dazzling and interesting on a shoestring
Having your own herbs on hand does double-duty as a garden and a kitchen pantry, meaning you don’t have to remember to buy them at the store, or throw out the leftover rotten bits because the store rarely sells fresh herbs by the teaspoonful.
Here, we’ll discuss three of my favies for spring (part une), and then as the weather heats up, we’ll visit three more in part deux. All these gems work well in pots and are perennials except in the case of a long, hard freeze. So you can put them on a fire escape, move them from place to place, and not have to buy them at the store ever again—pretty good for a $2.00/ two year investment, eh?
Thyme (or za’atar in Arabic, if you wanted to know) is a surprisingly common herb used in a variety of worldwide cuisines. It is high in iron and certain varieties are an excellent source of iron—which is worth noting if you don’t eat red meat (like me, for instance). Certain varieties can also attract honeybees and make for a unique flavored honey, but not the best kind for baking or sweetening your tea.
Not only is thyme nifty in many Middle Eastern dishes and an essential herb for French food (see the cassoulet recipe below) but it was a precursor to modern antibiotics and is a main ingredient in both Listerine and all-natural hand sanitizers. Who knew?
Thyme can be used in recipes by throwing in a whole sprig or branch—bouquet garni, as the French like to say—or just the leaves, easily removed by scraping them off the twig with the back of a knife. Dried thyme can be used, but growing your own is so much more fun and festive.
To plant thyme, put it in a pot with plenty of sandy soil and good drainage or let it run amok in the yard. It needs lots of hot sun but tolerates drought quite well. There are over 350 species of thyme, but one of the most common and best kinds for culinary use is lemon thyme. I bought one little seedling, plopped it in a pretty pot with some sandy soil and a bit of compost and two years later, I have this little gem on the right. Sometimes it shares its pot with a strawberry plant or two, but usually it’s content to drape over the side and ignore the vacant lot next door.
I originally planted my oregano simply because I needed another herb to fill in my pots, but not only has it been prolific and pretty, amazingly useful, too. As you can see, it’s quite lovely (in the blue pot on the left) and a moderately good neighbor to the tiny strawberry plant in back.
You may not be all that familiar with oregano, but next to garlic, nothing says (or smells like) ‘yummy Italian food for dinner’ like the potent tang of oregano. Some find dried oregano more flavorful than fresh, but nothing beats walking outside or reaching through you window to grab a bunch of fresh herbs and adding them to your food. Besides, I often find that by the time dried herbs and seasonings have reached the end of their shelf life (six months– unless you’re my mother and still have jars of seasonings dating back to the time of the Carter administration) I’ve barely used any of them. To harvest your oregano, just pinch off the top cluster of leaves.
I add oregano to my pizza sauce, chopping or tearing it only a little bit before sprinkling it in the sauce or just on top. It’s also an essential seasoning in ribollita, a hearty Italian stew of beans and vegetables, which can easily be made vegetarian, or with the traditional pork products popular in peasant fare– you know, peasants like me.
I’ve seen rosemary grow anywhere from parking lots to front hedges. The bees love it, the landscapers hold it in high regard, and cooks use it all over the place. It’s Latin name is quite romantic (rosmarinus) meaning ‘dew of the sea’, as it needs no other moisture besides the mist from the nearby ocean—assuming, of course, that you live near the ocean. If not, just make sure your rosemary is planted in sandy soil and splashed occasionally with water. Or you can just sneak over and grab some from your neighbor’s hedges. Other romantic tales for this prickly herb link it to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and the Virgin Mary—take your pick depending on your mood.
One of the best recipes for rosemary is breakfast potatoes—the kind that are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, roasted with lots of olive oil and finished off with garlic, and our good friend, rosemary.
Note that when you’re cooking with rosemary, you want to chop it into very small pieces, because the texture is so tough that it is a bit like chewing on a pine needle if it is too large.
Now use some of these herbs in a recipe for Cassoulet:
2 cups bread crumbs (I personally toast and grate the crusts from my loaves of bread—a great use for the crusts nobody in my house seems to want to eat)
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp garlic
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2-3 carrots, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 rib celery, chopped
1 14.5 oz can crushed tomatoes (not the kind with the basil)
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup vegetable broth
1 teaspoon champagne vinegar
2-3 sprigs of thyme
1 tsp rosemary
salt and pepper
3 15 oz cans of cannellini beans
Combine the breadcrumbs, the 2-3 table spoons of olive oil and the 2 Tbsp of garlic together and mix until all the bread is moistened. Set aside.
Sautee onion in olive oil over medium heat until soft and translucent. Add the carrots and cook, stirring occasionally for another 5 minutes. Then add the garlic and sautee for 1 minute more. Add celery, tomatoes, wine, vinegar, broth and salt and pepper for another 10-15 minutes until the mixture has thickened. Add the thyme and rosemary, mix in, and remove from heat. Rinse the beans and fold them in gently before putting it all in a casserole dish. Add the breadcrumbs to the top to create a nice, thick layer and bake in the oven on 375 degrees for 25-30 minutes until the crust on top is nicely browned.
Let me know how your gardening and cooking go, and happy planting, happy growing, happy cooking and most of all, happy eating!