Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Planning an Herb Garden

By Gwyneth Doland

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  Herbs (like parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme) are the fragrant leaves and stems of plants from temperate climates. Spices (like cinnamon, cloves, ginger and saffron) come from the bark, buds, fruit, roots, seeds or woody stems of plants and trees. Both are capable of making food smell and taste better, adding vital nutrients and aiding in digestion.

In medieval Europe, spices and condiments were used heavily to improve (or disguise) the flavor of salt-cured meats and to make a lowly bowl of rice more appealing. The cost of spices during this period could be astronomical: A mere pound of black pepper could buy a serf his freedom. Not that a serf would ever get hold of a pound of black pepper. Around the Mediterranean, however, even the poorest of cooks had access to the immense variety of herbs which grew wild on every hillside. To this day, herbs are at the forefront of this region's popular cuisine.

If you're already an avid gardener, it'll be easy as pie to toss some herbs in with your tomatoes and zucchini. As for the rest of you, if you can grow a ChiaPet, you can grow some herbs. At the very least, buy some starters at the nursery and do your best to keep them alive in pots on the kitchen window sill.

Ah, but which ones to grow? If you only have limited space and resources, check out my top six suggestions below.

Between now and when your garden gets going, you can buy fresh herbs at the grocery store and practice using them. When you get them home, wash herbs gently but thoroughly. For things like rosemary and thyme, shake off excess water (or spin in a salad spinner), wrap them in a paper towel and store in a resealable bag. For parsley, cilantro and mint, which tend to wilt, wash them and put them in a plastic or glass container with an inch or two of water in the bottom. Stand the herbs up so they can drink freely. Change the water every couple days. They'll last about a week and a half.

A water hog, but worth it. One of the most popular herbs in America, fresh basil is used not only for pesto, but in salads (like fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil drizzled with olive oil) and pastas. And ladies, I swear that eating ten basil leaves all at once will alleviate even the worst menstrual cramps long enough for the drugs to kick in. Dried basil pretty much sucks, so use it fresh.

Also known as Chinese parsley, this herb is actually the green leaves and stems of the same plant that produces the spice coriander. While it is often associated with Mexican and Asian food, cilantro was also a favorite among the Greeks and Romans. It is very good in salsas, tabbouleh and with sesame noodles, although I like to make it optional since some people really can't stand it. Don't bother drying cilantro; it loses its flavor completely.

Here's an odd tidbit: Back when they had wet nurses, those women were forbidden to eat or drink anything that contained mint; the mint causes some sort of undesirable chemical reaction in the milk that also prevents it from curdling. Weird, huh? If you grow mint you'll be able to brew fresh mint tea like my grandma used to make or use it with savory dishes like peas and lamb. Spearmint, not peppermint, is better for cooking. Mint dries fairly well, so if you have extra you can save it for later.

Closely related to marjoram, oregano did not become popular in this country until GIs discovered it in Italy during WWII and brought it home. In Mexico, another variety had been popular long before that. The Mediterranean oregano is milder and goes great in tomato sauces and Italian dishes; the stronger Mexican oregano should be used for Mexican and New Mexican dishes. Both dry well.

This piney shrub grows very well here. My neighbors have two enormous rosemary bushes and are very generous with it, so I've never planted it, but you simply must have it. Its strong flavor makes rosemary an excellent match for equally strong flavored things like lamb, certain fishes and goat cheese. When your plant grows long, sturdy branches you can use them to spear meat and veggies for the grill. Wow, is that good. Rosemary is also very good dried.

This wiry plant grows great here since it needs very little water. Rabbits who feed on thyme smell and taste delicious when cooked. The French (who are the ones feeding it to rabbits) use it in everything, and it is indispensable to any serious cook. The flavor goes well with roasted vegetables, sausages and meats, soups and sauces. A little crushed thyme even makes a difference to canned tomato soup. Very tasty. Dried thyme is OK, if you must.

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