile, just wrap the herbs in damp paper towels in the refrigerator. Basil sits well in a glass of water and during the winter keep a root ball basil in the kitchen and use it accordingly. “Don’t get them too wet,” cautioned Brown, “as they can easily wilt.”
August is a good time to start to preserve and harvest your herbs. Brown recommends to tie loose sprigs with some twine and hang them to dry. “Sometimes you can puree them in oil and freeze them for later use,” he said.
Brown also made a classic herb Green Goddess Dressing and a summer salad of cucumbers and pineapple. Making herb vinegar infusions is what he enjoys the most and likes to present them as gifts in corked bottles. Many flavors can be produced with the herbs with very interesting pallets, and make wonderful bases for dressings and sauces. Just bring 1 quart of vinegar to a boil, then add the herbs (usually two good sized sprigs) and remove from heat. Cool and store in a glass jar for 2-3 weeks, then strain into a glass bottle with a fresh sprig. “Lemon tarragon is nice, and is used a lot in French cooking,” Brown explained.
It is not too late to start growing herbs. This is a good time to get potted perennials. Often this time of year they will be on discount and can be planted now for next year’s season. Also some of the annuals like the cooler temps such as rosemary and cilantro. Herbs can grow all season long in many climates. “We would have a rather bland existence without herbs,” Brown added.