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What got you interested in herbs? people often ask me. I attribute it to my travels in Mexico, where I often found myself in kitchens, talking and eating with friendly folks who readily shared what little they had. I quickly discovered the importance of herbs in peasant cuisines—how they enlivened otherwise mundane fare. A generous pinch of oregano in a pot of frijoles, several sprigs of yerba buena (mint) in chicken soup, and generous doses of chopped cilantro in the salsa picante added flavor to simple ingredients. Almost every home had a small herb garden, or at least some favorite herbs growing in rusted tin cans or weathered clay pots. Vendors in the colorful Mexican markets sold fresh herbs tied up in small bundles and dried herbs, just enough for a few meals, wrapped up in little paper cones.
For an anthropology class my senior year in college, I wrote a term paper on the medicinal herbs used by Mexican women. During my research, I again seemed to end up in the kitchen, chatting with the women who also shared their recipes. After all, many of the medicinal herbs have important culinary virtue as well. And so began my adventure of cooking with herbs.
Apparently, herbs intrigued an earlier member of my family as well. Just before completing this book, I found some old family papers handwritten by my grandmother. She wrote the following about Lucinda Duncan, her great grandmother after whom I was named, who crossed the plains to California in 1852. According to family records, her family was one of twelve in an ox train and were the first white settlers in Los Angeles County. Here is what my grandmother wrote:
She had auburn hair—wavey—parted in middle and wore black lace cap—buried in a white one—and nainsook—fine cotton—shroud.... Brought all her own herbs and had herb garden for medicine.... She had a stroke while milking—as her husband couldn't milk—and fell off the stool and died in five days. They were very devoted.... He married again—old widow Westfall who married him for his money and gave him ground glass which didn't kill him—so he divorced hergiving her $50.00—he died of old age more or less—at 85.
And so the legacy continues. (Fortunately, I don't know how to milk a cow, so there is no danger of my falling off a milking stool, and none of my recipes includes ground glass!) The seed was planted over a century ago; I propagate the tradition. Today I spend much of my time gardening and cooking, while often thinking about that ox-pulled wagon bouncing across the country from Missouri with its precious cargo: herb seeds, perhaps even a plant or two, bound for their new home in the California sunshine.
With the renewed interest in herbs today, many books about these delightfully aromatic plants are available. Unfortunately, however, most of them are geared toward gardening in England or New England, and their information seldom applies to gardening situations in the South and Southwest.
And so I decided to write about growing herbs in the Southwestern states. But what exactly is the Southwest? I don't want to conjure up images of cacti and desert mesas, and I certainly intend to include the golden state of California. New Mexico and Colorado are surely the Southwest, although their more severe winters and shorter growing seasons pose different gardening problems from those of their Texas neighbors. And to cause more confusion, the state of Texas alone has five gardening zones, with winter temperature extremes ranging from -5 to 30 degrees.
Herbs that grow in the Southwest also grow in the Southeastern and South Central states of the Sunbelt—areas with plenty of sunshine and relatively mild winters. So don't let the word Southwest limit you. Many of the herbs in this book will grow in Northern states as well, provided they are given winter protection.
On the other hand, herbs that flourish in a Cape Cod garden sometimes cannot abide the summer's heat in the Southern and Western states; cultivation practices differ as well. For instance, many current herb books say to plant cilantro in the spring; to do so in warmer climates causes the plant to bolt prematurely, whereas planting seeds in the fall assures healthy plants for gardeners in these regions.
Most of the herbs I have chosen, however, grow especially well in the Southwest; for instance, several sun-loving Mexican and Southeast Asian herbs are quite at home there. Still, we are talking about a large area with many gardening zones and various types of soils, so it is best to consult your local agricultural extension agency, an almanac, or local nurseries to find out the first and last freezing dates for planting, harvesting, and planning the herb garden.
Why Fresh Herbs?
Once you have walked into the garden and brushed against a fresh, pine-scented rosemary plant, gently rubbed the leaves of lemon thyme, releasing its citrus perfume, or picked a bouquet of spicy, clovescented basil, you will understand why fresh herbs offer such delight. Not only do they have an inviting aroma, but they look beautiful growing, providing color, texture, and fragrance to the garden. And the gourmet and novice chef alike will marvel at how quickly and deliciously herbs enhance even the simplest meals, pleasing the eye as well as the palate.
With today's emphasis on health and sensible eating, fresh herbs provide culinary options. Freshly chopped herbs may be substituted for rich sauces and salt. Using fresh herb sprigs as flavoring and garnishes certainly makes diet fare more appealing, and they taste good as well. Combining mineral water and fruit juice in an iced glass and garnishing it with a fresh sprig of mint can replace a cocktail. And a big salad of various greens and sprigs of fresh herbs is fun to eat but not fattening! The added benefit is that many herbs contain vitamins and minerals. But mostly, it's simply amazing what a burst of flavor and freshness these aromatic plants give to food.
Although dried herbs serve their purpose (I prefer to use oregano and thyme in their dried form when a recipe needs a more intense flavor), the flavor of fresh herbs is incomparable. Unfortunately, many people do not store dried herbs properly. I cringe when I enter kitchens where jars of dried herbs and spices are stored next to a hot stove or exposed to direct sunlight, thinking of the worn-out flavor they will impart to food. I despair to think how long people have kept them on their shelves, how long they sat on grocery shelves before purchase, and how long in warehouses before that. And few people seem to realize that many commercially grown herbs are heavily fertilized with chemicals, which increase the yield but decrease the flavor, or that many herbs come from countries indiscriminately using dangerous insecticides.
My advice? Discard those jars of herbs that have sat on the shelf for months or years, and replace them with fresh ones from a reliable source. Better yet, plant an herb garden. In the sunny Southwest, you can have herbs almost year round!
Where To Grow Herbs
For optimum growth, herbs require six hours of sunshine daily. Gentle morning sun is ideal, to dry the morning dew from the leaves and to prevent the possibility of leaf disease. The afternoon summer sun in the Southwest is quite harsh, although adequate mulching can help maintain the moisture level. Certain herbs tolerate more shade than others. Specific growing information is given on each herb in the following chapters.
Before choosing space for an herb garden, make sure that trees or buildings will not block sunshine. Because I have a shady back yard, I used all available space in the front by making 2-foot beds along all borders and the path to the front door. This arm's-length-size bed enables me to reach the front and the back with ease. Larger, curved beds line the front sidewalk, and a low limestone wall contains shade-growing herbs beneath the front windows of the house. A 5-foot dry-stack limestone wall, hollow in the center, makes a well-draining planter for herbs and flowers. One side of the wall has creeping thymes, rosemaries, and other herbs growing between the irregularly shaped honeycomb rocks.
Upon visiting my garden, Dolores Latorre, author of Cooking and Curing with Mexican Herbs (Encino Press), appreciated the way I grow herbs intensively in a small space. "After all," she commented, "herbs are gregarious. They love to be around each other and people as well." She's right. Herbs have brought much personal joy to me as well as to visitors and passersby.
Space-saving devices include cedar or redwood trellised window boxes, half barrels, and other clay or wooden containers. Apartment or condominium dwellers may plant herbs on patios or decks, provided they have enough sunshine; in fact, containers often allow the good drainage necessary for the healthy growth of herbs.
When planting herbs, keep in mind their ultimate size and needs so that plants requiring similar conditions are grown together. Taller herbs should be grown in the background to prevent their shading lower-growing plants. Remember that perennial herbs continue to grow year after year and need a permanent location. Because many herbs are companion plants to vegetables—that is, they mutually benefit one another—they should be planted in close proximity. For more information, consult the individual herb chapters.The versatility of herbs, their variety of fragrance, color, and shape, make them valuable as ornamental plants. Interspersing them among bright flowers and vegetables gives a lovely cottage garden effect, brimming with color and texture. Many herbs not only tolerate our mild winters, but also are the first plants to pop their heads up in early spring, so herbs supply year-round beauty and fascination to the garden.
Soil and Raised-Bed Gardening
As there are already many books devoted to the subject, I do not intend to discuss formal herb garden design; instead, I wish to concentrate on several basic ways to prepare an herb garden. For those choosing to till a garden space, it should be done twice if possible. Till in compost, organic fertilizer, and other nutrients (bone meal, rock phosphate, seaweed meal, etc.) and allow the garden to sit a few weeks. Till again to a depth of 12 inches, taking caution to remove any roots of insidious weeds. This method works especially well when herbs and vegetables are grown together.
John Dromgoole, frequent contributor to Organic Gardening magazine, and owner of Gardenville of Austin (a vanguard nursery specializing in soils, compost, and natural pesticides as well as plants and seeds), taught me the importance of healthy soil years ago. "The soil," he says, "is the stomach of the plant. You feed it, it feeds you." Healthy soil promotes healthy plants and discourages insects and disease. But most important, using organic matter and natural insect control (if necessary) produces herbs that are safe to eat!
Dromgoole also taught me the importance of raised-bed gardening, which promotes good drainage and enables you to build the soil. This is especially beneficial in parts of the country where black gumbo and caliche soils become soggy and unworkable when wet, but compacted and cracked when dry. Raising the beds allows you to fill them with a good mixture of approximately 50 percent sandy loam, 25 percent aged compost, and 25 percent sand. In more arid regions, raised beds tend to dry out frequently, so gardeners there may choose to recess their beds to catch any available water. Still, a good soil mixture is important; a neutral to slightly alkaline soil is preferable for most herbs.
Look for reputable local sources for soil and compost, or make your own. Don't be persuaded to buy cheap soil (it's often full of weeds and lacks nutrients); the initial expense for superior products will be well worth it. The main thing to remember is that herbs require a loose and well-draining soil. Working plenty of organic matter into the beds is the best way to improve soil. Find the best available organic material in your area: aged compost, composted rice hulls, wood shavings, stable beddings, and so forth. I also mix in some rock phosphate or bone meal, which promote strong root growth and supply valuable phosphorous to the plants.
Many herb books say that herbs like poor soil, but that statement is misleading. The "poor" soil of the Mediterranean, where many herbs thrive, is sandy and well-draining, not heavy and compacted like other "poor" soils. True, herbs don't require an overly rich soil, simply one that is loose and porous, and they do tolerate arid, rocky, sandy, and limestone terrain better than most plants. Still, the healthier the soil, the healthier the herbs. Once the beds are planted, however, your work is not done. Occasionally turning the soil gently and working in compost and other nutrients keeps it in good shape.
My garden, originally designed by John Dromgoole, has raised beds made of drystack white limestone in a style common to walls in the Hill Country of Central Texas; however, there are several easier and more economical methods for building raised beds. Three cedar or redwood boards (each 2 inches by 10 inches by 8 feet) may be made into a rectangular bed; cut one board in two to form the ends. Many nurseries now sell cedar landscape timber edging with flexible galvanized tin backings that can be molded into desired shapes with little effort. Railroad ties also may be used, but make sure that they are not treated with creosote, which is toxic in the food chain, and smells terrible when warmed by the sunshine. For more elaborate ideas for herb garden design, consult specialty books now available.
Seeds Versus Plants
Occasionally, problems occur in direct sowing of seeds in warmer regions. An unexpected 90-degree day in April will fry tender seedlings, if hungry worms have not already done their damage. Keeping seedlings evenly moist is imperative. Renee Shepherd, vanguard seed authority and owner of Renee's Garden in California, recommends planting herb seeds indoors in flats in sterilized potting soil, then transplanting them in the garden once established. She also recommends planting seeds in a small "seed bed" area, tending them carefully, then transplanting them into the larger garden. Remember that the vulnerable young plants must be "hardened off' (gradually exposing them to increased amount of direct sunlight) before transplanting. This holds true for nursery transplants as well. Overzealous gardeners too often buy young plants from nurseries where they have been kept in semishade, then rush home and plant them in full sun, only to see the plant go into shock or even perish. Instead, expose tender plants gradually to sunshine.
Certain herbs grow especially well from seeds. Herbs in the Apiaceae (Umbelliferae) family including coriander, dill, fennel, and parsley generally do best when planted in the fall in warmer climates. Because they develop a taproot, I plant them directly in their permanent location, making successive plantings throughout the season. The umbrella-shaped flowers in this family look attractive ornamentally, producing seeds with culinary use.
Arugula and sorrel also grow well from seeds planted in the fall. Basil, on the other hand, should not be planted until the soil and air are sufficiently warm. Cool weather stunts their growth, and they are quite susceptible to frost. But basil flourishes in warm weather, and successive sowings may be made throughout the spring and summer. I love to plant a variety of basils ranging in color from deep purple to pale green and in spicy, citrus, and floral fragrances.
With the renewed interest in herbs, local herb growers as well as mail-order catalogs offer a wide selection of herb transplants. Do encourage these sources to grow their herbs organically; after all, you eat what you plant. Unfortunately, many herb nurseries tend to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides (one of the reasons to grow your own!). Look for reliable sources in your area, as it is always good to find plants already adapted to their environment. Although herb transplants may seem rather expensive, remember that many herbs are perennials, and often only one or two of each plant is needed per garden. One package of seeds may go a long way, but how many gardens need a whole row of oregano? Even if you are able to find the necessary herbs in your area, do send off for the catalogs listed at the back of this book. They offer gardening tips, wonderful advice, recipes, and other valuable herbal information as well as seeds and live plants.
Diane Barnes of Its About Thyme herb nursery in Austin, Texas, recommends planting seeds in a sterilized soil mixture in flats or pots. Her greenhouse situation is ideal for propagating seeds: a misting device keeps the seedlings moist but never soggy. The home gardener may improvise a greenhouse by covering the flat or pot with plastic. Avoid direct sunlight and make sure that the seedlings don't dry out. Gently spraying with a diluted seaweed spray (a natural nutrient now available at nurseries) is quite beneficial. Using an English-style watering can with an upturned "rose," or spout, provides a gentle spray without damaging the delicate seedlings. Within a week to 10 days, most seeds germinate; remove the plastic and give them diffused sunlight to help them grow. Remember that these seedlings dry out quite easily and must sometimes be gently watered twice a day, but that overwatering causes damping off or fungal disease. Once the first true sets of leaves appear, the herb seedlings may be transplanted into small pots with well-draining soil, kept well watered, and given indirect sunlight. When they are strong enough to be transplanted to the garden, remember to harden them off.
For those gardeners too busy to propagate herbs from seeds, herb transplants offer an easy solution. Because these plants are well established, they are more drought tolerant and more resistant to disease and insects if grown under proper conditions. And they give you more choice. For instance, there's no telling which oregano you will get if you plant from seed, but you may order a particular variety from a catalog or choose one at a nursery.
Propagation of Herbs
Some of the propagation techniques frequently referred to in the following chapters include: cuttings, layering, and root division.
Making cuttings is the easiest way to share herbs with friends. Certain herbs root readily in a small jar of water; mints, pineapple sage, basil, epazote, and Mexican mint marigold fare especially well. Remove the bottom leaves from a 4-5 inch cutting and place in water, refilling the jar as the water evaporates. Place on a window sill with gentle morning light until it has developed a hardy root system, then transplant into pots or the garden.
Semisoft tip cuttings, about 3-4 inches long and cut just below a leaf node, may be used for propagation. Remove the leaves from the bottom few inches of the stem, leaving a few healthy ones at the top, and root them (rooting powder may be used) in a good rooting medium. (Sol Meltzer, author of Herb Gardening in Texas, recommends a mixture of onehalf sharp sand, perlite, or vermiculite and one-half peat moss.) Make sure to keep the cuttings moist, but remember that overwatering may cause root rot; give them adequate light (a greenhouse is ideal). Diane Barnes says that these cuttings or "slips" generally root in about a month, and she recommends rooting them in the fall or very early spring. Oreganos (including the Mexican oreganos), marjoram, rosemary, sage, winter savory, thyme, lemon verbena, tarragon, and Mexican mint marigold grow especially well by this means of propagation.
Another method of propagation employed in the herb garden is layering. (Actually, in many cases, nature does this on its own.) Well-established herbs such as rosemary, sage, tarragon, and thyme especially lend themselves to this technique, which involves bending a low-growing branch to the ground, securing it with a piece of bent wire (even an old-fashioned hairpin will do), and covering it lightly with soil. I usually secure the branch with a few rocks to hold it down. Within about 6 weeks, roots should have formed, and you may cut the "new plant" from its mother plant and transfer it to another place in the garden.
Root division is also an effective means of propagation. In the fall or early spring, clumps of perennial herbs may be dug up and easily divided. Or simply cut away a portion of the mother plant's root-system with a sharp knife, and transplant immediately. Mints, oreganos, marjoram, thymes, winter savory, Mexican mint marigold, and lemon balm are easy to divide in this manner.
When making these divisions, cut away dead or woody branches and roots, and transplant the new plants into pots or to other places in the garden. Trim the top of the plant by one-third to make up for the root loss, and water well. Clumps of alliums and lemon grass may also be carefully lifted, making sure not to damage the bulbs. Separate the bulbs and transplant. I like to plant alliums in clumps or as an ornamental border around the vegetable garden. Because they have lovely flowers ranging in shades from bright pinks towhite, they also provide excellent contrast in the herb garden.
One of the main problems associated with growing herbs comes from overcare: overwatering, overfertilization, and overly rich soil. Generally, herbs require less water than other plants; in fact, some of the most flavorful herbs grow on Mediterranean and Mexican hillsides with only moderate natural rainfall. Remember, though, that summers are not as intensely hot there as they are in the Southwest, where herbs require especially consistent watering; mulching helps maintain moisture. In my garden, I have installed a dripirrigation system, which provides deep soaking as opposed to frequent shallow waterings. Because it waters the roots, there is not as much loss of water to evaporation. With the increased incidence of water rationing during the summers in many cities, drip irrigation is most beneficial, as it is usually exempt from watering restrictions, and it certainly cuts down on the time spent with a hand-held hose! It also diminishes the incidence of leaf disease, as the leaves are not apt to remain wet (basil and lemon balm are especially susceptible to leaf spots). Even if you don't have a drip system, a deep soaking is better than frequent light spraying with the hose. Look for soaker hoses, which are commonly available.
Root disease and fungal disease are common among herbs such as sage, rosemary, thyme, and lavender when they are overwatered or not planted in a well-draining soil. I usually plant these herbs in beds that don't require as much water as other herbs and place limestone rocks at the base of the plants to keep water off the roots. I also add gravel to the hole when transplanting these herbs. Some of my hardiest rosemarys grow in rather neglected areas. Remember to water herbs on a wet-to-dry cycle so they don't get "wet feet." Sticking your finger into the soil near the plant is the best way to gauge its need for water.
Container-grown herbs (including hanging baskets) are apt to dry out and must be checked daily, but do not overwater them! Top dressing the containers with compost helps them retain moisture.
Mulching or top-dressing the soil with organic material such as aged compost, leaves (run over them with a lawn mower to break them down), wood shavings, or fine pine bark not only adds nutrients to the soil but helps moderate the soil temperature, keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. During summer droughts, mulching is helpful in retaining precious water, just as in the winter it helps protect roots from freezing. Although I keep a compost bin outside where kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and leaves decompose, I also purchase aged compost. Look for sources in your area that sell readymade compost, or collect materials such as stable beddings, cottonseed meal, rice hulls, grass clippings, and leaves. The finer the mulch, the better to discourage insects and to give a tidy appearance to the garden. Periodically mulching the soil adds nutrients, helps prevent weeds, and conserves precious water.
Remember that fertilizing herbs often causes lush growth at the expense of flavor; however, mixing small amounts of fish emulsion and liquid seaweed (about 2 tablespoons of each) to a gallon of water and feeding about twice a month gives young herb plants a good start. Fish emulsion is a good source of nitrogen, and seaweed supplies important trace minerals as well as makes the plants more resistant to disease and insects. Once the plant is well established, there is really no need to feed it unless it shows signs of weakness and except after a heavy harvest.
After a mild winter, many perennial clumps of herbs still have much green growth. I usually cut the plants back, removing woody branches, and feed it with the same fish emulsion/seaweed combination. After heavy harvesting of an herb, I feed it in order to give it a boost. Herbs such as fennel, dill, sorrel, chives (and other alliums), and parsley can stand a richer soil and more frequent feedings than other herbs (mix some composted manure into the soil around them). Manure tea also makes a good organic fertilizer. Using a small hand shovel, place about two scoops of composted manure in a gallon container, fill the container with water, and let set for a few days before using as a liquid fertilizer.
Insects and Disease
Part of the joy in growing herbs is their low maintenance. Provided that they are grown under proper conditions, they are generally not prone to serious damage by insects or disease, although herbs that are grown in a poorly draining soil or overwatered are susceptible to root rot and fungal disease. Too much shade also may cause leaf and root diseases. As insects often attack weaker plants, check the plant's environment if you detect pests. Is there enough sunshine? Is the soil too dense? Has the plant been underwatered or overwatered?
In the early springtime (especially after a mild winter), hungry worms and caterpillars do some serious munching on leafy herbs, especially sorrel. I go foraging at night with a flashlight, picking them off and discarding them in a merciless manner. Another method is to spray or dust the plant with bacillus thuringiensis (sold under many trade names and commonly referred to as BT), a natural bacteria, that destroys the digestive system of worms without harming people or beneficial insects. The caterpillar of the swallowtail butterfly can ravage dill, fennel, and parsley overnight if not controlled (see chapter on dill).
Aphids occasionally cause problems, especially for herbs in a greenhouse environment, although they are seldom a serious threat outdoors. Look for these tiny (usually green, white, or black) creatures clustered together sapping the life out of tender new growth or on the underside of broad-leafed herbs such as sorrel. If you see leaves curled up, unwind them and you will see lots of aphids, or perhaps a worm. Where there are ants, expect to find aphids, because ants feed on a sugary secretion called honeydew that aphids produce. Usually a blast of hose water dislodges the aphids (if our helpful ladybug friends have not eaten them for supper), but serious infestation may have to be eradicated with a spraying of insecticidal soap, a product that is available at nurseries and is not hazardous to people or wildlife.
During hot and humid months, spider mites are a nuisance, especially if the herbs are not kept properly watered. These pests (in the spider family) are very tiny but may be detected by the damage they do to foliage. If you notice an herb that looks rather "burned," with mottled and pale discoloration and a general weak appearance (new growth often looks crinkled and deformed), spider mites are probably the cause. Hold a piece of white paper under the damaged leaves and tap the plant; the tiny (usually red) mites then become apparent. Sometimes close observation of the plant shows their small webs as well. If a plant shows extreme damage, I cut it back, then spray it with a light application of insecticidal soap once every three days over a nine-day period to break the egg cycle. Look for spider mite damage on lemon verbena, rosemary, lemon balm, Mexican mint marigold, mint, oregano, marjoram, and thyme. Top-dressing these herbs in the summertime with compost helps them retain moisture, which in turn might discourage spider mites.
Have you ever seen a slug siesta? In mid morning, lift up the leaves of sorrel and other leafy herbs that may be touching the ground and you are bound to find these chubby creatures napping (along with pill bugs and snails). Some people walk around with a can of kerosene and plop the poor creatures in it—instant death. I prefer to set traps, although I have been known to round them up and relocate them to a dark corner of the yard. Place overturned grapefruit, cantelope, or orange halves randomly in the garden: slugs, snails, and pill bugs will rest there during the day, when they may be captured and discarded. Or sink in the garden lids of jars filled with beer, which drowns these creatures in a state of inebriated bliss.
Because slugs and snails crawl around on their bellies, sand or diatomaceous earth, which contains an abrasive silica, scratches their undersides, causing them to desiccate. If you go to the garden at night with a flashlight, you can really see slugs, snails, and pill bugs feasting. Slugs adore chives, onions, and shallots, slithering down their hollow tops. The best way to discourage them is to keep the garden clean, as they hide in debris. Remove yellowed and decaying leaves and anything else that provides a hiding place. This also helps prevent disease.
One of the pleasures of an organic garden—that is, one free of chemicals—is that it encourages beneficial insects, which prey upon pests. Butterflies, bees, and other insects are crucial in pollinating the garden. I love to watch the formidable-looking praying mantis stalk his prey, the chameleons changing colors, and lady bugs and bees flitting from flower to flower. Although insecticidal soap is a natural product, it is harmful to beneficial insects as well as to detrimental ones. Unless an infestation is serious, don't spray; instead, let the beneficial bugs feast.
Planting herbs among flowers, vegetables, and ornamental plants just seems to make them grow better. Many herbs actually add trace minerals to the soil, and some herbs improve the growth and flavor of certain vegetables. The pungent and pervasive aroma of many herbs seems to repel insects from the garden, so interspersing herbs among plants more susceptible to insect attack is quite beneficial. I always plant garlic and chives around my roses to repel aphids, for example, and I border vegetable beds with the strongscented alliums. I seldom have significant insect damage in my garden.
Many vegetables are commonly associated with specific herbs. These partners require the same growing conditions and usually complement one another in the kitchen as well. For instance, basil and tomatoes bask in the sun together, and in cooking, basil is the tomato herb par excellence. Savory is reputed to improve the flavor of beans as they grow, and it certainly perks up their flavor in the bean pot.
Tomato lovers may prefer that the tomato horn worm munch on dill or parsley instead of precious tomatoes; that's a tough decision for me! But what I especially enjoy about growing herbs, flowers, and vegetables together is that it breaks the monotony of traditional rows, giving color, texture, and fragrance to the garden. And it makes harvesting more pleasurable: pop a cherry tomato in your mouth and a complementary basil leaf is within hand's reach!
Harvesting, Storing, and Using Herbs
Herbs are best gathered at mid morning, when the dew has dried off the leaves but before the sun has sapped their volatile oils. The flavor of most herbs is at its peak right before flowering; however, once the herb has flowered, it generally tastes bitter and too strong. Although frequent pruning is advisable (in fact, "topping" the emerging tender growth promotes new growth), never cut the plant more than halfway, in order to allow for a second growth. In the kitchen, rinse lightly, discarding any yellowed or damaged leaves.
Herbs such as mint, basil, parsley, cilantro, epazote, pineapple sage, and Mexican mint marigold may be stored several days in a jar of water, making attractive bouquets. Pinch off the bottom leaves to prevent their touching the water, and change the water daily. Store in a cool place away from direct sunlight. Cilantro and parsley store well for over a week in a jar of water in the refrigerator, covered loosely with a plastic bag. Just remember to change the water every few days.
If you must store herbs, I suggest placing them in a single layer in a tightly sealed plastic container. Dill, fennel, mints, marjoram, oregano, parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, and tarragon keep well for weeks this way. Or place some sprigs in a tightly sealed plastic bag (squeeze out excess air) and store in the refrigerator standing up instead of lying flat. Make sure that there is no moisture on the leaves or they will mold or rot. And don't accidentally store other refrigerated goods on top of the bag, or you will bruise the leaves. This holds true for the fresh herbs packaged in sealed plastic bags now availabe at many supermarkets across the United States.
The best way to use herbs, of course, is fresh from the garden. Often, a walk through the garden inspires a meal, and it's fun to collect a fragrant bouquet and use as needed. Herbs with woodier stems, such as rosemary, winter savory, sage, lemon verbena and Mexican oreganos, are easily removed from their stems by stripping off the leaves in a downward motion from the top, then discarding the stem. The tender green stems of fennel, dill, coriander, salad burnet, summer savory, parsley, and basil may be chopped with the herb; in fact, they are quite flavorful and contain minerals and vitamins.
Many herb books recommend using fresh herbs judiciously. On the contrary, it is my opinion that you rarely can use too much of a fresh herb, perhaps with the exceptions of the pungent oreganos, rosemary, epazote, mouth-puckering sorrel, or strongly anise-flavored Mexican mint marigold. A myth seems to surround sage—that it tastes strong and medicinal, perhaps true for dried sage. But fresh sage offers a clean, refreshing, and uplifting flavor. Granted, it is best to use fresh herbs cautiously at first; you can always add more if desired. But once you succumb to their seduction, it's farewell to bland meals and to the lifeless, ancient jars and tins of dried herbs on the shelf.
There is no real rule in using fresh herbs—just what tastes good! To me, that means at least three times as much of a fresh herb as dried, although others may be contented with less. Don't be alarmed if my recipes call for three tablespoons of a fresh herb; be pleasantly surprised. When doubling or tripling a recipe, however, don't necessarily double or trip the herbs and spices, or their flavors may be overpowering.
Add fresh herbs to soups, stews, and other long-simmering dishes the last 10-15 minutes of cooking to retain their flavor and prevent bitterness. Winter savory, rosemary, and thyme, are the exceptions; they can withstand longer cooking. The full flavor of herbs in cold foods is enhanced when they are added several hours or days before serving (cheese spreads, herbal butters, pasta and rice salads, taboulleh, marinated salads, cold drinks, and such). Citrus juice, wine, and vinegar used in salad dressings often cause herbs to darken or to fade, so it is best to add fresh herbs just before serving.
Always use a sharp knife and work quickly when chopping herbs, as they darken and bruise easily. Sharp kitchen scissors are especially useful for snipping chives, parsley, basil, fennel, and dill. And I like to use the gentle rocking motion of a crescent-shaped knife when chopping fresh herbs. A hand-turned Mouli grinder comes in handy, especially for parsley, mint and oregano. And the food processor can be quite a gem for chopping copious amounts of herbs (there are now miniature food processors on the market specifically designed for chopping herbs and garlic). Make sure herbs are free of moisture (particularly if they have been rinsed first) or they will become soggy.
A fun way to introduce guests to herbs is to use several small pots or a basket of fresh herbs as the centerpiece at the dining table. Provide scissors or small clippers so guests may snip off small sprigs to flavor their meal. Or provide a tiny bouquet of herbs at each place setting, and tuck a few sprigs of herbs in the napkin rings.
Although fresh herbs from the garden may be dried or frozen, these are not my favorite ways to preserve them. Instead, I devote a chapter to malting herb butters, whose lively flavors quickly enhance many dishes. The butters can be successfully frozen for later use. I also include a detailed chapter on making herbal vinegars. The versatility and burst of intense flavors they give to foods is quite exciting, and they make beautiful gifts as well. Pestos—herbs ground to a thick paste with garlic, olive oil, nuts, and often freshly grated Parmesan cheese—offer another delicious way to preserve the herb harvest; they freeze well and make thoughtful gifts.
Still, you may want to dry some herbs for winter use, especially thyme and oregano, which taste even more flavorful when dried. Many herbs (especially mints, Mexican mint marigold, Mexican oreganos, sage, thyme, lemon verbena, epazote, estafiate, and lemon balm) may be tied up in bunches and hung upside down to dry in a well-ventilated, dark, dry room. Rinse them lightly first, removing any damaged leaves, and shake out excess moisture (high humidity will cause them to mold). They look so picturesque hanging that it's hard to take them down; however, as soon as they are dried, they should be stored in airtight containers because prolonged hanging turns them brown and dusty and impairs their flavor. Dark-colored glass jars help dried herbs retain their green color and fresh flavor. I often place dried herbs in labeled, tightly sealed plastic freezer bags or jars and store them in a place with little exposure to light.
Smaller-leafed herbs dry well on screens or drying racks. You can improvise by placing an old window screen on two bricks, which keep it raised to allow air circulation, and place in a dark, well-ventilated room, turning the leaves occasionally. Larger-leafed herbs such as basil may be removed from their stems, but smaller-leafed herbs such as savory and thyme may be dried on their stems. (Always remove rosemary from its stem.) I use an electric dehydrator with five plastic racks stacked above one another, and I especially like to dry fragrant herbs for their use in potpourri.
Dry seeds from coriander, dill, parsley, and fennel by hanging the umbrellashaped ripened seed heads upside down in brown paper bags in a well-ventilated room away from direct light. Shaking the bag will cause the seeds to fall. Store them in airtight containers or freeze them.
Herbs flourish in my Southwestern garden almost year round and are also readily available neatly sealed in containers or in small bunches in supermarkets throughout the country. Therefore, I rarely bother to freeze them except in butters, pestos, and sauces.
Using This Book
I have written this book primarily to encourage the use of fresh herbs: how to grow them and what to do with them. Twenty popular herbs that grow well in the Southwest are included in the following chapters, as are a variety of more unusual Mexican and Southeast Asian herbs. Each chapter is filled with pertinent growing and cooking information about the herbs, followed by several recipes in which they figure prominently. The chapters on herb vinegars, herb butters, edible flowers and cooking tips provide further information. Menu suggestions and mail-order sources are found at the end of the book.
Following the Recipes
How a recipe tastes depends on many factors: the ripeness of tomatoes, the potency of garlic and onions, the piquancy of chiles, and the freshness of herbs, spices, and other crucial ingredients. Treat yourself to flavorful extra-virgin olive oil, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and freshly made pastas. After all, your homegrown herbs deserve the best! Keep on hand the best quality whole spices: white and black peppercorns, cloves, allspice, coriander, cumin (comino), and a variety of dried Chile peppers to grind in a spice grinder. Combining them with fresh herbs tantalizes your tastebuds with exciting new pleasure. Try making a variety of herbal vinegars. You will be amazed at the flavor they impart. Have fun discovering ethnic markets, farmer's markets, and specialty food stores in your area. At these places, you can discover unusual and tasty products and meet new friends—and they often have a good variety of fresh herbs to offer.
But most of all, when cooking, rely on your sense of smell and taste instead of merely following written words. Often, a pinch of sugar provides a delicate balance; a dash of vinegar, citrus juice, or wine gives that extra sparkle; and fresh herbs bring incredible nuances to food. Innovation is crucial. Allowing substitutions or altering a recipe to suit your taste or ingredients at hand makes cooking fun. My tastebuds are accustomed to a hearty barrage of flavors. I adore spicy and spirited foods and no longer have to tell the waitress at my favorite Thai and Vietnamese restaurants to "make it extra spicy." So don't be surprised to find garlic and chile peppers in most of my recipes; after all, they are as inherent to warmer climates as is the sunshine. If you don't share my enthusiasm, however, reduce the amount of these ingredients or omit them.
Throughout the chapters, you will find simple suggestions for using herbs in cooking and many recipe ideas for everyday fare. But many of my recipes are suitable for celebrations and festivities. I love beautiful food: vivid colors and varied textures offer visual delight, and garnishes and presentation can transform the simplest meal into a memorable occasion. Naturally, this takes more time, but the final presentation is worth it, pleasing the eye as well as the palate.
None of my recipes are very complicated, although I often use many ingredients. Don't let this fact intimidate you; it is the complementary flavors that make these recipes unusual and delicious. Preceding the ingredients, I offer a brief description of each dish, along with serving suggestions, and at the end of each recipe you may find additional tips as well as suggestions for substitutions and variations. Many of the recipes take on a totally different character when a different herb is substituted; I give you choices so that you may use whichever herb is on hand.
Without a doubt, once fresh herbs have graced your garden and filled your kitchen with their persuasive aroma, you, too, will never want to be without them.
Ann Clark, author of Ann Clark's Fabulous Fish, is a well-known teacher of French cooking in Texas. Her herb spiral bread is bound to add an extra touch of joie de vivre to any meal it graces—if you don't eat it right out of the oven!
- 2 packages dry yeast
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 2 cups liquid: all whole milk or 1 cup whole and 1 cup skim or 1 cup milk, whole or skim, and 1 cup water
- 3 tablespoons butter or margarine or vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 3 cups white flour: all-purpose or unbleached or a mixture of both
- 3 more cups flour
- 2 well-buttered loaf pans (8 1/2 by 4 1/2 by 2 5/8 inches)
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
- 3/4-1 cup minced green onions with tops
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sweet unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup minced parsley
- 1/2 cup minced fresh herbs [see note below for suggestions]
- salt and pepper to taste
In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast and teaspoon sugar in warm water. Place in a warm part of kitchen and proof 5 minutes. Place 1 cup of the liquid in a saucepan with butter, salt, and sugar. Scald and let cool. Be sure it is cool/lukewarm. Pour cooled liquid over yeast and add second cup liquid. Mix, and add half the flour (3 cups) one cup at a time. When all flour is added, beat vigorously for 3-4 minutes; it is important that the batter be very smooth.
Add the remaining 3 cups flour one cup at a time, using a spoon or dough hook. Add only as much flour as needed to allow dough to come away from the sides of bowl—usually 5 1/2 cups. Knead carefully by hand for 10 minutes, or 5 minutes in a mixer with dough hook. Place in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled—1 to 1 1/2 hours.
In a large skillet, sauté the herb mixture (green onions, parsley, fresh herbs) in the butter. Add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat.
When the dough has doubled in size, punch it down and let it rest for 10 minutes. Divide the dough in half, and flatten each half into a rectangle, 12 by 8 inches, firmly pressing out air bubbles. Spread each rectangle with half of the sautéed herb mixture and press into the flattened dough, leaving a 1 inch margin on all sides.
Roll rectangles tightly, sealing ends by pinching. Tuck the ends under and place rolls in pans. Let rise until dough doubles or is at least 1 inch above edges of pan. (Let rise in refrigerator if desired.)
Place rolled loaves in preheated 375 degree oven and bake for 35-45 minutes. Remove loaves from pans immediately and cool on wire rack. Makes two loaves.
NOTE: Experiment with fresh herbs and combinations of herbs, such as: rosemary, oregano, and basil; marjoram, thyme, and chives; sage; or dill.