The summer herb garden is a lot like a tasty stew that's just finished simmering. Planning and preparation are completed and now it's time to enjoy the long-awaited rewards of aromas and tastes.
The secret to harvesting culinary herbs is to keep in mind the dignity of the plants. For instance, use scissors, shears or sharp fingernails to snip two-to-three-inch sprigs from herbs such as thyme, oregano, marjoram and rosemary; to hack off careless handfuls, roots and all, tends to traumatize the plants.
While you're snipping, also consider future growth. For example, sweet basil grows in rosettes of leaves. Snip off the top rosette, leaving the pair of smaller rosettes underneath to grow for later snipping, and then move on to other plants. In this way you can increase your basil yield almost five times. The worst sin in harvesting herbs is to strip away the leaves leaving a naked stem. You'll reduce the herb's growth, if not kill it, and the poor thing will look ridiculous.
(As for your own well being, bend your knees and hips instead of bending straight-legged at the waist. Your neighbors may think you look pretty silly, but you will avoid the dreaded "basil back," which can linger on long after your herbs have frosted over.)
Herbs should be harvested right before they are used. Many cooks actually consult with their herbs before cooking and thereby invent some interesting culinary creations. Let's say you have baby new potatoes just waiting to be steamed. Rub a few herb leaves between your fingers, take a whiff and imagine how the aroma would enhance the soft nuttiness of the potatoes. Chances are you'll discover a combination that's irresistible. Tarragon in potato salad with minced purple onion resulted from one such experiment.
Another tip for getting herbs into your meals is to match the intensity of the herb to the food you're cooking. Sprigs of robust rosemary tossed in with roasting garlic is a good choice; delicate chervil would be lost behind the garlic's deep perfume and better off minced into a simple vinaigrette.
When salt is cut back, flavor can be enhanced with the addition of an herb or two. Marinades are a good example, since their job is to impart flavor in the first place. Dill or thyme added to a marinade for fish is a classic, as is rosemary for chicken. Or try a more adventurous brew, such as lavender with flank steak. You can also toss sprigs of thyme, basil, mint and oregano leaves right into salads. Their flavors will spike up ordinary greens and obviate the salt shaker.
How much fresh herb should be used? About three times the amount of dried will generally do the trick. So if you'd normally use one tablespoon of dried oregano on a pizza, use three tablespoons of fresh.
For the fullest flavor, be sure to crush fresh herbs before adding them to recipes. Use a mortar to bruise the leaves, or mince or grind the herbs. This allows their essential oils to escape and that's what makes them smell and taste so good. To further preserve the flavors of herbs, add them during the last five minutes of cooking when preparing long-simmering sauces and soups.
If you'd like to tuck some herbs away for winter, freezing is best. (Drying takes too long in humid climates, and many herbs tend to become moldy.) Begin in the morning, after the dew has dried but before the herbs are hit by bright sun. They have their most intense perfume at this time of day, which will make up for the slight flavor loss from freezing. Basil, tarragon, sage, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, dill and thyme all do well, but freeze only prime specimens. Avoid herbs with yellow, brown or torn leaves. Also, try not to wash the herbs before freezing because some, especially basil, can become water-logged and eventually turn black and flavorless in the freezer. If the herbs are dirty, and they shouldn't be if you've mulched, brush them off with a clean paint brush. Set whole sprigs or rosettes of herbs right into freezer containers or bags, seal and freeze for up to a year. To use, pop open a container and break off as much herb as you need, then re-seal.
For the best flavor and texture, don't defrost before using; besides, they're easy to chop and mince when frozen. Try frozen herbs in soups, stews and sauces -- cinnamon basil is a bright note to add to a midwinter tomato sauce.
Another freezing method is to mince fresh herbs in a food processor with a bit of oil. Then scoop the paste into ice cube trays and freeze. When the cubes are frozen, transfer them to freezer containers or bags and keep them for up to a year. To use, just pop a frozen cube or two into a stew or soup. Basil, which freezes well this way, is wonderful in mushroom-barley soup. You can also combine two or more herbs together to make cubes. If you use oregano and parsley together, say for chili, why not preserve them together too?
Herbed vinegars, another interesting preserving method, require only a small amount of herbs. But because the flavor lingers in the vinegar, the memory of the herb is retained long into the winter. Choose red or white wine vinegar, cider vinegar or rice vinegar and heat it but don't let it boil. Meanwhile, in a mortar, bruise three tablespoons of herbs for each cup of vinegar. Scoop the herbs into a jar, pour in the vinegar, cover the jar and let it sit in a cool, dark place for two weeks. Then strain and refrigerate.
As for varieties, decide what you like to cook with and go from there. If you like Asian flavors try garlic, chives and hot chilies. Dillweed and nasturtium blossoms are a tasty combination and the vinegar turns a lovely blush color. A personal favorite is rosemary, raisins, orange peel and garlic in white wine vinegar. Use it in salad dressings, marinades or to deglaze pans when cooking poultry.
Flavored oils are just as easy to create. Gently heat a cup of olive oil, peanut oil or canola oil until just warm and fragrant. Then pour into a glass jar with three tablespoons of bruised herbs. Cover and store in a cool, dark place for two weeks. Then strain. A good combination is oregano, thyme and garlic, but again, let your own cooking patterns decide. Use flavored oils in vinaigrettes, marinades and to saute'. Many people feel that flavored oils can help lower fat and calories in cooking. The idea is that less oil can be used because it's more flavorful.
Touching on the stew analogy again, even after the simmering is done, certain small adjustments may be required. The same goes for the herb garden, even at this time of year. Check the plants periodically and remove and discard yellow, brown or torn leaves.
If you've planted in good soil, you probably won't need to feed your herbs. But if they look a bit sluggish, give them a squirt of fish emulsion. It's a liquid fertilizer made from fish and water, and herbs just love it. Mix with water in a plant mister according to directions and spray the leaves. Herbs seem to be more receptive to foliar feeding than to watering. As you will discover when every cat in the neighborhood becomes your best friend, fish emulsion smells. But the smell goes away overnight, leaving happy herbs to harvest and enjoy.
Keeping the herbs tidy and healthy helps keep enemy bugs away, but even so, a few might show up. Particularly devastating are Japanese beetles, those rapacious little helmet-looking things that can decimate a basil crop overnight. Several kinds of Japanese beetle traps are available, but the best have both sex and floral lures. The traps are either hung on a tree or staked about 20 feet away from the plants. The male Japanese beetles smell the sex scent of the lure and zip straight into the trap. That leaves the females, who are attracted to the floral scent and sashay over -- and you know the story. Some traps don't contain the floral lure, leaving female beetles to chow down on your herbs, so read the labels.
Slugs also can be a big problem, but this is a food section, so let's get on with it quickly. Set out shallow pie tins of beer overnight; slugs like beer, but they can't swim.
Judith Benn Hurley is a Pennsylvania cookbook author who wrote about starting an herb garden in the April 25 Food section.