Friday, 17 May 2024

Foodie Freak: The wonder of an herb garden

Do you have an herb garden? If not, keep reading; if so, also keep reading while knowing that you better off than the other category.

My perennial herb garden is just outside my kitchen door. I put it in the very first week I moved into my home. It contains a large patch of chives, thyme, sage, rosemary, oregano and, just for the beauty and diversity, a bunch of milkweed plants.

I like having an extra large patch of chives since they die off during the winter, so in the summertime I use them like crazy. Not only can you use the leaves of the chive plant but the entire plant is edible, much like a small green onion. Asian cooks will take a small bundle of the whole plants, tie them in a knot, then batter and deep fry them. Trust me ... YUMMY!

The flower blossoms also are edible, giving a mild oniony yet beautiful bite to any salad. Just remember to add them after you toss in the dressing, otherwise they lose a lot of that beauty and look like something that you should fish out.

Thyme has got to be my favorite herb; there is something about that flavor that goes well with everything. Don’t believe me? Try taking a couple of melons, cut then into cubes, and toss in a bowl with a tablespoon of honey and a teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves, then serve chilled.

There are many different types of thyme, and what will work best in your kitchen all depends on what your tastes are. I grow two varieties, an English thyme and a silver thyme. The first one is green, and the second is variegated (green and white leaves); this way I can use them for different applications.

For instance, variegated thyme wouldn’t look good in a spaghetti sauce. You’d keep looking at these small white flecks in your food and feel like you should pick them out. Although TV chefs usually recommend striping the leaves from a sprig of thyme I rarely do. With the exception of recipes like the melon one above, I prefer to throw the entire sprig into a sauce or dish and then fish out the branch later when it’s done cooking.

Sage is available in many colors/varieties and loves our climate here in Lake County. Being an evergreen plant, it is available to us year-round. Where would our Thanksgiving turkey be without the flavor of sage? Sage is considered medicinal and/or magical by many cultures and religions. It was also considered by the ancient Greeks to have such protective qualities that they would be stunned if a man died while sage grew in his garden.

If you are looking to deer-proof your yard, then add some rosemary – deer hate it. One of my goals in life is to have my own organic farm, and one of the first things I would do is put up a rosemary hedge to keep out the deer naturally.

I love to cut long branches of rosemary and use them as skewers for meat, and I never make lamb without rosemary. When you plant rosemary, be sure to give it plenty of room because it can grow 5 feet high and wide, or if you have a small space just be sure to keep it trimmed. I use rosemary so much that its size isn’t a problem in my garden; it’s constantly trying to keep up with my demand for it. Rosemary has long been used to improve memory, and modern studies have added some credence to this belief.

My garden is organic, so I’ve learned to live with sharing my garden with plenty of moochers, a.k.a., pests. This year my rosemary plant is covered with caterpillars. No big deal, I just brush them off before I cook with them (the rosemary, not the caterpillars). Similarly, every year my tomatoes get a couple of hornworms, and instead of getting all upset, we name them and have fun watching them grow. My tomato plants are healthy enough to handle the infestation without worry.

I grow asclepias, a.k.a. milkweed or pleurisy root, in with my herbs because the addition of genetically diverse plants in a garden makes it healthier and reduces pest problems naturally. Asclepias are the sole food for monarch butterflies, and I like seeing the little critters flittering about the garden. The plants also attract hummingbirds, and it has been fun to watch the interaction of these assertive birds with my wife’s cats. Asclepias are toxic to humans, so although they are in my herb garden I don’t eat them.

Oregano is great in many cuisines. Not only does it work well in spaghetti sauce but also in guacamole and taco seasoning. There are many different varieties, so talk to your garden center staff about what kind you should grow. Sicilian oregano is purported to be one of the most flavorful varieties.

I used to grow other herbs in my herb garden, like savory and marjoram, but I found I didn’t use them enough to justify them taking up the space in my small garden. I grow annual herbs like parsley, dill and basil elsewhere in the garden.

The thing you have to understand if you do plant an herb garden is ... be patient and let it grow. Too many people plant an herb garden and start harvesting from it that very year. With annual plants like basil and parsley that’s fine, but slower growing perennials need a year to become established and really produce well for you. Rosemary plants will eventually become five feet tall, sage will become a couple of feet tall, chives will actually divide and multiply themselves into a small patch. If you start harvesting the very first year then you will be cheating yourself in the long run.

Basil is an annual herb, meaning it will completely die over the winter and will need to be replanted in the spring. A variety called “Genovese basil” has been named the best tasting basil by “The International Pesto Society” (boy, there is a club out there for everyone!), and that has been my variety of choice for years.

Basil is very fragile, so make sure to plant it when all chance of frost is gone. When using basil, try not to cut it until the very last second – anywhere stainless steel touches basil it will turn black in just a couple minutes. Some chefs recommend tearing basil by hand to avoid this unsightly reaction.

Let’s talk parsley. Never mind that “curly” parsley that you get on the side of your plate when you eat at the diner, flat-leafed Italian parsley is what you want. It has a much fuller flavor and is easier to chop to add to dishes. Parsley is a biennial, which means it will live for two years before it flowers and dies. If you have a pet rabbit, plant parsley as a treat for it. I planted an extra large patch of parsley to share with my daughter’s bunny, and it was a very happy bunny! You can put your bunny in the parsley patch and come back an hour later; trust me, it ain’t leaving voluntarily.

Men, you should also keep in mind that subconsciously – and even not so subconsciously – women think that a single man who can keep a plant alive would make a good husband/father, since it shows responsibility and care. As a result, a man with a garden is viewed as more attractive to women since he shows that he can take care of a living thing. Consequently, even if you aren’t a big cook, having an herb garden can benefit you. Just remember that the plants need to look healthy or the effect is lost.

For this following saltimbocca recipe veal is typically used, but my daughter refuses to eat veal (remember, petting zoo vegetarianism) so I changed it slightly. You can follow the same instructions using veal if you wish to stay traditional. Saltimbocca means “Jump in the mouth,” as if someone said, “I didn’t eat them all, they just jumped into my mouth!” This recipe alone is my main reason for growing sage. I buy prosciutto at the mega-market – just check in the specialty meats area by the deli.

Chicken Saltimbocca (Recipe serves 2)

2 chicken breasts

8 slices of Prosciutto

12 sage leaves

12 toothpicks (unflavored)

1/2 cup of flour

4 tablespoons butter

Lay the chicken breasts on a cutting board and split each of them horizontally so you end up with four identical but thin breast slices. Be very careful doing this; it helps if your knife is extra sharp. Using the smooth side of a meat mallet gently pound the chicken breast halves even thinner without going to the point where you are destroying them. Put two slices of prosciutto on top of each chicken breast and, using the waffle side of your meat mallet, gently pound the prosciutto into the chicken as if you are trying to meld them into one piece of meat. (If you don’t have a waffle-sided meat mallet, try using a couple of forks to stab the two meats together over and over again.)

Position three sage leaves on each breast on top of the prosciutto. Using the toothpicks, pin the sage to each breast.

Heat a non-stick pan to medium on the stovetop and add 2 tablespoons of the butter. Gently dredge each breast in flour as the pan heats, and then place one or two of the breast slices in the pan (depending on size of your pan). Cook for one minute on each side or until done. Add the rest of the butter as needed to cook remaining pieces.

Serve each person two slices but expect them to want more, so increase this recipe as needed. And be sure to remind dinner guests to remove the toothpicks themselves.

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.


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