To me spices and herbs used to be something that I moved from house to house and dusted off on occasion. In fact, my collection of dried herbs looked more like selections from an antique store than anything else.
In the last few years that has changed for me. I've learned the value that fresh herbs can bring to cooking and a few tricks along the way as well.
While visiting my cousins in Washington, D.C. I had the pleasure of visiting a Whole Foods store a decade ago. I remember walking into the store through an outdoor aisle which on both side was filled with shelves of fresh herbs. My cousin Sammy said, "Don't forget to remind me to grab some a fresh parsley plant; I'm almost out". I remember thinking to myself, "You bet, boy...I hate it when I'm out of fresh parsley! By the way, what planet am I on?"
I can personally attest to you that a few pieces of fresh chives on a baked potato, a small amount of fresh parsley added to a "salad from a bag", a touch of fresh oregano added to some spaghetti sauce from a jar -- can change your life!
You don't have to be a gourmet cook to use fresh herbs or to appreciate them. It just takes having them on hand and remembering to use them.
Growing herbs is a great way to make this a reality because there is little-to-no waste. Rather than buying a package of cut herbs and needing to use it all, you simply cut what you need, as you need it.
Herbs will grow indoors all winter in a sunny window and can easily be moved outside when the weather is above freezing for the summer.
You can also chop clean herbs, place in ice cube trays and fill them with water. When needed, remove herb ice cubes and drop into hot cooking liquid. You can also wrap bunches of fresh herbs in foil or plastic wrap and freeze them for several weeks. You should expect some discoloration of frozen herbs. Mark the date on the container of your dried herbs. They can be kept for about a year. Heat, moisture and light rob herbs of flavor.
Herb vinegars have a long shelf life and can be used in vinaigrettes and marinades or to add zest to cooked vegetables. There are many recipes for flavorful combinations such as parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme; tarragon and garlic; dill, garlic and dried red peppers; pineapple sage, ginger, cranberries and garlic; pineapple sage, spearmint and lemon thyme; and lemon thyme and sage to name a few.
Keeping a little spot in your yard for an herb garden is traditional thinking. Herbs come in a variety of sizes, shapes, colors and textures and are very attractive plants that will enhance your flowerbeds and container gardens. Dark purple basil or tri-color sage will add a touch of drama to any annual planting, while thyme makes a great border for a flowerbed or vegetable garden.
Want help keeping the bugs away from your vegetable plants? It has been shown that mint, parsley, sage, rosemary and garlic tend to repel certain insects and make great companion plants for vulnerable vegetables. To the contrary, hyssop, balm, dill and thyme are herbs that will attract bees, which will help pollinate your plants.
Whether planting herbs for decorative purposes, aromatherapy or just to flavor your dinner, the rewards are limitless.
Try some fresh herbs with your dinner tonight. It will make you feel good. Just remember there it IS possible to have too much of a good thing.
Jim Gainan is President of Gainan's Flowers and Garden Center in Billings, MT.