There's no better way to enliven the taste of the food you serve than with fresh herbs cultivated in your own garden. Most of the popular culinary varieties like basil, dill, chives, thyme and rosemary are easy to grow. They add beauty and aroma while providing a rich array of flavorings for vegetable and meat dishes, salads, beverages, breads and even desserts.
Most herbs can be planted in ordinary garden soil, need little care and are resistant to diseases. But to thrive, they do require a sunny, well-drained location.
Herbs such as parsley, dill, sage, sweet marjoram, basil, borage and summer savory can successfully be grown from seeds. Others, including mints, lemon balm, rosemary, chives, sage and thyme, are best begun by purchasing small plants. In the garden, space these at least 2 feet apart, as they will spread quickly.
Specific information on a few of the most popular and easy to grow culinary herbs follows:
BASIL - This annual must be renewed each year. It is easy to start from seeds; however, these must be planted after all anger of frost has passed. The busy, handsome plants should be well mulched to hold down weeds. Although the herb is mild when added to salads, its flavor, particularly good in Spanish and Italian recipes, becomes more pronounced during cooking.
CHIVES - This versatile perennial is a good choice for the beginning herb gardener since it develops quickly and grows vigorously without any particular attention. The smallest member of the onion family, chives add color, as well as a mild onjony flavor, to dips, butters and other spreads, salads, egg dishes, soups and stews.
DILL - Although the tall, graceful dill plant is an annual, it often reseeds itself, coming back year after year with no effort on the part of the gardener. Leaves, stems and seeds are all used in the kitchen. Chopped dill leaves are excellent in potato salad, slaw and cucumber salad. They also go well with boiled potatoes and buttered noodles.
MINT - There are many delightful mint varieties - including spearmint, peppermint, applemint, orangemint and pineapplemint - each with a distinctive fragrance and flavor. Unlike most other herbs, these perennials grow vigorously in a slightly shaded and moist environment. Traditionally mints are used for making jellies, sauces, candy and juleps but they can also be added to citrus drinks and apple desserts.
PARSLEY - This herb is a biennial but best results are obtained by starting it from seed every year. The piquant flavor of fresh parsley is far superior to the dried product sold commercially. Parsley can be used fresh in tossed salads, butters and dips, as well as marinades, soups and stews.
ROSEMARY - One of of the most fragrant culinary herbs, rosemary is a tender evergreen shrub. While rosemary is a perennial, it needs to be wintered over in the house in this climate. The needle-like leaves can be used to enliven lamb, poultry, pork, stuffing and sauces.
SAGE - This is a hardy perennial with elongated grey leaves and a wonderful pungent odor. Because of its peppery taste, sage can be used to advantage with many bland foods, including chicken, poultry stuffing and cottage cheese. The same piquancy makes it a good accompaniment to heavy foods such as pork, oily fish and goose. In colonial times, sage was one of the most important medicinal herbs and a cup of sage tea (made by steeping the dry leaves in hot water) was said to insure a long life.
THYME - There are more than 60 varieties of this perennial but common thyme (thymus vulgaris) is the one generally sold for culinary purposes. Among the most useful herbs in the kitchen, it will enhance everything from chowders and vegetable dishes to meats, stews, sauces and flavored butters.
Other herbs which are flavorful and easy to grow include lemon balm, sald burnet (which has the taste of cucumbers), sweet marjoram, oregano and chervil.
You can harvest and dry the leaves of almost all of the culinary herbs for use during the winter. These are usually gathered just before the plants flower, when their fragrance and flavors are well developed. Pruning at this time also benefits the plants, because it stimulates compact, vigorous growth. For best results, collect the branches and leaves in the morning, before the heat is too intense but after the dew has evaporated.
If it seems necessary, the herbs can be washed quickly in cold water and laid out on paper towels to dry. After the moisture has evaporated, small quantities can then be air dried in a kitchen colander for about 10 days or until crumbly. To hasten the process, you can remove the leaves from the stems, spread them on a cookie sheet covered with a paper towel, and dry in an oven preheated to 100 degrees. Leave the oven door slightly open and dry for 10 to 20 minutes.
To process quantities of herbs, tie in small bunches and hang upside down away from direct sunlight in a well-ventilated room. To prevent mold, be sure not to crowd the bunches, and dry for about 10 days or till the leaves can be crumbled easily.
When completely dry, leaves should be stripped from the stems and packed in air-tight containers. If any condensation appears during the first several days after packaging, the herbs should be removed and dried again on a plate or screen.
One herb which does not dry well is curly parsley, its thick leaves retain moisture. Plain or Italian parsley can be dried, however. [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
Because chives lose much of their flavor when dried, you may wat to preserve them by freezing instead. Chop first and place in small, sealed plastic bags.
Many people are accustomed to using only dry herbs. But you can enjoy them fresh in the spring and summer. All of the recipes which follow call for fresh herbs, unless otherwise specified. If you wish to substitute dried herbs, use about 1/4 to 1/2 as much as the quantity specified. Obviously, you can also reverse the process and substitute fresh herbs in your own recipes that call for dried - by using two or three times as much BLENDED HERB VINEGAR
(Makes 1 quart) 1 quart apple cider or white wine vinegar 1 large handful chives , bruised 1 large handful basil leaves, bruised 3 to 4 sprigs parlsey, bruised 1 garlic clove, peeled and sliced
put vinegar in an vinegar in an enameled, heatproof glass or similar non-metal pot over medium heat. (Metal will affect the taste of the final product.) When vinegar is hot, immediately remove from burner. Do not allow it to boil. Add the herbs; stir to be sure all are covered with vinegar, and set mixture aside to cool. When cool, place in a large glass jar or crock. Cap (preferably with a non-metal lid) and store 4 to 5 weeks. Strain out herbs and vinegar is ready to use. Combine with oil for a fine, delicately flavored salad dressing. DILL DIP
(Makes 2 cups) 1 cup sour cream 1 cup mayonnaise 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives Salt
Blend all ingredients together. Refrigerate 2 to 3 hours before serving with sliced raw vegetables or potato chips. CHIVE BUTTER
(Makes 1/2 cup) 1/2 cup butter 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives 1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parlsey
Let butter soften at room temperature for about 20 minutes. Then thoroughly blend the chopped herbs into it, using a fork. Cover and refrigerate for several hours before serving on rolls or bread, baked potatoes, steak or green vegetables. MINTED TEA
(Makes about 1 cup)
"Gourmet" minted orange pekoe tea costs more than $6 a pound. But you can make the same blend at a fraction of the cost using mint from your garden. To make the tea with fresh mint, simply add a small sprig of spearmint along with each tea bag to the pot. After the tea is steeped, remove both mint and bags. For a slightly different but equally delicious taste, use orangemint instead of spearmint. To make a dry minted tea mix combine 1 cup orange pekoe/pekoe black loose tea with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons dried spearmint leaves, stirring gently. Place in an airtight container and allow flavors to blend for several days. The mix is ready to use like regular tea.