“Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…”
I sing that familiar folk tune each time I walk out to my little herb garden in the summer. Indeed, I’ll find parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme growing there, along with several other fragrant herbs.
Now that spring is nearly here, I’m eagerly awaiting the time when I can set out my herbs. I love to cook, and the flavor of fresh herbs can turn even a simple dish into a work of culinary art.
Basil is sometimes called “the king of herbs”. There are many different varieties available, ranging from bright green to purple. It’s also known as Thai basil, or sweet basil. I use fresh basil primarily in Italian dishes, especially gnocchi.
Chives are a favorite of mine. I love chopping up fresh chives and adding them to sour cream to serve over a hot, baked potatoes. I add them to egg dishes, too. Chives are from the onion family, and make great additions to soups and to fish recipes. Chives are said to repel pests, so they’re often planted along the edges of herb gardens to form a protective border.
Cilantro is the North American name for coriander. It’s used mostly for Mexican cooking. I use it in salsa, enchiladas, and as one of the main ingredients in “pico” — a mix of freshly chopped onions, tomatoes, and seasonings. It also makes a great little garnish for black bean dishes or rice.
Dill. Oh, yes, dill. I love all my herbs, but if I had to choose only one to grow in my garden, it would be dill. I love the smell of fresh dill. To me, it’s the “smell of autumn”, probably because that’s the time of year for making pickles. I use fresh dill in potato salads, and when I serve salmon loaf or salmon croquettes, I make a creamy dill sauce. Oh, my mouth is watering already. I also think dillweed is a very pretty little plant.
Lavender is more likely to be considered a flowering plant than a herb, and I grow it not for cooking but for the wondrous, heavenly scent it emits. It can be used in the kitchen, though, for sweet tea breads, ice creams, and cookies. My favorite way to use the lavender from my garden is to add it to my bathwater.
Lemongrass is a staple ingredient in Asian cooking. My favorite use for it is in rice dishes. It’s often used in soups and in meat dishes. It’s related to the “citronella” used in candles to repel insects and is often grown alongside tomatoes as a natural “pesticide”.
Mint will someday take over the world. Trust me on this. I know. If you’re going to grow mint, be prepared to pull it up by the handful. I think it will grow anywhere. It’s notorious for spreading out and swallowing up everything in its path. Of course, it smells delightful! I grow both spearmint and peppermint in my herb garden. Sometimes, I even grow a little bit of catnip — a member of the same family. I prefer the peppermint over spearmint, but both can be used in a lot of summer drinks and desserts. Mint is often used in lamb dishes, and when I make fruit salads, I’ll chop up a few mint leaves and add them in with the greens.
Oregano is best known as “the pizza herb”. Take one whiff of it, and you’ll know why. I’ve heard it said that dried oregano is more potent than fresh, but I know the oregano that comes from my herb garden provides plenty of the “pizza pie” flavor to any Italian dishes I prepare — including pizza. I add it to Mexican recipes, too.
Parsley is a fun little herb. At least, that’s how I think of it. Everybody knows parsley, of course. It’s that green stuff decorating your plate when you dine out at a restaurant. It’s that big bundle of green stuff that’s usually dripping wet when you grab it at the supermarket. In addition to making a lovely garnish, parsley is great in salads, soups, and other recipes. It’s available in a lot of varieties. I grow the Italian flat-leaf parsley in my herb garden. It has a bit more flavor, I think, than the curly-leaf parsley. One note of caution. Pregnant women should not consume excessive amounts of parsley. Of course, it’s perfectly safe in normal quantities.
Rosemary is said to improve memory. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I do know what a lovely fragrance it has. I use rosemary as another “staple herb” for any Italian dishes I cook, and I use it, too, for poultry and for dressings. My favorite way to use it, though, is to just go out to the herb garden and run my hands over the stems, releasing a bit of fragrant oil. I love the scent of rosemary.
Thyme has an interesting history. It was used for embalming in ancient Egypt, and Greeks used it in their baths and in the temples. During the Middle Ages, sprigs of thyme were often placed beneath a sleeper’s pillow to ward off nightmares, and young maidens often gave the herb to warriors as is was believed to give courage. It’s one of the staples of Mediterranean cuisines and comes in many different varieties. It’s a great herb to use for meats. I use it often for chicken and pork.
That’s what grows in my herb garden. Sometimes I’ll add in another herb I find at the nursery, maybe marjoram — which is very similar to oregano — or maybe tarragon — which tastes much like licorice.
If you’ve never grown your own herbs, do give it a try. Choose your favorite, visit a nearby nursery, and grab a plant. Once you’ve tried using fresh herbs in place of the store-purchased dried varieties on the grocer’s shelves, you’ll taste the difference for yourself. Most herbs are fairly easy to grow. They don’t require much space — with the exception of the all-powerful mint, which, as I said above, will someday take over the world. Herbs can be grown on a window sill, in little containers, in hanging baskets, or in flower pots.
If you’d like to hear the entire song, Scarborough Fair — as sung by duo, Simon & Garfunkel, just click below.