Spring has officially arrived in New England when the oval veined brilliant emerald leaves of mint begin poking their glorious foliage through the soil. Even before the daffodils, and a few weeks before the hyacinth, this fast growing and spreading perennial is a hardy and versatile herb that grows in the sun, in partial shade, and in containers. Mint, like many herbs, plays an important role in the kitchen, the garden, and in medicine. Every variety of mint seems to suit a specific purpose. With the Kentucky Derby just a couple of weeks away, plant the Kentucky Colonel variety, place your bet, and sip mint juleps. Chocolate mint is wonderful in the STRAWBERRY CAPRESE with MÂCHE, CHOCOLATE MINT & BALSAMIC. The subtle taste of cocoa marries brilliantly with the strawberries and the balsamic vinegar.
With its milder and smoother taste, spearmint is the most versatile in the kitchen and easiest to find out of season in the supermarket. In the garden, mint is a natural mosquito repellent and protects other plants from nibbling deer that find its pungent fragrance nauseating. Ancient Egyptians began using mint as a remedy for upset stomachs, coughs, and intestinal health 3,000 years ago. Sometimes criticized for its invasiveness, its usefulness inside and out makes it an herb hard to resist. BTW--it is easy to pull out and transplant mint in areas where nothing else seems to grow. The mint in the QUINOA, WATERMELON, KALE & FETA SALAD showcases how mint adds depth and brightness to simple salad preparations.
In between stepping stones, in containers, and an essential herb in a bouquet, thyme is another prolifically growing perennial garden herb. In THE NEW AMERICAN HERBAL, Stephen Orr notes that the "piney-citrus flavor" of lemon thyme is a "kitchen essential", and suggests sprinkling it on top of an appetizer of mozzarella, olive oil, and salt for a "transporting" culinary experience. The most common varieties available year round are English or French thyme. Just a reminder, rather than chopping thyme, the leaves should be pulled from the woody stem before adding to any recipe calling for thyme leaves. Full branches of thyme are best suited tied in bundles with parsley, sage leaves, and a bay leaf to make classic French dishes such as beef bourguignon, or placed in the cavity of a LAVENDER HONEY & THYME ROASTED CHICKEN. Reserve a space in a pot on the patio and use as a May to October, ready to snip herb with tiny leaves that enhances any container planted with annuals. In late autumn, transplant this fragrant Mediterranean native in the ground for enjoyment the following year. Planted in well-drained soil, in sun or shade, ornamental varieties of thyme will bloom lovely miniature pink flowers while warding off ticks. Much like mint, thyme has an important place in homeopathic medicine. Used to make tea, thyme leaves can help calm indigestion. Pounded in a mortar and pestle to release the aromatic oils and then diluted with water, thyme becomes a natural insect repellent.
A cousin of mint and the darling of summer garden herbs is sun loving basil. Hardly needing an introduction, basil's use as a flavor enhancer may be found in American, Indian, African, Asian, Mediterranean, and European cuisines. Growing different varieties of basil in the garden may encourage new culinary experiences. The slightly anise flavor and purple variegation of Thai basil is perfect for making THAI BEEF SALAD or THAI BASIL with JASMINE RICE. The most prolific basil grown remains sweet basil, and is the most common variety in the produce department of most supermarkets. Always a summer hit, and always best when made with garden grown basil (and tomatoes!), is the Italian inspired recipe CAPRESE STACKS. Many varieties of basils are grown today for their ornamental qualities in the garden, but may be interchanged in most recipes that call for "basil". To keep spring planted basil blooming through October, pinch off the heads regularly to slow stalky growth in which the leaves on the plant are far apart and do not let it flower. Once basil flowers, even the leaves become bitter. One of the most refreshing treats on the planet is AMORINO lime basil gelato. However, if visiting this gelateria is impossible, grow some basil and give it a go making your own!
A wee bit slow to germinate and a bit frail in the hot summer sun, parsley is nonetheless a garden must. A patch of partially shaded earth, well-draining soil, and ordinary watering should keep this mild, slightly sweet with a hint of peppery spice growing until the dog days of summer. Once sprouted, don't eat it! It will become bitter. Delicious spooned over roasted pork or a platter of grilled vegetables, gremolata is a quintessential way to enjoy the fresh, bright taste of the national herb of Italy:
1/4 cup parsley, finely minced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 organic lemon, finely zested
1. Mix all the ingredients together in a small glass bowl.
2. Refrigerate up to 6 hours.
Sensitive to heat, parsley should be added to finished dishes just before serving to maintain its India green color and subtle flavor. Paired with other herbs such as basil and dill, parsley's crisp texture and lively taste combine for the perfect summer GREEN POTATO SALAD with CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE.
Native to the south of France, the Old World aromatic rosemary shrub has year round culinary uses and as documented by Shakespeare, is a symbol of fidelity. Fabulous paired with olive oil and garlic, it is no wonder the Italians adore it. With small flat pine tree like needles, woody stems, and a tolerance for dry, hot weather, rosemary in the garden is a perennial in warm climates and difficult to manage in cold weather zones. Rosemary needs next to no care in the garden. Little pruning, no feeding, and a drought tolerant shrub, plant rosemary in a full sun area of the garden, limit watering, and watch this shrub grow 2 to 6 feet tall! No worries, there are plenty of recipes in which to use it and the bush smells and looks divine. Sky blue flowers will bloom profusely in spring and summer. In recipes, treat rosemary with respect--a little goes a long way. Too much and a dish may have a soapy aftertaste. The stems should be discarded and the needles should always be minced. Use the strong bottom stems of the shrub as skewers for bbq kebabs and the more bendable top sprigs as green foliage to make brightly colored garden cut flowers even more lovely. While most herbs are tender and sensitive to prolonged exposure to room temperature, rosemary is sturdy and perfect for using to decorate tart plates and turkey platters. If impressing guests is the goal, make the ROASTED FIG, GORGONZOLA & PROSCIUTTO TART, LAVENDER HONEY & THYME ROASTED CHICKEN, or the ELEGANT PORK RIB ROAST with SAUTÉED APPLES.
A member of the lily family, chives grow in just about any sunny or partially sunny area, in the ground, or in pots. A quickly spreading perennial, the gorgeous pinkish purple chive flowers and the soft shoots are all edible. When snipping garden chives for recipes, work from the perimeter of the chive clump inward and leave 1/2" of the shoot to encourage quick regrowth. Sound clipping practice will keep chives growing from late April through October in most areas of the United States. To truly enjoy the mild, refined taste of this member of the onion and garlic family, try the LAMB'S LETTUCE, CRÈME FRAÎCHE, LEMON & CHIVE SALAD.
Fried in butter and served with little more than freshly ground black pepper and grated Parmesan to dress, ravioli brings out the warm, savory flavor of sage. As long as sage has a home with decently draining soil, it is an easy to grow garden perennial. While used primarily as a culinary herb, sage has one of the longest herbal medicinal histories. For centuries, sage was grown and used by Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and early American doctors to treat a variety of ailments from simple coughs to digestive issues, nervous system disorders, and as an anti-inflammatory remedy. While a little sage goes a long way in the kitchen, in a potager garden, the variegated and purple varieties add quickly growing summer and fall color along borders of fruit and vegetable crops.
Other culinary herbs such as tarragon and oregano are mighty work horses in recipes and wonderful foliage in pots or in the garden. Tarragon must be used almost immediately after snipping as it wilts and molds quickly, but this hardy perennial, mildly licorice tasting herb is one every cook should embrace. Sturdy oregano is available in a multitude of colors and the thick velvety leaves are perfect for filling in around herb pots with thinner vertical forms such as chives and tarragon. Cilantro may get leggy and proves to be a bit of a difficult character to manage. However, with care and patience, this member of the carrot family may be grown successfully and is an essential ingredient in Asian and Latin cooking--it tempers the heat in spicy foods and its pungent flavor is distinctive.
With the restaurant farm to table movement in full swing and Americans still cooking less (but eating at home more!), a focus on quality is paramount. Cooking with herbs helps bring out the brightness and flavors of nearly any style of cooking. Adding herbs to pots on a terrace or patio, or using herbs as borders for perennial gardens, remains one of the most practical things to do to enhance at home culinary experiences and maximize garden potential.