Classic Culinary Herbs
Russet potatoes bathed in fresh dill and rosemary, chunky salsa filled with garlic and cilantro, ice cold sun-tea swimming with fresh sprigs of curly mint and lemon balm. There is no substitution for the wonderful flavors and aromas that freshly harvested herbs add to our favorite recipes.
Herbs do more than add flavor to our favorite foods; they appeal to our sense of smell, add beauty to our landscapes, remedy and prevent illness, and bring to our gardens a myriad of interesting stories. Below we've listed a few of our favorite culinary herbs along with cultivation tips, stories, and recipe ideas.
- Used by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks as a medicinal herb. In biblical times herbs were of such value that they were used as tax payment. During the Middle Ages it was one of St. John's Eve herbs used as protection against witchcraft. Early settlers brought dill to North America, where it became know as "meetin" seed because children were given dill seed to chew during long sermons.
- Use seeds as well as leaves to flavor pickles, potato salads, bean soups, and salmon.
- Eat seeds after a rich meal to aid digestion and sweeten breath.
- Grow in full sun in rich well-drained soil.
- Tender young leaves have best flavor.
- Dry or freeze leaves. Dry ripe seeds.
- Rosemary has been used by chefs and apothecaries since ancient times, and is considered an essential part of any herb garden. It has a reputation for strengthening memory, and has become an emblem of fidelity for lovers.
- Sprinkle on roast lamb and pork dishes or put a whole sprig in the oven to flavor baking bread.
- Rosemary makes lovely fragrant hedges and topiaries.
- Grow rosemary in full sun in well-drained soil amended with potash.
- Because rosemary is not reliably hardy in the mid-Atlantic region it is best to plant it in a clay pot that can be dug up and removed from your outdoor garden in the fall. Winter indoors on a sunny windowsill.
- People have cultivated coriander as a medicinal and culinary herb for more than three thousand years. Coriander is mentioned in Sanskrit texts, on Egyptian papyri, in Tales of the Arabian Nights, and in the Bible.
- The Chinese once believed that coriander conferred immortality. During the Middle Ages coriander was added to love potions as an aphrodisiac.
- The leaves and ripe seeds have two separate and distinct flavors. The seeds are warmly aromatic and indispensable in tomato chutney and curries. The seeds also add excellent flavor to vegetables, soups and sauces. The leaves have a sweet earthy pungent flavor that is wonderful in salsas, salads and poultry dishes.
- Plant in full sun.
- Buy seeds and plan to replant every few weeks as the plant will go to seed quickly.
- Harvest seeds when they turn brown, before they drop.
- One of our favorite culinary herbs. Indispensable for many Mediterranean dishes, the fresh leaf has a sweet, clove-like spiciness and is superb on fresh tomatoes with a little olive oil, and in hot tomato dishes.
- Basil adds interest to rice salads and combines well with zucchini, mushrooms and beans. It has a powerful enough flavor to stand up to garlic and together they make the classic pesto sauce. Basil's pungency increases with cooking.
- Grow in full sun.
- The soil should be well drained and moist.
- Basil is a very tender annual. Don't plant out until mid-May at the earliest.
- Don't allow the plant to come into flower which will alter the flavor of the leaves. Constantly pinch the top leaves to prevent flowering.
- Sweet basil is the most common variety, but try purple basil in salads, or one of the smaller leafed basils for more which have more intense flavor.
- Can be grown indoors.
- Chives were recorded 4000 years ago in China and appreciated there by the traveler Marco Polo. He reported their culinary virtues to the West where they rapidly became indispensable.
- One of the most popular and widespread culinary flavorings is the onion family. The value of these alliums is reflected in the Latin unio "one large pearl" and the Chinese name "jewel among vegetables."
- Freshly chopped chives lift many foods above the mundane. Sprinkle them on soups, salads, chicken, potatoes, and cooked vegetables and egg dishes. Blend chopped chives with butter to garnish broiled meats and fish. Use them in place of raw onions in hamburgers for a milder flavor. Mix with cream cheese and in yogurt. Great on baked potatoes. Add at the end of cooking.
- Plant in sun; chives will tolerate some shade, however. Plant in rich, moist, well drained soil.
- Divide clumps every 3 years or so.
- For winter windowsill pots of chives, dig up a clump in late summer, place in a plastic pot, and let it remain in the ground for about 1 month of freezing weather. The plant will then have experienced the brief dormancy it needs on order to send up new growth once the plant is taken inside.
- When harvesting, snip leaves almost to the ground. Do not just snip the tops.
- Chives freeze beautifully. Take a Ziploc bag to the garden. Snip the blades into the bag and then freeze. Enjoy in soups and salads all winter.
Mint and Lemon Balm
- The Greeks used lemon balm medicinally some 2000 years ago. Lemon balm was called "heart's delight" in southern Europe and the "elixir of life" by the Swiss physician Paracelsus. He believed: "Balm, given every morning, will renew youth, strengthen the brain, and relieve languishing nature." Herbal writers have praised its ability to dispel melancholy for centuries and it is still used today in aromatherapy to counter depression.
- Use the refreshing, lemon-flavored leaves in fruit salads, herb butters and sorbets. Add generously to a white sauce for fish and spread over chicken before roasting. Freeze in ice cubes and add to drinks.
- Plant in full sun or part shade in moist, well-drained, alkaline soil.
- Because they are invasive, grow mint plants out of the ground in pots or plant in large pots with drainage hole and sink the pot into the ground.
- Harvest frequently for bushy plants, cutting the stems almost to the ground.
- Grow near roses to deter aphids.
- Dried leaves strewn in cupboards will deter ants and mice.
- A powerhouse of nutrition, parsley contains high concentrations of vitamins A, B complex, C and E and the minerals iron and calcium.
- Curly parsley makes an attractive garnish, but the flat-leaf or Italian type has a richer, more substantial flavor and is best used as a culinary herb. When cooked, parsley serves to enhance the flavor of other foods and herbs. To increase its potency, use generous amounts and include the stems, which are more strongly flavored. Add towards the end of cooking.
- Grow in sun or light shade in rich, moist soil.
- Harvest stems from the outer edges of the plant - never the middle.
- Plants can be potted for winter use after a couple of light frosts. They do well in a cool, sunny room.
- Parsley freezes well. Put leaves into Ziploc bags and toss into foods all winter.
- Grow by roses to improve their health and scent.
Oregano and Marjoram
- The Greeks have given us the legends and the name of this ancient culinary herb: oros ganos, joy-of-the-mountain. Those who have visited Greece, where oregano (wild-marjoram) covers the hillsides and scents the summer air, would probably endorse the name. The sweet spicy smell of sweet marjoram was reputedly created by Aphrodite as a symbol of happiness. Bridal couples were crowned with garlands of marjoram and plants were placed on tombs to give peace to departed spirits. The Greeks enjoyed its scent after a bath when marjoram oil was massaged into their foreheads and hair.
- Sweet marjoram was introduced into Europe in the Middle Ages and was in demand by ladies "to put in nosegays, sweet bags and sweet washing waters."
- Marjoram has a distinctive savory flavor, while oregano is slightly stronger. Oregano can be used like marjoram, but more sparingly. Use to flavor vegetable soups, pasta, fish, game, beef, chicken and sausages. Tomatoes, zucchini and peppers are enhanced by its flavor. It is also used with omelets and cheese dishes.
- Grow in full sun, preferably with midday shade. Plant in well-drained, dryish, alkaline soil.
- Cut back plants by two-thirds before they die down in winter.