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Sunday, August 29, 2010

A little bit about herbs

My yard is not very big.

Something I realized when we moved in was that the neighbors oak tree makes it even smaller. But one great thing about herbs is that they are small but mighty. A small amount of herbs can change a dish from ordinary to amazing.

The first things that I planted in the yard was mint. Now mint is the perfect herb for beginners. It is nearly impossible to kill, and the only care that it really needs is to make sure that it is not spreading too far. I built a raised bed with different sections for my mint, because I have a variety of different kinds.

Chocolate mint and Peppermint, close relatives of eachother grow side by side. Chocolate mint smells almost exactly like peppermint with a musky dark chocolate note to it as well. Then comes my favorite, eu de cologne or orange mint. This mint has beautiful round leaves and a subtle, not overpowering, mint aroma. It really does smell like it could have oranges in that aroma.

Then come Spearmint, Gingermint, and Applemint. While they are not my favorites, all of these are wonderful to have if just for the variety. Ginger and Apple mint make particularly good bath salts.

One warning about mints, they do have a tendancy to spread. I have divided my bed with wood dividers and they have found ways around it, and in some cases, have even pushed through it. Keep that in mind when planting mint.

Now my different mint plants have a variety of uses. Bath salts are simple to make, rock salt and mint are layered with each other, and then left to sit for a month. A little Epsom salt can be added for good measure. In addition to that, with a few mint plants you will find an endless supply of dried and fresh mint, as well as mint for teas (what I usually use it for).

Next I have my chives. Chives provide a mild onion flavor, and grow back when clipped. Chives also provide a lovely flower in the spring time. The Pink flowers are edible and can also be used to create a beautiful pink chive vinegar.

Next year I plan to plant garlic chives next to my chive bed. Garlic chives are similar to chives in that they provide a subtle onion garlic flavor to dishes. They are flat like grass rather than round like onions and chives, and have white flowers.

I have the Mediterranean garden in a sunny dry spot. This garden has lavendar, thymes and lemon balm. Thymes are like mints in that different varieties can smell massively differently. French thyme and lemon thyme are the two that I use the most. Lavendar is not often considered an herb for cooking, but as long as you have "English" style lavendars they have their own place in the kitchen. A great lavendar aroma and a slight bitterness can be added to a variety of foods, but shortbread cookies are the traditional way to eat lavendar. Lemon balm provides a lemon scent to tea and bath salts, and grows profusely.

The backyard garden has basil, oregano, tarragon, salad burnett, and sorrell. Basil can grow profusely and the trick is to keep picking off the flowers so that more leaves are formed. Tarragon can only be grown from roots or plants, as French Tarragon is the herb that you want to use, Russian Tarragon can be grown from seed but the flavor is not good at all. Salad Burnett is a pretty little plant with scalloped leaves. It tastes nutty with a hint of cucumber. It makes a useful addition to herb butters and to salads. Sorrell is another herb that can be used to add acidity to any dish.

The potted herbs are next. I have bay, rosemary, sage, and lemon verbena in pots because they must come in for the winter hear in Kansas. Bay forms a regal tree and will keep producing bay leaves that taste better than anything you can buy in the store. Bay tolerates very dry weather and seems to keep growing stronger. Tuscan Blue rosemary creates an upright bushy plant with wonderful rosemary flavor. I find a lot of rosemary has a flavor that is too intense or too resinous. Tuscan blue is subtle and pleasent. Rosemary also resist drought, and so makes a good plant for areas with hot dry summers.

Sage is the essential poultry herb. In addition to flavouring poultry and stuffing, it can be added to sausage to give its flavor. A careful hand is needed when you add sage as there is a fine line between just enough and way too much.

The last herb is lemon verbena. Lemon verbena is a tropical herb that smells exactly like lemon dum dums. I am not kidding. The aroma is sweet and lemony, and makes a wonderful addition to tea. Lemon verbena also keeps its aroma when dried and can be used to give a sweet lemon flavor to dishes like chicken and fish. I use my lemon verbena as a water meter. It requires more water than most, so when it is starting to look dry, everything gets a dose of water. Lemon verbena comes back wonderfully from being dry to perking right up.

My small yard provides me plenty of herbs for cooking and tea without much effort on my part. Whether in a yard or in pots, fresh herbs will help inspire you to cook in a whole new way.

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