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A Dash of Flavor from Herbs

A Dash of Flavor from Herbs

             Herbs have been used for cooking, medicine, aromatherapy, religious ceremonies, pest control and decoration since the beginning of civilization. Plants that are referred to as “herbs” are not used as a food but are grown and consumed as a garnish, and for flavor enhancement, aroma and sometimes alleged healing properties.

            The aromas, tastes and pharmaceutical properties associated with herbs result from a collection of chemicals in each plant. These chemicals, known as essential or volatile oils, are synthesized in the plant during metabolism. Depending on the particular plant, the essential oil may be concentrated in the flowers, seeds, leaves or roots, or throughout the entire plant.

            When planning to use herbs for meal preparation, timing is everything to maximize flavor. Generally, herbs should be harvested before the heat of the day but after the dew has dried. This captures optimal aroma and cuts down on the potential of spreading disease among the plantings.

            Some of the top herbs that we see growing in upper Midwestern gardens include:

            Basil (Ocimum basilicum) Basil is an annual herb that is very cold-sensitive. Continue pinching the center of the plant to discourage flowering and harvest the tender new shoots that result for culinary purposes. Handle carefully because basil foliage will darken if bruised.

            Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) Chamomile, or German chamomile, is an easily grown annual that some might classify as a “weed” because it is easy to grow and reseed. This is an herb with attractive ornamental qualities due to the profusion of flowers it produces, which are used in preparing teas. Chamomile is among the least fussy herbs to grow and adapts well to many types of soil.

            Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) Chives are a sure-fire confidence builder for the most amateur gardeners. This hardy perennial can be seed sown directly into the site or moved in via divided transplants. The pink to bright purple flowers form globular heads at the top of the plant that attract any honeybee in the vicinity. Chives will self-seed readily and should be dead-headed to prevent volunteer plants from coming up in unwanted places. This herb, along with parsley, can be grown in containers.

            Cilantro, Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) Depending on the intended use, cilantro and coriander refer to the same plant. When grown for the foliage, it can be referred to as cilantro, as well as Chinese parsley or Mexican parsley. When grown for its seeds, it often is referred to as coriander. This widely used herb is popular in many ethnic cuisines, including Mexican, Chinese, South American and Vietnamese.    

            Dill (Anethum graveolens) Dill, a highly versatile culinary herb fresh and dry, is one of the most commonly grown annual herbs in the upper Midwest. Both the seeds and leaves are used. It produces small yellow flowers, which quickly become seeds. If use of the seed is desired, wait until the seed has turned brown. Cut the plant and hang it upside down to collect the seeds on a drop cloth.

            Garlic (Allium sativum) Garlic, a fall-planted perennial herb, has grown in popularity with home gardeners during the past decade. The cloves are harvested when the foliage begins to “flag” or turn yellow, which should be late August or early September. After harvesting, the bulbs should be allowed to cure for a day or two in a shady location with good air circulation. Braids of garlic are an aromatic kitchen décor item.

            Oregano (Origanum vulgare) Oregano is perhaps the most confusing of the herbs because its types vary widely in growth habit, hardiness and flavor.  Fresh oregano is unequaled for flavor and aroma enhancement in Italian dishes.

            Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) French tarragon has a distinct licorice scent, while the Russian does not. Russian tarragon will grow to 6 feet tall and tends to spread from the seed it produces; French tarragon will grow to just 2 feet tall.

            How do you use herbs in food preparation? Rinse fresh herbs well under running water, then use a pair of scissors to snip the herbs or a sharp knife to chop them into tiny pieces. For optimal flavor, expose as much surface area as possible. For dried herbs, use a mortar and pestle (available in most kitchen supply stores or catalogs) to grind the herbs into a powder.

            How much should I use? A rule to remember: Don’t overdo herbs in a dish. Use herbs for variety and accent only. Usually one strongly flavored herb alone or paired with one or two more mildly flavored herbs is a safe bet. In recipes calling for dried herbs, substitute a larger amount of fresh herbs.  A good comparison is that 2 teaspoons fresh herbs = ¾ teaspoon dried herbs = ¼ teaspoon powdered herbs

            What herb goes with what food? Here are some ideas to get you started.

Basil: tomatoes, pasta, rice, beef stew, pork, meatloaf, duck, fish, veal, green or vegetable salads, salad dressings, eggplant, potatoes, carrots, spinach, peas, eggs and cheese

Chamomile: Often used to make tea. The usual method is to use about 2 teaspoons of dried flowers per cup. Pour boiling water over the flowers, cover with a saucer and allow to steep for about five minutes, then strain.

Chives: soups and chowders, salads and salad dressings, potatoes, fish, meat, poultry, cheese and eggs

Cilantro (leaf) / Coriander (seed): salsa, soup, salads, potato dishes

Dill (seed): cucumber pickles, pickled beets, salads, sauerkraut, green beans, meatballs, egg dishes, stews, fish, chicken and breads

Garlic: tomato dishes, soups, dips, sauces, salads, salad dressings, dill pickles, meat, poultry, fish, stews, marinades and breads

Oregano: tomatoes, pasta sauces, pizza, chili, barbecue sauce, vegetable soup, egg and cheese dishes, stuffing, pork, lamb, chicken and fish

Tarragon: sour cream sauces, casseroles, marinades, pot roasts, veal, lamb, poultry, fish and egg dishes

            An excellent place to start with herbs is with herb butter.

Herb Butter

½ c. softened butter

2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley, basil or herb of choice

½ tsp. minced garlic

2-3 tsp. lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Blend all ingredients and form into a roll. Wrap tightly and freeze up to six months. Slice and use as desired.

 

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