• Herbaliscious!

    by Dana Goforth

    “Those herbs which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but, being trodden upon and crushed, are three; that is, burnet, wild thyme and watermints. Therefore, you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread.” —Frances Bacon

    A number of years ago, my friend Cindy purchased a small piece of land in Idaho with the intention of living off the grid and being completely self-sufficient. Her first project, after drilling a well, was to create a vegetable and herb garden. In went tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and chard. Off to the side, she planted thyme, oregano, basil, and other culinary herbs. After two years, she capped the well and moved back to California; but her plan was to return to Idaho after her kids were grown. Ten years later, Cindy went back to her property, expecting to have it overrun with native grasses and wildflowers. She was amazed to find the herbs had not only survived the harsh northwest winters but had thrived. The land was covered with hearty bushes of thyme and oregano. Even the fragrant mint was happy… as evidenced by the clumps that covered the wellhead. The basil, on the other hand, didn’t do as well… it was nowhere to be seen.

    I tell this story to illustrate the hardiness of some herbs. Like many plants left to themselves, herbs will find the best place to survive.

    The definition of “herb” is broad. From a botanical viewpoint, an herb is a non-woody plant that bears flowers and dies back every year. But many culinary herbs are actually small, woody bushes and, in milder climates, are evergreen. Rosemary, for instance, is native to the Mediterranean region and does very well in Pacific Grove. (So well in fact, you might use your neighbors’ rosemary and save space for something else in your own garden.)

    Culinary Herb Garden

    A traditional “kitchen” garden became popular in medieval times and often included a special area for culinary and medicinal herbs. In France, a jardin potager is still popular in urban and rural households. I envision nuns lovingly tending a garden surrounded by tall, stone walls and gravel paths. A kitchen garden or potager may be well manicured or have a wild, un-cultivated feel. Large ceramic pots will compliment any garden. Those cute plants in a tiny 2” clay pots might rate high on the “awwww” meter, but there’s little bang for the buck in terms of culinary supply. Most common herbs want to spread their rooty toes and wings. Some rosemary species (Rosemarinus officinalis, for instance), can grow to six feet tall and just as wide. Similarly, thyme and oregano like space as Cindy’s surreptitious Idaho garden proved. Some common herbs should be in containers, especially if garden space is limited. Mint, spearmint, and peppermint have a tendency to bossy-boots their way through an entire garden but will thrive in a large container. Chive (Allium schoenoprasum) also likes to live in a pot… or two.

    Know your Herbs

    Going to a nursery or opening up a seed catalog can offer a daunting selection of herb varieties. Sage officinalis, for instance, has at least five varietals commonly used in cooking; but there are loads of sage species that should not be ingested (except by butterflies). Similarly, thyme can be creeping, red, English, French, lemon, lime, or even elfin. Thymus vulgarus is where to start for this traditional cooking herb. Let your taste buds take you down the thyme-covered path when deciding what to plant. Two more herbs, dill (Anethum graveolens) and French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), are interesting additions to both garden and kitchen. Dill will reseed easily so plant accordingly. Bringing it on home is basil. Basil has the distinction of having a wide range of flavors, which are very much dictated by the climate where they are grown. Again, there are many species of this smoky tasting herb, so do your research.

    Herb Lore

    Did you know that the word tarragon is derived from the Latin dracunculus, which means “little dragon”? I’ve never seen my tarragon plant actually breath fire, but you never know what happens after dark. Herbs and many other plants have a deliciously interesting history. In 1892, Richard Folkard wrote that rosemary was favored and that “young fairies, under the guise of snakes, lie concealed under its branches.” The ancient Greeks believed rosemary strengthened memory and routinely braided long stems in their hair during exams. Basil has the dual distinction of being both a sacred plant and a powerful protector plant. In India, basil was often laid with those who have passed away, but in ancient Egypt it was considered a token of love. Not so different in a broad sense I suppose. In addition, some herb lore mentions that basil is a plant to determine one’s chastity and would wither in the hands of the impure. Bringing it home is sage. When burned, not only does sage drive out negativity and evil spirits, but brings wealth and abundance as well. (I wonder if Cindy tried this before she moved?)

    Resources

    We have several fine nurseries on the Peninsula, and I encourage you to shop locally. However, it may be cost-prohibitive for our nurseries to carry a large assortment of unusual herb plants or seeds. I recommend two wonderful businesses that have interesting and diverse inventories: Nichols Garden Nursery in Ashland, Oregon, and Crimson Sage in Northern California. Both have a robust online presence and an extensive organic selection. They also love to talk about their plants and seeds!

    Cooking with Herbs

    Basil Pesto I
    Time: 5 min
    Yield: 1 cup

    Ingredients
    2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
    2 cloves garlic
    1/4 cup pine nuts
    2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
    Kosher salt and freshly ground black
    pepper, to taste
    1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino
    cheese

    Directions
    Combine the basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
    If using immediately, add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth.
    Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese.
    If freezing, transfer to an air-tight container and drizzle remaining oil over the top. Freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw and stir in cheese.

    Basil Pesto II
    Time: 5 minutes
    Servings: 16

    Ingredients
    3 cups packed fresh basil leaves
    4 cloves garlic
    3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
    1/2 cup olive oil
    1/4 cup pine nuts
    1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley (optional)

    Directions
    Combine basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and nuts in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Blend to a smooth paste. Add parsley if desired.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 26, 2013

    Topics: Diggin' It

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