Herbs Add Depth to Cuisine

They thrive in dry environments, give mild flavor to meats

In the last few weeks, I’ve written about growing herbs in your garden or in containers, and little about each herb and its growing needs and uses.  Today, I write about more herbs, starting with the letters in the rest of the alphabet.  If you missed A-L, visit Grow herbs in containers all year long.

Though a tender perennial in the oregano family, marjoram is very different than oregano. It has a much milder flavor, and is used to add depth to meat and pork dishes without overpowering them with the Greek/Italian flavor of oregano. It is also used in quiches or frittatas, stuffings, peppers and sausage.  Unable to take our full sun, give it some afternoon shade. Indoors, it will need good light to survive the winter inside and will grow best in a bright window. It can go back outside when the chance of frost has passed in the spring – typically early to mid-March.

Mint likes the sun, but can struggle in the harshest summer heat.  It needs plenty of water.  It is also frost tender.  If you are planting it in the ground, keep it separated from other herbs and mints, as its strong flavor can overtake other herbs.  It can spread quickly, so consider that as well – my experience required the purchase of a machete to keep it under control! Personally, I grow mint in pots. Because it is a fast grower, it will need a larger pot to allow the roots to grow. Mint is used in most of the world’s cuisines and there are hundreds of varieties (did you know that lantana is in the mint family?  But don’t eat it; its leaves and berries are poisonous.) But you can grow and harvest edible varieties like spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, apple mint, orange mint and pineapple mint.  Mint is easiest to grow as a transplant.

Possibly the most common herb, there’s much more to parsley than meets the eye. There are two types of parsley – curly and flat-leaf.  In addition to a pretty garnish on your plate, parsley adds seasoning to countless dishes and is its own condiment when combined with pine nuts, oil and Parmesan to make pesto. Parsley also has nutritional value — it contains flavonoids that act as antioxidants and is a source of vitamins A, (beta carotene), B (folic acid) and C.  Even the ancient Greeks and Romans used it for medicinal purposes.  Parsley should get 6 to 8 hours of sun a day and it likes well-drained soil.  A biennial, parsley will usually go through the winter, flower and go to seed and then die.  You can wait for the seeds that dropped to germinate the next year or you can also buy inexpensive new transplants each spring.

Rosemary means “dew of the sea” and makes a beautiful ornamental shrub anywhere in your landscape.  It can grow as large as 4 feet wide and 4-5 feet tall, so make sure you give it plenty of room to grow. It’s usually cold hardy in Central Texas, likes full sun, is relatively drought tolerant and likes rocky soil.  It does not like wet feet and can struggle in those rare instances that we get a lengthy rainy spell. Rosemary plants are best started from transplants as they have a low germination rate. It is often used to season meats and potatoes and to flavor oils.  Woody rosemary stems can be used as skewers for grilling.

Like rosemary, sage is another Mediterranean herb that likes a dry environment. With a robust and distinctive flavor, sage is frequently used in stuffings, sausages, poultry, roasts and stews. It is frost tolerant but you can enjoy growing sage on your windowsill with plenty of light and good drainage. You can also steep sage to make an excellent gargle for the sore throats of coughs and colds.

Tough as they come, thyme is compact and low-growing. It gets about a foot tall, though many varieties are even used as ground cover. It is semi-drought tolerant and is sometimes evergreen in a mild winter. It is often paired with lamb, beef and pork dishes. There are more than 100 different varieties of thyme, and while some have less flavor and are used primarily as ornamentals, they are all, in fact, edible. It can also be used as an insect repellant by steeping the herb in boiling water and putting it in a spray bottle to use in outdoor living areas.

By | 2017-11-29T23:27:15+00:00 September 15th, 2012|Articles|0 Comments

Grow herbs in containers all year long

grow herbs in containersLast month I wrote about herb-growing seasons for the outdoor garden. If you’re not a gardener or you don’t have a garden, growing herbs in containers is the perfect way to perk up some pasta for dinner.

A few pretty pots on the porch or on your windowsills inside the house can allow you to enjoy herbs, even out of season.

Most herbs love the sun and require at least three to four hours a day, so make sure you place them where they will get a lot of direct sunlight. Prune and pinch off blooms just as you would outside in the garden to prolong the life of your herbs.

When growing herbs in pots, it’s important to remember to use containers with good drainage and a lightweight potting soil. Choose a mix designed specifically for pots that will help the soil to drain properly. If your pretty pottery doesn’t have a drainage hole, either add one yourself or plant the herb in a plastic pot with holes and then place it inside the pottery. Just putting rocks in the bottom of a pot with no drainage hole won’t suffice. Small pots will dry out faster and require frequent or even daily watering.

Trendy, eye-catching containers are all the rage these days, everything from cowboy boots to teapots, depending on your taste. Be creative about your container herb garden and add an element of style to your tasty space.

Last month, I listed some interesting herbs from A to C. Below is a list of herbs from the middle part of the alphabet, along with some of their characteristics.

  • Dill — Known primarily for its use in pickling and vinegars and fish dishes, dill is grown for its leaves and its seeds like cilantro. It has a distinct flavor. Dill prefers cool weather and can be direct seeded into the soil or purchased at nurseries as transplants. Because it has a very long tap root, it can tolerate our long dry spells with only average watering. Dill is suited to container gardening but might need to be staked because it gets tall.
  • Lavender — A perennial and an attractive landscape ornamental plant, there are seemingly endless varieties of lavender. Grown in Mediterranean climates, it sometimes struggles with the heat of our summers. Like rosemary, it should dry out between watering and should not be allowed to have wet roots.  Common in French cooking and an ingredient in the herb mix Herbes de Provence, it lends a sweet, aromatic flavor. It’s widely used in sachets, soaps and perfumes.
  • Lemongrass — It comes in several varieties and can grow 2 feet to 5 feet tall. It likes heat and humidity and full to part sun; it is not cold-tolerant and should be mulched or covered in mild freezes.

Indigenous to Asia and India, lemongrass is frequently used in teas and in cooking. The leaves are harvested down to the ground, using the outer stalks first when they are at least ½-inch thick. Remove hardest outer leaves and slice like scallions. You also can bang on the stalk with a heavy knife handle or spoon to bruise it and put a large stalk into soup to infuse the flavor and remove before serving. Chopped pieces can be placed in a plastic bag and frozen for future use. Lemongrass repels insects and is used in pesticides.

By | 2017-11-29T23:27:15+00:00 September 7th, 2012|Articles|1 Comment

September Tip: Grow herbs in containers all year long

When growing herbs in pots, it’s important to remember to use containers with good drainage and a lightweight potting soil. Choose a mix designed specifically for pots that will help the soil to drain properly. If your pretty pottery doesn’t have a drainage hole, either add one yourself or plant the herb in a plastic pot with holes and then place it inside the pottery.

By | 2015-04-06T13:17:38+00:00 September 7th, 2012|Tips|0 Comments

Intensify your culinary adventure

Aromatic plants add flavor, can be grown year-round in our temperate climate

culinary adventuresImagine eating spaghetti sauce cooked without basil, oregano, parsley or bay leaf. Or pico de gallo without cilantro. It just wouldn’t be the same.

Herbs bring the “BAM” to our culinary adventures, and the intensity and flavor of fresh herbs can’t be matched. Herbs are also playing a key role as health conscious cooks look to their flavors to replace salt and reduce the amount of sodium in today’s recipes.

People often wonder about the difference between herbs and spices, which is sometimes blurred. Herbs come from aromatic plants and are usually harvested from the plant leaves, though there are exceptions. Spices often come from more tropical zones and can come from the seeds, roots, berries or flowers of plants.

Our temperate climate allows us to grow herbs outside almost year-round in Central Texas, and of course they can be grown inside as well. Most herbs are easy to start from seed but many can also be purchased from local nurseries to grocery stores as starter plants to give you a jump on the process.

Even non-gardeners frequently have common herbs like parsley, basil, cilantro, rosemary and chives sprouting up in the corner of a bed or pots in the kitchen. But there are so many more herbs you can grow and experiment with in your cooking.

For herb-growing success, make sure you learn about the needs of the herbs you plant so that they get the proper amount of sunlight and water. Plant them in a good grower’s mix soil and keep them pruned. Cut the flowers off your herbs when they first appear because flowering means that they will soon form seeds and die. By pruning, you can continue to harvest from a thriving plant.

Like vegetables, herbs have preferred growing seasons. For example, cilantro likes cool weather and will bolt, or flower in the heat, bringing it to the end of its life. Sadly, the cool cilantro season doesn’t coincide with the hot tomato and jalapeno season, so my cilantro is long gone by the time the rest of the pico de gallo ingredients in my garden are ready. So, you can have fresh cilantro with your store-bought tomatoes before summer arrives and fresh tomatoes with store-bought cilantro late in the heat of summer.

Some herbs that like cooler weather and are good choices for a fall garden include rosemary, sage, chives, parsley, oregano, marjoram and thyme. They may be slightly damaged in a frost or can be covered, but can usually still be harvested until a freeze. If a hard freeze damages them, they may return the following spring. Using straw cover or mulch will help protect them from cold temperatures.

Below is a partial list of herbs and their characteristics. Next week – more interesting herbs to grow in Central Texas.

Bay Laurel
This small tree’s stiff leaves are used in many savory soups and stews that are cooked for long periods of time. Whole leaves are used, but are very sharp and must be removed before serving. Bay Laurel will die in a hard freeze, so it makes an excellent container plant. As a bonus, bay leaves and sprays can be used to create fragrant wreaths to hang in the kitchen or on your front door.

One of the most popular herbs, basil dresses up Italian and Thai dishes. Experiment with several different varieties including Genovese, Opal, Siam Queen or Spicy Globe. As with most herbs, add leaves to dishes late in cooking to coax the most flavor from them. Basil is very sensitive to cold, so cover it in the event of a light frost or bring it indoors.

Commonly called “Pot Marigold,” it is not related to the common marigold. However, it does have bright blooms and can easily be planted in a perennial bed to add color with your perennials. Be sure to cut of the blooms as they die to encourage full, continued blooming. The petals can be used in recipes for enhancing many things from herb butter to wine. It is also a common herbal medicinal remedy known for its immune-enhancing and anti-fungal properties and can be used to treat topical skin problems. It is typically an annual.

There are many different varieties and names for chamomile. German chamomile is an annual and Roman or English chamomile is a perennial. Its blooms have a sweet, apple-like scent and are most often used to brew herbal tea. In Europe, chamomile is prized for its proven medicinal properties and is used to treat inflammation, mouth irritations and respiratory problems. It is commonly used to relieve intestinal spasms and ulcers and as a sleep aid.

Garlic and onion chives are staples for many dishes from herb butters to baked potatoes, eggs, soups, and stews. They are also commonly used to make flavored vinegar. Chives are perennial in the garden. They are very hardy and can withstand frost through the winter. The pretty little lavender flowers can be used in salad and as garnish. Cut chives low the ground to encourage new growth.

A mainstay in Mexican food, it’s almost impossible to find a Tex-Mex dish that doesn’t include cilantro. A cool season plant, it’s easy to grow, but, once we have a few hot days in the spring, the plant will bolt, bloom and go to seed. The flowers will appear and the leaves will become fringe-like. If the plant flowers and goes to seed, the ripe seeds, called coriander, can be harvested for use as well. Whole or ground coriander is a common spice in Indian and Mediterranean recipes. Wayward fallen seeds will usually germinate and come back the next season, though maybe not exactly where you want them to be.

By | 2017-11-29T23:27:16+00:00 August 24th, 2012|Articles|0 Comments

August Tip: Intensify your culinary adventure

Imagine eating spaghetti sauce cooked without basil, oregano, parsley or bay leaf. Or pico de gallo without cilantro. It just wouldn’t be the same. Herbs can make or break your cooking adventures — learning the right ones to use can wow your family and friends at the dinner table. Luckily, they are easy to grow right in your own kitchen or garden.

By | 2017-11-29T23:27:16+00:00 August 24th, 2012|Tips|0 Comments

Austin’s temperate climate yields year-round vegetables

It’s hard to believe that we can still plant a last round of winter vegetables right now.

But instead of protecting our vegetables from freezes like we would in a ‘normal’ winter, we might be shading them from the hot sun.  While vegetables like chard, baby beets or newly sown carrots can be susceptible to a strong frost; lettuce and sweet peas can wilt or bolt with too much heat.

The unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having has confused both plants and people alike.

But then, that’s what gardening is all about, isn’t it?

Second-guessing Mother Nature.

For the next few weeks, (we assume that winter will eventually make another appearance) there is a window of planting time left for some more wonderful winter vegetables.

Now is the time to plant seeds and transplants of these vegetables:

  • Onion sets (the width of a pencil or smaller)
  • Shallots
  • Cabbage transplants
  • Cauliflower transplants
  • Turnips
  • Broccoli transplants
  • Swiss chard
  • Collard transplants
  • Beets
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes
  • Asparagus crowns
  • Kale transplants
  • Leek transplants
  • Radishes
  • Cool season English peas

In addition to late winter vegetables, now is also a good time to plant strawberries, bare-root fruit trees, berries and grapes.  For more specific information on planting fruits and berries, check with your local independent nursery.

Now is also prime time to plant cool-season herbs like chives, cilantro, parsley, dill and fennel.  Watch for cold weather, though, dill and fennel will need to be covered if it freezes. 

To succeed with your vegetable planting there are different strategies for growing different kinds of seeds.  Seed packets have specific information for planting – be sure to follow the directions for how deep and how far apart to plant the seeds.  But there are some other planting and growing tips you might not find on the back of the envelope.

Lettuce and spinach seeds should be planted gently and should not be planted deeply.  They need light to germinate, so sprinkle them and keep them misted daily until they sprout.  Soak beans, peas and carrots overnight to help them get started.  This helps speed up the growing process

On particularly warm days, consider setting up a little shade cloth to help keep your lettuce and greens from bolting. If you don’t have shade cloth, something as simple as an umbrella set on its side can help give them some cover from the warm afternoon sun.  And be sure to keep the lettuce seeds moist during the approximately 10-day germination period.

English peas will need a trellis to climb.  If planted now, peas should produce by early March.

With our clay and caliche soils, it’s best to loosen the soil to about a foot deep before planting carrot seeds.  The seeds should only be planted about 1/8 to ¼ inch deep, but this will prevent you from harvesting stunted or deformed carrots because they couldn’t force their way down through the hard soil.

Beets produce seed clusters that contain several seeds rather than seeds that produce one plant. When the seedlings come up, thin them to one plant per group for the largest beets. You can also eat the micro greens that you thinned out.

Once any seedlings appear, you do have to thin them out.  I know, they’ve come up, they’re alive, why not leave them all there to grow?  It’s more to eat, right?  Well, no. (It’s painful for me to thin, too.  Live plants are, after all, live plants.)  But, if you thin them out, you give the remaining seedlings room to grow more vigorously and you don’t crowd their roots or make them fight for water or nutrients.

For many plants, like lettuce, broccoli and cabbage, stagger your planting time by putting in a few plants each week for the next 3 weeks so your vegetables aren’t all ready to eat at once.

While we enjoyed a little rain to end 2011, it’s been dry again since the first of the year.  Climatologists are continuing to forecast to warmer and drier than average weather into the summer, so don’t forget to water your vegetable garden regularly to keep tender new plants growing and strong.

Growing your own vegetables is fun and rewarding.  There is something energizing about being outside in the sunshine, harvesting your vegetables and then enjoying a fresh, tasty dinner.  And luckily, Central Texas gardeners can enjoy the pleasures of vegetable gardening year round.

By | 2017-11-29T23:27:19+00:00 January 2nd, 2012|Articles|0 Comments