Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Essential culinary herbs

Golden majoram
Before I had my own herb garden, I cooked very little with fresh herbs. I only had rosemary and chives in a windowbox then and buying fresh herbs from the supermarket was pricey. It took me some time to get used to having this resource of fresh herbs close at hand. Now I don't use stock cubes or powdered stock any more, just salt, a selection of herbs and our homegrown veggies. Fresh herbs can really make a dish, and most of them are easy to grow and maintain and look pretty. A nice thing about growing your own herbs is that you can choose unusual varieties such as orange thyme or golden majoram.

Tea herbs aside, my list of essentials for a low-maintenance herb garden is as follows:

Perennial herbs
Aromatic bay leaves

  • Bay leaves
  • Lovage
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Oregano/marjoram
  • Chives
Orange thyme

Bay leaves are a key ingredient in most soups and stews. They are particularly important in game dishes such as venison. My little tree gets harvested quite heavily. The freshly crushed fresh bay leaves are super aromatic - no comparison to the shop-bought dried stuff.

Lovage, the 'maggi plant', is very high on my list of essentials as it enriches all soups and stews, giving it the Maggi flavour without the MSG. It's potent so one or two leaves per dish will do. One plant should be ample to supply one kitchen for one year. Lovage dies back over the winter but grows vigorously the rest of the year. Apparently plants can reach two metres in height! It's wonderful in chicken soup or rabbit casserole.

Rosemary, thyme and oregano/majoram are all easy to grow, need little looking after (just basic weeding) and are a boon in any Mediterrean dishes or on roasted vegetables. Chives can also provide a bit of aphid control around roses so I've planted some in a bed with roses rather than with the rest of the herbs.

Annual herbs
Giant Italian parsley

  • Parsley
  • Basil
  • Coriander
  • Dill

Annual herbs are a bit more work than perennials - as they need to be sown every year. Dill is probably the easiest of my pick of annual herbs since it's sown directly into the ground and then only needs basic weeding.

Parsley can take a while to germinate, but once it gets going it's a no-bother crop. I usually let it flower in the second year and this year it obligingly grew from seeds dropped the previous year.

Basil is an indoor crop in Scotland and I like to grow some more unusual varieties that aren't available in the shops.

Coriander is probably the trickiest of the herbs I grow. For a continuous crop I'd need to sow four or five times. It can go to seed very quickly, especially in warmer weather, so now I harvest the large leaves as soon as they appear (before they go all feathery) and freeze what I can't use immediately. I find Vietnamese coriander much easier to grow and it has the advantage of being perennial (though tender). I keep it going from cuttings (they easily root in a glass of water) moved inside over winter. It's not exactly the same flavour, but it serves a similar purpose.

Optional extras
Winter savoury, good with beans

  • Sage
  • Common fennel
  • Winter or summer savoury
  • Lemongrass
  • Vietnamese coriander

Sage and fennel are mainly used for tea, but occasionally sage is used for a sage butter sauce and the fennel seeds are great in spiced cakes. As they are both perennial, they make easy additions to the herb garden. Winter and summer savoury are nice with legumes. As winter savoury is a perennial it's slightly less work than the summer savoury, which needs to be sown annually. And, since Asian herbs such as lemongrass and Vietnamese coriander happily grow here (and aren't easy to come by in the supermarket), I usually add them to the herb bed.

Cucumber-flavoured borage
I do grow some other herbs, but I don't use them very much. Borage and hyssop, for example, are definitely grown to encourage pollinators rather than for culinary purposes. Consider which herbs you like in your cooking and then incorporate them into your garden, either in pots, a bed or as part of the border (since they do look pretty). Our bay tree has pride of place in the front garden as befits such an important herb.

One plant of each herb is probably enough, especially for the perennials (you might need a few plants of the annuals, if you're planning to make pesto for example). So the space requirement is minimal. A small patio area will do. Make sure the herb garden is near enough to the kitchen that you can easily grab the herbs while cooking.

And if you need any more herbs than you've got growing yourself you can always forage for some wild herbs and spices.

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