Culinary Herbs

Culinary Herbs

By Tarynne Mingione, RD
Registered Dietitian

Like most bright ideas, this one was sparked while sipping a mojito – why am I not growing mint? Well, this “little project” turned into a full-blown garden last year. So my challenge this year is to share with you how to grow some culinary herbs.

Why Growing Herbs at Home is Great…

  • It’s fun. Trust me, the smell of basil straight from the ground will take your mind on a direct flight to southern Italy.
  • It’s economical. How many times have you purchased a ginormous bunch of parsley, only to use a few sprigs? Having live plants means you can take as little (or as much) as you need, when you need it. One $3 basil plant can save you well over $20. You will waste less, and likely will use herbs more frequently since they will always be available.
  • It encourages creativity. When you have an assortment of plants begging to be used, you might take a handful of each and add it to the recipe. You can create endless combinations of herbs and spices to a variety of dishes.
  • It’s easy. Whether you have an amazing boyfriend that will yank rose bushes to make room for your gardening experiment, a balcony that sees the sun, or just a naked windowsill, you really can grow herbs anywhere.

Getting Started…

Two ways to do it, from seed or from starters:

  • Seed: Rather than dig into the details for each herb, I recommend you talk to the “green thumbed” people at your favorite garden center, or just cruise through the seed section and flip over the package and review the straightforward instructions, which will likely give you the option of sowing directly or starting indoors. Generally you can plant seed after the danger of the last frost. By the time you are reading this post, you can likely head straight outdoors.
  • Starters: I recommend this route for those of you who prefer the “quick start” guide…or those that don’t ponder planting until June. Head to the nursery and pick out your favorite herbs that are already a few inches tall. Most nurseries will carry rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano and sage. Be sure to mention the environment you are transplanting these herbs to and ask for tips on caring for your new friends, or carefully review the label these starters are wearing.

What to do with them…

Possibilities are endless. My absolute favorite is rinsing clean straight from the garden and sprinkling over foods once I flip off the stovetop or step away from the grill. Here are a few other ideas:

Preserve them. Can’t use them fast enough? Pick the herbs right before the plant is flowering.

  • Drying: Rinse gently using cool water (heat will destroy the essential oils). Wipe to remove moisture. Low-moisture herbs can be air dried (hanging in a cool, dry, dark place). High-moisture herbs (think basil and mint) should be dried using an oven (low temperature and leave the oven door open) or dehydrator.
  • Freezing: Chives, fennel, parsley and tarragon can all be frozen. You can rinse, shake dry, and place in a freezer bag. Or you can put chopped herbs (even cilantro and parsley) into an ice cube tray and add water (½oz herbs: ½oz water in each compartment). Add these cubes straight to recipes when you are cooking!
  • Oils: Basil, dill, fennel, mint, rosemary and thyme all make incredible oils. First, crush herbs (using mortar and pestle) to release those amazing-smelling essential oils. Then transfer to a clean glass jar and add a good quality oil. Shake occasionally and let infuse for up to 2 weeks. Then strain the oil into another clean glass jar.

Eat them. When using fresh herbs, add them to the very final stages of cooking (high heat can destroy the essential oils). Add dried herbs at the beginning of cooking so that flavors infuse the dish and develop an inviting fragrance as the cooking time extends.

Not Convinced?

Then I at least encourage you to pick up a fresh bunch at the farmers market or grocery store.

  • Basil: Think pesto. This mint-family member is essential in Mediterranean cooking and takes on several different interesting variations: lemon, anise, clove, and cinnamon basil. Store upright in a glass of clean water with its produce bag draped loosely over the bunch. Switch out the water every few days and it will keep for up to a week.
  • Cilantro: Also called Chinese parsley, it’s actually the leaves and stems of the coriander plant (no wonder these two infuse so well in recipes!) Select bunches that feature bright green, evenly colored leaves that don’t reveal signs of wilting.
  • Parsley: Select as you would basil (above), however to store you can rinse gently and wrap in a paper towel before putting in a plastic bag and refrigerating.
  • Thyme: A combination of minty and lemony. I encourage you to buy a starter and stick in the ground – it will take off without tender care and is a great ground cover.
  • Oregano: Related to both marjoram and thyme and also a member of the mint family. Choose bunches with no signs of yellowing, and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
  • Mint: Like parsley, there are over two dozen varieties, the most popular being peppermint (the more pungent) and spearmint. This herb grows wild, like a weed, so I encourage you to pick a contained spot in the garden or a pot and let it grow.

A word about all dried herbs: Store in a cool, dry, dark place for no more than 6 months. Unlike Twinkies, they won’t be good forever, so only purchase as much as you will use in the next few months.

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There are few things that smell as captivating as freshly picked herbs that you add straight to your tea or use to accentuate the flavors of your finely crafted meal. Now is the perfect season to experiment with growing your own!

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