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Growing herbs for the kitchen

Herbs are powerful, and my passion for growing them has expanded in the last few years.My passion for growing herbs has expanded in the last few years. Each spring I introduce one or two new varieties, and I have gained greater pleasure in cooking with them each year. Now is the best time to encounter herb starts at your local farmers’ market and nurseries. The following list represents the plants I consider essential for a cook’s basic herb garden.Basil: No herb garden should be without basil. From a traditional flavor point of view, I still prefer the large-leafed Genovese, which is sweet and fragrant, with just a gentle hint of anise. Other strains include lemon, cinnamon and anise varieties.

Bay: Sweet bay, Laurus nobilis, is essential in a cook’s kitchen. So consider a small bush for your garden. Although similar in appearance to the California laurel, Umbellularia californica, the flavor and aroma of L. nobilis is preferred.

Chervil: With a hint of parsley flavor, this somewhat delicate-looking plant is as delightful to look at as it is to cook with. It appears in a variety of classic herb blends, including Fines Herbs.

Cilantro: Like parsley, this lovely plant is easily grown (although it has a tendency to bolt in hot weather). It is an annual, requiring a spring-time sowing every year. The plant performs better when it is sown from seed rather than transplanted from seedlings.

Lavender: Roaming the aisles of your favorite nursery, you’ll see just how many varieties of lavender there are to choose from. And certainly, to a small degree, the look you’re after in your garden should dictate somewhat your final selection. However, speaking strictly from the aroma perspective, my choice is always French lavender.

Lovage: This herb comes as close to cooking with celery as possible without actually doing so. As Corvallis cookbook author and herb guru Rose Marie Nichols McGee states in her book, “Basic Herb Cookery,” lovage is the essence of celery.

Oregano: The three varieties you’ll encounter are Origanum heracleoticum, Origanum x majorana, and Origanum vulgare. O. Heracleoticum is considered the true Greek oregano, and the ideal herb for cooking. It’s been thriving in my garden for years. I have a healthy plot of it growing on the south side of my garden, another clump of it overtaking a pot, and an entire row of it creeping under our north fence from our neighbor’s herb garden. It hunkers down in the winter a bit, and then every spring comes back in greater mass than the year before.

Rosemary: Apart from common rosemary, there are several named varieties, including a rapidly-growing upright called “Sawyer’s Selection,” which can reach 8 feet within three years.

Sage: Even if my only purpose for keeping sage in the garden was ornamental, that would be reason enough. I love to grow this hearty-flavored herb in colorful gangs so the variegated varieties can play off the deep purple and green varieties.

Savory: With its peppery spiciness, savory is a marvelous herb to have on hand when assembling your dried herb mixtures. Its appearance is between the low-growing thyme and sprawling tarragon.

Tarragon: The two common varieties you’ll encounter are French, which has the refined flavor indispensable to classic French cuisine, and Russian, which is simply not as flavorful.

Thyme: You will many varieties to choose from. Before adding any of them to your garden, pinch and sniff, because from a culinary point of view, there are only about half a dozen considered suitable for cooking. My favorites: French thyme, English thyme, lemon thyme, oregano-scented thyme and caraway thyme. All five varieties have leaves that remain throughout the year, and their summer blossoms range from pale lavender or pink to white. Thyme is my favorite “secret ingredient” to use when cooking artichokes (see recipe below).

Artichokes with Thyme and Garlic

Fresh artichokes

Water

Lemon slices

Fresh garlic

Fresh thyme

Salt

For each artichoke, trim off all but 1/2 inch of the stem. Then turn the artichoke over and trim away one third of the other end, using a serrated knife. Place the trimmed artichokes in a pot, flat side down, stem side up. Add enough water to reach about 1/3 of the way up the sides of the artichokes (you don’t want them floating in water). To the pot, add 1 (1/4-inch thick) slice of fresh lemon (per artichoke), about 4 or 5 sprigs of thyme (per artichoke), 5 or 6 cloves of coarsely chopped garlic (per artichoke), and about 1/4 teaspoon salt (per artichoke).

Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook until the artichokes are done when tested, about 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of the artichoke(s). To test for doneness: Using tongs or two large spoons, remove an artichoke from the pot, flip it over and carefully (it’s hot!) attempt to pluck one of the leaves from its center. It the leaf comes out easily and the meaty tip is tender, the artichoke is done.

Remove the artichokes from the pot and let them cool stem side up until ready to serve. May be served hot, warm or chilled, as either an appetizer or side dish (with a simple sauce of whatever you enjoy, such as melted butter, mayonnaise or some vinaigrette).

Final thought on garlic: If I’m cooking more than 2 artichokes, then instead of working with individual cloves of garlic, I simply reach for a whole head, turn it on its side and carve off about 3 or 4 healthy slices through its circumference. I gather up the pieces of clove, papery skin and all, and toss them into the pot. What to do with the left-over portion of the whole head? I place it, cut-side down in a small puddle of olive oil and roast it in my toaster oven until tender when pinched. When cooled, simply squeeze out the softened cloves, mix them with the olive oil and store in a closed container in the refrigerator.

Hot and Sugary Roasted Hazelnuts with Rosemary and Cayenne

Makes 3 cups.

These are an exquisite nibble! Place these out at happy hour and your guests will be very happy.

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

3 cups lightly roasted and skinned hazelnuts

1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar

1/4 cup coarsely chopped, fresh rosemary

2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the butter and corn syrup in the center of a rimmed baking sheet and warm in the oven until the butter has melted. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized bowl, combine the hazelnuts, brown sugar, rosemary, salt and cayenne. Transfer the mixture to the baking pan, stirring the mixture again with a flat-sided spatula to incorporate the butter and syrup. Bake until the sugar melts and carmelizes around the nuts, stirring every 5 minutes with a wide spatula or a pastry scraper, for about 20 minutes total baking time.

While the nuts are roasting, spread a large sheet of parchment paper on a cutting board. When the nuts and coating have darkened, remove the pan from the oven and immediately scrape them out onto the paper, quickly spreading the nuts out into a single layer so they don’t touch each other for the most part. Allow them to cool and then break them apart as desired into single nuts or clusters.

The pieces should be stored at room temperature in an airtight container. They can be kept for several weeks.

Garlic and Oregano Pesto

Makes about 2 cups

This is a great way to use up a bountiful harvest of oregano. It is especially nice as a base for a vinaigrette that you toss with a Greek salad (olives, feta cheese, tomato, red onion, sweet bell pepper).

1 cup fresh oregano, tightly packed

4 cloves fresh garlic

1/2 cup toasted pine nuts

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Add the oregano, garlic and pine nuts to the bowl of a food processor and grind until the mixture is fairly smooth. With the motor running, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until the mixture becomes very smooth. Add the Parmesan and run the motor again, just to combine the cheese into the pesto. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freeze up to several months.

Meatball Vegetable Soup with Fresh Oregano

Makes 4 servings.

Traditionally, this gently seasoned soup, called Sopa de Albondigas, is made with beef meatballs. In this lighter version, I’ve substituted ground turkey and added fresh oregano from my garden.

5 cups canned or homemade chicken broth

2 large carrots, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 yellow onion, finely chopped (divided)

1 large egg, beaten to blend

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano (divided)

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon salt, more to taste

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 pound ground turkey

1/2 cup cold cooked white rice

In a large pot, combine the broth with the carrots, celery and half of the chopped onion. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer gently while making the meatballs.

To make the meatballs: in a bowl, combine the egg, 1 tablespoon of the oregano, salt and pepper. Stir in the ground turkey and the rice, and blend well. Shape the mixture into 1-1/2-inch balls.

Using a slotted spoon, lower the meatballs into the soup. Bring back to a simmer, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of fresh oregano, cover, and cook until the carrots are very tender and the meatballs are thoroughly cooked through, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Email her at janrd@proaxis.com, or read her blog at www.janrd.com.

Oregano