Monday, May 16, 2011

H is for Herbs

The second installment of the Potted Goose Herb Garden is well under way.  If you'll recall from last year, we started an herb garden from seed using recycled egg cartons on Earth Day.  That was some front page, super cool, foodie stuff right there.  But you should also recall, I was country when country wasn't cool.   

We had quite a successful herb garden last year.  (I still have dried basil in my cabinet.)  And a few failures, too.  I learned just enough to want to try my hand at herb gardening again this year.

Noah, who suddenly quit eating anything green around age 4, will eat dishes made with the herbs we've grown.  She'll ask about the green flecks in the dish, and when I tell her it's herbs, she's happy to eat it.


So here's my (short and sweet) take on H is for Herbs.  By no means should you expect a full, comprehensive look at the dozens of herbs growing across the globe or an economic overview of the global herb market.  We're keeping it local, as in my backyard and my kitchen local.  Six herbs.  Six suggestions for growing them in your backyard.  And six tips on how to use them in your kitchen.

On May 3rd, we got started...



 
















...filling (re-used) greenhouse flats (any extra egg cartons are going to Brent's nieces and their new laying hen adventure) with potting soil and planting basil, cilantro, chives and dill (they smell just like a pickle) seeds.  With the help of six little hands, we did our best to keep the seeds in their proper location. 
















And we labeled each "area" with re-used plastic knives and popsicle sticks.  (So green, so cool.)



















Ten days and lots of gentle watering later...


















we have herbs!!  Or at least a very good start to the second annual herb garden.  The basil, cilantro and dill were making an excellent start.  The chives weren't so sure about showing themselves just yet.  But by today, day 13, a few tiny sprouts are beginning to appear.


We keep the herbs in full sun and keep the soil moist.  We are still several weeks away from moving them out of these flats and into pots.  Last year, I kept all the herbs in pots on my patio.  (I even gave away several pots...the stuff was prolific.)  This year - and I'll explain more later - I want to put some in the ground and let them go to seed. 

Basil


Basil was the easiest herb to grow and the most abundant producer.  It grows easily from seed, and once the seedlings were 3-4 inches tall, we transplanted to pots.  The pots stayed on our east patio - getting the best morning sun, and staying out of the scorching afternoon heat.  We watered almost daily - it was easy to tell when the basil plants needed a drink.

To harvest, I used my kitchen scissors to cut away 3-4 inch sections of stem.  I picked the leaves from the stem, and chopped the leaves to use fresh in tomato dishes or a fresh, summer stir fry.  These plants were so abundant that I gave away pots of it to friends and neighbors.  I harvested in large bunches, wrapped in moist paper towels and delivered to friends along with my bruschetta recipe (scroll down).

And at the end of the season, I harvested everything that was left and dried it.  To dry the basil, I tied the stems together with a rubber band and hung in a basement closet that is dry and dark.  This winter, I used the basil in tomato dishes and a new family favorite, slow cooker spaghetti sauce.  However, bruschetta is far and away our favorite use for fresh basil.

Garden Fresh Bruschetta

14 slices French bread, 3/4" thick
Garlic powder
4 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/4 cup chopped red onion
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for brushing on bread
1-2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

In a bowl, combine tomatoes, onion, oil, garlic, basil, salt and pepper.  Chill in fridge at least 1 hour.

Brush French bread slices with olive oil and lightly sprinkle with garlic powder.  Bake at 350 for 5 minutes, until lightly browned.

Place a heaping spoonful of tomato mixture onto each bread slice.  Serve immediately.

Cilantro

The cilantro plant serves two purposes: the leaves are used in Mexican and Asian dishes, and when let go to seed, the seeds are harvested and dried and called "coriander."  Ground coriander is used in meat dishes and has a Mediterranean flavor.

We grew the cilantro for the leaves; primarily for salsa.  Brent grows lots of tomatoes and peppers in the vegetable garden.  And I make lots of salsa each summer.

Cilantro is easy to start from seed, and transplants easily to pots once the plants are 3-4 inches tall.  Some thinning will be required. 

I was able to get one harvest from my cilantro plants.  I've read that the will regrow, but mine did not.  I have also read that you should start new seeds every three weeks during the growing season to ensure cilantro all summer long.  I used what I could fresh and dried the rest, hanging upside down in paper bags that I placed in the basement.

Once the plant flowers and goes to seed, the flavor of the leaves will change.  My plants were very potent last year - a little bit went a long way in a batch of salsa.  When using fresh herbs, add them at the very end of the cooking process.  When using dried herbs, add them at the beginning.

Chives

Chives are a tall, slender plant with beautiful, clover-like purple flowers.  They give a mild onion flavor when used in recipes.  I had mild success growing them from seed last year, and have since learned they are easier to plant established plants from a nursery.  Or transplant from a nameless neighbor who has a beautiful patch of chives.  This could be called "Plan B for the 2011 Chives."

Chives, when planted in the ground, will come back year after year.   A perennial, in case you've forgotten.  When planted in pots, they won't survive the winter.

I used my small chives crop last year when making potato dishes, dressings and anywhere I wanted to substitute for onions.  My personal preference is for a more mild onion flavor anyway, so chives suit me just fine.

Dill

Dill can be easily started from seed.  I read that it can be difficult to transplant, but I had no troubles last year moving it to pots on the patio.  Dill does not like the extreme heat of July and August.

I harvested my dill before it went to seed.  I used fresh dill in creamed peas and new potatoes and vegetable dips.  I dried the rest and used it over the winter.  You can also let your dill flower and harvest the seeds.  Which would be a wonderful thing to do if you also grow cucumbers in your vegetable garden and want to take on the challenge of canning pickles.  (Tried it once.  Didn't come close to Vlassic.)  Or, you can plant the dill in the ground and let it go to seed and it will come up the next spring. 

Mint

Thanks to another nameless neighbor, we've added mint to the herb garden this year.  If you've ever grown mint before, you know why my neighbor was happy to give me a bucket full of mint to transplant.  The stuff is invasive.  The stuff will take over your garden.  I always like a good challenge.  I planted some in a pot, and then planted a small patch in my flower garden. 

Mint grows best when transplanted.  Next year, I'll share some of mine with you.  Mint likes to be kept moist, but will tolerate dry conditions.  It should do just fine in my Central Kansas garden. 

I intend to use mint sprigs to flavor lemonade and adult beverages that I intend to enjoy on my east patio that I suspect will be overflowing with herbs by mid-summer.  I think you should join me!

Rosemary

This herb was a total failure last year.  A complete flop.  I think two or three seeds sprouted.  And then quickly died.  Months later I learned that rosemary is one of the most difficult herbs to start from seed.  I didn't feel so bad anymore.


This year, I purchased a small pot of rosemary from my local greenhouse.  It does not like to be over watered.  Which in my case, means it needs to be located in a place where my two-year-old can't get to it.  She loves to water the flowers.  Usually the same pot over and over and over again.


Rosemary is one of my favorite herbs.  I just the aroma!  It can be over-powering, so a few leaves will more than flavor an entire dish of potatoes.  I have used purchased, dried rosemary in my oven-roasted potato recipe.  I am excited to try my own fresh rosemary this year.

Rosemary Roasted Potatoes

4-6 medium potatoes, cubed
Olive oil, salt, pepper, rosemary, garlic powder and parsley

Cube potatoes and spread evenly on a baking sheet.  Drizzle generously with olive oil.  Season generously with salt, less than generously with pepper, rosemary, garlic powder and parsley.  Roast in oven at 400 degrees for 45-60 minutes, or until tender, tossing mid-way through.

For more detailed information on growing herbs, check out these resources:

K-state garden guide

Culinary herb guide

It's not too late to get started with your own herb garden.  Pick herbs that are familiar to you; ones you'll be eager to cook with; flavors you think your family will enjoy.

I'm eager to get cooking with my herbs this year.  And I'm looking forward to learning more about growing herbs and sharing that knowledge with my kiddos too!