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Value Guru Investigates the Herb Garden

Herbs From an early age I was a summertime kitchen helper for my grandmother, sent to the herb garden to snip a bit of this or that. I loved to watch as she nonchalantly minced, tossed and sprinkled the aromatic snippets into all kinds of dishes, including her unique Summer Cucumber Salad. In my 20s when I wanted to learn more about growing and using herbs, I turned to an aunt who dismissed my entreaties for a logical learning method and told me basically to "just do it" and I could start by helping her weed her own herb garden. While I felt a tad hornswoggled, she was right-as she is about most things-and getting my hands, eyes and nose right down there with the herbs was indeed a good first lesson. The pleasure of watching, tasting and listening across the counter as she cooked became Lesson 2, and I was off! These days, my years of experimenting with herbs in the garden and the kitchen are especially paying off. By using herbs and spices in different combinations one can really liven up basic, affordable fare-beans, salads, whole grains, pasta, sauces, soups and stews-and avoid getting bored. And aren't we fortunate in this internet age to have culinary inspiration from around the world right at our fingertips? We can create a different version of rice and beans, for example, every week. So, I encourage you to "just do it" yourself! That said, if you're a beginner, maybe it would be helpful if I shared some of my own tried and true "snippets" to give you a head start…without having to weed my herb garden for me. Pasta with Lemon, Olives and BasilBasil is the quintessential summer herb for mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, pasta salad, pizza, marinara, Italian vinaigrette, white beans, summer squash and garlic. (It's also tasty muddled into a cocktail.) Bay leaf adds real depth of flavor to black beans, pork, lamb, squash and beef. Chives can be dismissed as a garnish herb, yet are wonderful with cheese anything and in creamy soups, potatoes, eggs and fish, as well as grain dishes. Cilantro is not just for salsa, but also for any beans or lentils, couscous, marinades, ceviche, fish, shrimp, chicken, pork and dishes with lime. Dill adds a light lemony zing to creamy and mild foods such as sour cream or yogurt, cucumbers, lentils (liberally), seafood, creamy chowder, egg salad, deviled eggs, pasta salad, summer squash, spinach, feta cheese and lemon vinaigrette. Mint is refreshing in tea and cocktails, but also in fruit salad, white beans, lamb, grain salads, couscous, cucumbers and yogurt. Oregano is what you smell in a pizza parlor, so use it for pizza, marinara and other tomato sauces, white beans, lamb, Greek vinaigrette, chili and other Mexican-inspired dishes (sparingly), garlic and feta cheese. Parsley should be fresh and is freshness exemplified sprinkled on top of anything, but also good used liberally in pesto and grains, marinades and soups. Rosemary is lovably insistent with potatoes, lamb, white beans, pinto beans, black beans, garlic, mushrooms and squash. Sage is what makes Thanksgiving stuffing and goes with sausage, squash, white beans, fava beans, garbanzo beans, pork, pesto and guacamole (sparingly). Tarragon is very distinct and works well as a dominant flavor with chicken, fish, scallops, mustard, vinaigrettes, eggs and orange-juice flavored dishes. Thyme adds earthy depth to red beans (and other Cajun dishes), squash, mushrooms and beef. Those are my basics, but please comment with what I neglected to include and your own favorite herbs and herb uses. Try growing a few of your own, but don't forget about the scoop-your-own dried herb jars in the store…a real deal year 'round and perfect for experimenting because you can buy just a tiny amount. Here are a few other recipe ideas using herbs: Carrots and SproutsSteamed Carrots and Brussels Sprouts with Tarragon Seared Beef Salad with Fresh Basil Pesto and Arugula Broiled Fish with Citrus and Herbs Grilled Squash with Cilantro-Pecan Pesto

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Annie says …

How inspiring! I've been wanting to grow an herb garden but I'm kind of worried about pests. I live in the city of Chicago so I'm concerned if a cat, opossum, raccon or rodents would crawl around my herb garden which makes it not very appetizing in my book. Luckily I've never encountered any rodents by my home but we do have cats, opossum, raccons and bunnies. Is it still possible to have an herb garden in the city?

microgirl says …

If you are going to grow your own tarragon, make sure you get French tarragon. The Russian variety is ornamental and has no flavor; it also takes over your herb garden - found this out the hard way!

Larry Jacobs says …

Tarragon was my introduction to the world of fresh herbs. I find it's licorishy flavor irresistible in salads and main dishes. Tarragon has one peculiar quality. IT DOES NOT FLOWER. I've never seen it set seeds. The only way to propagate true french tarragon is from root cuttings. The plant goes dormant in the winter. In the early spring you'll see it "pushes" up sprouts from the root. You can cut the root, sortof like cutting eyes out of a potatoe, and plant them. We lift our tarragon plants every winter to make more plants by dividing the root of each plant and planting the small root pieces in 2 1/4" pots. The young tarragon plants are ready to transplant in May or June. Like the microgirl said above, make sure you get French Tarragon. The Russian variety does not have the same flavor. There is one other way to propagate French Tarragon but it is more difficult. You can take tip cuttings. They will root but must be kept at high humidity and warm temperatures.

jerri says …

i planted my own herb garden this year (you can see pics here - http://www.cooking4carnivores.com/2009/04/homegrown-herbs.html) and have been using all of the herbs in my dishes. i used dill in my potato salad, mint in my blackberry margaritas, oregano in the roasted veggies for some wraps, basil in some fresh pasta, cilantro in my guacamole, and rosemary in some red potatoes. all the recipes are on my blog. i am loving it! in fact we just had to buy some more basil...