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Culinary herb primer

(post, Caroline Lewis)

As a chef, I'm often asked for tips on using fresh herbs. Which herbs enhance which foods? When to add them? Which pair well with others?

As gardeners, Larry and I are generally asked a different set of herb questions. Which herbs can be grown in a small garden? How much space will they take? Will they come back year after year? 

Here are a few herb suggestions for both the home cook and the home gardener.

h3.A primer on culinary herbs

One of the many useful things I learned studying with Robert Reynolds at The Chef Studio was how to pair herbs with food. Robert divides herbs into two main groups, according to how they tend to be used in French cooking: fine herbs and what I call Mediterranean herbs.

Fine herbs are used primarily in the more northern parts of France and include parsley, chervil, chives, tarragon, and mint. And guess what? They all work together — you can include one or more in a recipe and they almost always harmonize well. And they're delicious used in salad dressings, sauces, omelets, and delicate fish and chicken dishes. If your cooking tends toward butter and shallots rather than olive oil and garlic, these are the herbs for you.

[%image reference-image width=400 float=right caption="A bee on rosemary."]

Mediterranean herbs are what one thinks of in Provençal cooking: rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, and lavender. Generally speaking, any combination of these works well together. They enhance the more lusty, assertive southern flavors of grilled lamb, goat cheese, peppers, and anything with garlic. The famous herbes de Provence is just a combination of these dried herbs.

Basil and parsley, it should be noted, are what we might call crossover herbs, in that they marry well with both fine herbs and Mediterranean herbs, and thus are useful in almost any cooking style.

One cooking note: Fresh herbs, with the exception of bay laurel (bay leaves), tend to do best added at the end of a dish's cooking time. If you add fresh herbs early — such as rosemary or thyme in a stew — the flavor of the finished dish is enhanced by reserving additional herbs, chopping them, and adding them in at the last minute.

h3.Favorite herbs to grow in a home garden

After tomatoes, the number-one request we get is to grow basil. Everyone loves it, and it's expensive to buy at the store. The good news is, basil is easy to grow. But there are a couple of things to remember about it.

The number-one rule about basil is this: Do not succumb to the temptation to put it out in the garden before early to mid-June, no matter what you see at the garden center. Basil is very sensitive to cold and will not thrive in the kind of wet, chilly conditions we've had in Oregon this spring. 

The number-two rule? Pluck those basil flowers off the plant as they form, for if the plant goes to flower, it will eventually die. 

A single basil plant will provide you with plenty of leaves for caprese salads and garnishes. If you want to make pesto, though, plan on growing more. The two of us grow at least four or five plants each summer, and make and freeze batches of pesto as we harvest the leaves. 

[%image basil float=left width=300 caption="Now is the time to put your basil in the ground — at least in Oregon."]

Basil is an annual plant, meaning it will die in the fall and must be replaced each year. The other annual herbs we love to grow in kitchen gardens are tarragon and cilantro. 

Cilantro bolts or goes to flower even more readily than basil, eventually forming coriander seeds and then dying. If you love using cilantro in your cooking, plant it in succession: one plant each month for several months, harvesting from the oldest plant until it bolts, then removing it (or continuing to grow it for coriander) and starting to harvest from the next plant.

Many other herbs are perennials, meaning they generally survive through the winter and can live for many years. Some of these co-exist well in a small garden; they stay relatively compact over the years and are often good companion plants to others. 

Chives, parsley, and thyme are among our favorite perennial herbs to grow in small gardens. Trailing rosemary is lovely cascading out of a frame and stays much more compact than bush varieties. Interestingly, rosemary also enhances growth and flavor in strawberries, so we plant them near each other.

Other perennial herbs are best grown in pots (to contain their invasive tendencies) or in their own raised-bed herb garden (where they can sprawl a bit more). Mint is notoriously invasive and should always be planted in pots. The roots of oregano will likewise spread considerably over time. And rosemary, sage, and lavender grow quite large within a few seasons, so they need room to spread out.

One other favorite perennial herb that people often don't realize they can grow in a home garden is bay laurel. Not only is it an extremely versatile culinary herb, it grows beautifully as a dwarf tree in a large pot. It's pretty, and the fresh leaves are infinitely superior to the expensive and often tasteless dried ones at the store.

basil, l

reference-image, l