You can raise your own edible, fine-flavored bouquets for food

HERBS FRESH FROM THE GARDEN

August 01, 1993|By Todd Epperson | Todd Epperson,Dallas Morning News

People who grow their own herbs develop a certain disdain -- not only for dried herbs but for packaged fresh herbs from the store.

They can taste a big difference between the herbs they grow and store-bought herbs.

"The herbs I harvest are used the same day," says Mark Morrow, who has a rooftop garden full of basil, oregano, rosemary, mint and parsley. "I don't know how long they've been sitting in the supermarket."

By using fresh herbs, Mr. Morrow says, he's able to drastically cut down -- or sometimes eliminate -- the cream and butter typical in the traditional Italian dishes he loves. He incorporates fresh herbs into sauces, salads and soups.

"By growing your own herbs," says Cheryl Burek, "you're constantly seeing them and it makes you think, 'What can I put that in?'" She has a mini-greenhouse in her kitchen.

Sue Turk enjoys the convenience of having a living spice rack in and around her home. She grows many of the same herbs as Mr. Morrow.

"Something as simple as adding fresh basil to tuna salad can make a big difference in taste," she says. "It's also good on fresh potatoes.

"I also use fresh herbs in softened butter or cream cheese as a spread for breads, muffins or crackers."

Cicie Barraza is another cook who enjoys her herb harvest.

"It's handy to have them in the kitchen so I can just grab some when I'm cooking," she says.

"I use oregano when I cook with tomatoes," she says. "Or if I'm sauteing vegetables such as zucchini, I'll add it along with garlic and fresh tomatoes at the end.

"I usually add my herbs five to 10 minutes before I serve the food. You kill the flavor of [fresh] herbs if you cook them too long."

One of her favorite appetizers is a round of brie covered with a mixture of chopped sun-dried tomatoes, sweet basil, fresh garlic and olive oil.

Ms. Turk lets some herbs bloom and uses the flowers in arrangements. Keeping the blooms pinched back encourages the herbs to grow thicker, so if you're growing them for cooking, skip the flowers.

Grow your own

Growing herbs takes just a bit of old-fashioned gardening know-how.

Cinei Koder, who manages a greenhouse, recommends buying herb plants rather then seeds; they will grow faster and the herbs can be harvested sooner.

A 10-inch clay pot will hold up to three plants, she says. A 6-inch pot is fine for a single plant. You'll also need rocks for drainage and an peat-moss-based potting mix.

Mint and basil come in many varieties. For example, you'll find lemon mint, orange mint, pineapple mint, apple mint and chocolate mint at some nurseries. Basil options range from ruffled purple basil to lettuce leaf basil, with leaves bigger than a playing card.

Ms. Burek suggests that novice gardeners place markers by each variety.

Ms. Koder recommends morning sun and afternoon shade for most herbs.

She adds that although herbs are fairly drought-tolerant, they should be moistened, then allowed to dry out -- but not to the wilting point. Over watering is particularly harmful to herbs because it can cause root-rot and kill the plant, she adds.

But if the soil and sun are right, Ms. Koder says, herbs will grow like weeds. "You can constantly cut on them and they will continue to grow," she says.

Preserving fresh herbs

Ms. Turk freezes some herbs for later use in zipper-lock freezer bags. She says she prefers freezing over drying because the flavor is better.

For those who want to dry herbs, Ms. Koder says to spread the cuttings out on paper towels in a room that's free of dust. Allow them to dry for about 48 hours.

A quicker method is to place herbs between two paper towels and microwave on a low or defrost setting for a few minutes. Exact cooking time can vary, she says.

"I don't recommend drying herbs in the oven," she says. "It takes away a lot of the taste."

Herb garden tips

* Start small. Even a 4-foot-square plot of decent soil with good sun and drainage will produce herbs and vegetables. Enrich the soil with compost or peat moss.

* Plant herbs in moist soil and give them a few weeks before you trim them. Harvest in the morning, after the dew dries but before the sun gets hot. Cutting them back occasionally encourages new growth.

* When cooking with herbs, rinse them under cool water and gently dry them. Remember that when a recipe calls for dried herbs, you need to use three times the amount if you are using fresh.

Basic herbs

* Basil: Among the varieties are dark opal or purple, spicy globe, Italian and lemon. Use the aromatic leaves and prolong growth by picking off flower spikes. Keep moist. Before the first frost, bring several plants inside to grow during the winter. Use in Mediterranean cooking, tomato dishes and sauces.

* Dill: An annual with fernlike leaves and a tangy taste. Dill is wonderful in salads, vegetables, meats and sauces.

* Mint: So carefree and fast spreading, this perennial easily can wear out its welcome. Consider growing it in a container. Or take a cutting from a friend and root it in water before planting in your garden. Use in both sweet and savory dishes.

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