All about herbs, growing, storing and using

Herbs. The very plants that started us down the path to what our garden has become today

Herbs. The very plants that started us down the path to what our garden has become today.

My wish to put in a circular herb garden beside John’s veggies turned him into an honest-to-goodness plantaholic. Grass began to disappear and new gardens beds started springing up all over.

I love herbs. So versatile.

They are great in the kitchen; indispensable in the medicine cabinets of centuries past; organic for pest control. If you are worried about witches, vampires, werewolves and bad spirits, there are herbs to help you deal with those, too.

What is a herb?

Botanically speaking, “herb” actually refers to any plant with non-woody stems. Pretty broad category. Nowadays, the term generally refers to any plant which we would use in whole or in part to flavour our cooking, medicate ourselves or perfume our homes.

In the kitchen is probably where most people connect with herbs. Developing a feel for combining various herbs with which to flavour meat, soups, stews, etc. during cooking is a great way to enhance your dining experience — not to mention reduce the amount of salt in your diet. Guaranteed you will not miss it.

You just have to keep a couple of points in mind.

Dried herbs are added at the beginning of the cooking; fresh are added very near the end. How much to use? The ratio is always three to one. If you do not have fresh on hand, substitute dried and divide the amount needed by three.

Cooking herbs such as oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, chives, marjoram and savory are very easy to grow. Their only requirement is fast-draining soil and a minimum of six hours of sun. They are drought tolerant and virtually pest- and disease-free.

No garden? No problem. Herbs can be grown in containers on a balcony or on a windowsill.

Basil is a little trickier. It, too, can be grown in a container but it likes richer soil, a little more water and aphids can be a problem. However, paying attention to its growing needs will reward you with a wonderful plant for adding flavour to any number of delicacies for your table. Pruned properly, one basil plant can yield as much as 24 cups (six litres) of leaves.

Early summer is the optimum time to harvest herbs for your kitchen.

Harvest them before they go into flower. Give them a quick rinse and blot the excess water with a clean dish towel. You can then either lay the stems out on a cake rack out of direct sun or tie a few stems together with a small elastic band and hang the bunches to dry — again out of direct sun.

Once dry, gently remove the leaves from the stems and store your bounty in a sealed container or bag in a cool, dark place.

Basil is best frozen, not dried. Wash your harvested stems of basil and pat dry. Remove leaves from the stems and place in a small freezer bag.

Gather up the top of the bag between thumb and forefinger and blow air into the bag. Quickly tie the bag securely and place in the freezer. To use, remove what leaves you need and immediately re-seal the bag and return to the freezer.

Here’s a family favourite recipe for Grandma’s Crusty Cold Chicken — great for those summertime picnics.

Combine one and a half cups of fine breadcrumbs, one teaspoon each of dried thyme, dried marjoram, dried rosemary, black pepper and one tablespoon paprika in a clean plastic bag. Set aside. Beat three eggs and three tablespoons of cold water in a shallow dish. Set aside.

Divide one cup margarine between two large, shallow ovenproof dishes. Place dishes in a 350F oven for five minutes, or until margarine is melted. Remove from oven.

Remove skin from 12 chicken drumsticks and 12 thighs. Roll each piece in egg, then in crumb mixture. Place in pans in a single layer, turn to coat with melted margarine. Bake for 30 minutes.

Turn pieces, continue baking for another 30 minutes, or until chicken is done. Serves 12 to 16 people.

Leslie Cox co-owns Growing Concern Cottage Garden in Black Creek. Her column appears every second Friday.

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