One Ingredient: Spring Herbs

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA / STYLING BY CATRINE KELTY

Herbs are some of the most undervalued and underused ingredients in home kitchens. Usually purchased in the grocery store in bigger bunches than one needs, they end up as limp, sad bundles lying in the crisper underneath half an onion. Sadly, we often overlook their importance to really great cooking.

Herbs are at their peak while still alive, as part of a whole plant. Herbs should look healthy. Once cut they begin to degrade, so the argument for growing your own really begins here. A whole herb plant offers a wide range of culinary opportunities: The tender shoots of thyme, for example, can be used stem and all; the flowers of borage are as delicious as they are beautiful; even the roots of the coriander plant have their place in many Southeast Asian curries. Rather than purchasing herbs at the store, why not consider growing them yourself? You’ll reduce waste by cutting only what you need and leaving the rest to keep on growing.

Growing herbs
To add to my amateur gardening experience I spoke with local professional David Gilson of the Herb Lyceum in Groton. As a wholesaler of 400-plus varieties of herbs since 1989, his knowledge is at the top of his field. Our subject was container gardening and he offered his perspective on how to approach your setup.

Container gardening
According to David, the most important part of growing herbs for the kitchen is to grow them as close as possible to your kitchen. A sunny window? Great! A little raised bed next to the grill? Best kind! The likelihood of your getting the most use out of them is greatly increased if they’re handy, and visible.

What to Plant
Plants from similar native habitats will grow better together than plants from vastly different climates. When choosing to grow more than one variety in the same bin, be sure to research their origins, along with soil type.

Sun Exposure
In general you want to maximize the chances for healthy growth by offering the plants the best exposure to the sun (while still keeping them accessible to your kitchen). Don’t hesitate to approach a neighbor who happens to have a southeast-facing fire escape if that’s your only option.

Bonsai Principle
The “bonsai principle” states that the size of the container correlates to the size of the plant. A root system needs to be large to support a large plant. In other words, choose a planter that reflects the size of your plant, and as it grows, so should the planter. Be prepared to re-pot.

Varieties
Below is a list of herbs you might look into growing yourself. Some of these are commonly found in recipes but not readily available in most grocery stores; others are more common but just taste better when picked from your own garden. Many can be found as plants in garden centers or farm stands. Seed catalogs— like Sow True Seeds—carry these as well as other more obscure varieties.

The best herbs for a home kitchen garden are sorrel, shiso, tarragon, chervil, savory, lovage, anise hyssop, bee balm, papolo, Mexican mint, marigold, garlic chives and sweet cicely.

Choose varieties with similar flavor profiles to extend your growing season—not only will you spend more time living with the seasons, you’ll build a variety of flavors to play with over the entire year. Enjoy cilantro when it’s at its best in the spring, but try papalo (an ancient Mexican herb that mimics cilantro’s flavor) in the hotter months when it thrives. Grow spring chives in the spring, eat their flowers, then grow garlic chives in the fall. Challenge yourself to enjoy plants when they are at their peak naturally and enjoy discovering just when that time actually is!

One way to do this is to consider what I’ll call “eating through.” Every part of an herb is edible in some way, from the root to the seed. The stems of woodier herbs like thyme, savory and mint can be steeped to flavor a stock or sauce, or even used to lightly smoke a fish on the grill. Fennel flowers are wonderful on eggs, and the pollen collected from those flowers is a traditional ingredient in many Italian sausages.

As an exercise, if you grow one plant this spring, let it be the cilantro plant. It is fairly simple to grow, has a quick growth cycle, and you can use each part of the plant throughout its lifespan. You can eat its leaves, its flowers, the green seeds, the dried seeds and finally, when the plant has completed its natural life cycle, pull it up and use the roots to flavor a wonderful Thai curry. If you’re lucky, some of those seeds will fall and self-propagate, so you’ll have new growth and fresh leaves in early fall.           

How to care for cut herbs
If you’ve purchased or cut more herbs than you can use there are few ways to help them survive. Loosely pack long-stemmed herbs like parsley, lovage, tarragon, etc. into a long bundle. Wrap in one layer of damp (not wet) paper towels and store in a lidded container in the fridge. Smaller or very delicate herbs such as chervil should also be stored like this, but rather than bunching them together simply line the bottom of a container with damp towel, scatter the herbs loosely on top and cover with another damp towel. Check them daily to make sure they’re still fresh.

How to slice herbs and the importance of an extremely sharp knife
“Chiffonade” is the most common knife technique used for cutting large-leafed herbs like basil, cilantro, sorrel, mint or shiso. To master it, arrange leaves in a stack, one on top of the other, with the stems facing the same direction. Gently roll the stack into a cigar, and beginning at the stem end slice to the desired thickness down the length of the cigar. The result is a strip of herbs that will sit nicely as a garnish on your plate.

To slice a large amount of herbs, say for the classic French fines herbes (parsley, chives, chervil and tarragon), lightly gather them into a small ball that you can comfortably hold under your thumb, middle and forefinger. Carefully slice as thinly as you can while maintaining pressure on the bundle of herbs.

To get the most out of your herbs  use the sharpest knife in your drawer. A dull knife will cause some herbs to oxidize and brown, and make it difficult to achieve clean cuts all the way through.

BEN RIGBY is a professional cook, freelance writer and anthropologist. Amateur gardening and banjos round out the days. Follow him on instagram at @rigbybenjamin