A cook's herb garden

If you don't have a garden area, you can plant herbs in pots, and grow different kinds for different cuisines

Published June 6, 2006
The Oregonian/Food Day

Of all the plants I grow, I prize my herbs the most. The pots of French tarragon and scented geranium I overwintered on the kitchen windowsill have just joined a growing collection in our backyard: chervil, chocolate mint, cilantro, garlic chives, Grey Lady lavender and sweet marjoram, to name a few.

Growing your own herbs is a satisfying (and economical) way to add complexity of flavor to everything you eat. Best of all, you don't need an arsenal of tools, an abundance of time or a big yard -- in fact, you don't even need a yard. A few inexpensive terra cotta pots and a bag of potting soil, and you're on your way to a beautiful garden that will inspire and supply your cooking all summer and beyond.

Planting herbs in pots has a lot of advantages. Many gardeners don't have space to spare in their vegetable beds and so prefer to grow herbs in pots. And urban gardeners may not have more space than a deck. But even a spot as small as a fifth-floor fire escape facing south or a windowsill drenched in sun offers an opportunity for city dwellers with itchy green thumbs.

The option to move the pots around means you can manage the amount of sun the plants receive and bring them inside when the temperature dips. And a pot will thwart the tendency of invasive herbs like parsley and dill to spread. If your sun conditions allow it, arrange the pots near the kitchen door so it's easy to step out for a snip.

Let your palate pick your plants If you're planning your first herb garden, start by thinking of what you like to cook and eat, then plant accordingly. Dessert is my favorite course, and I love to showcase unusual flavors in my recipes. I like to use lemon verbena in ice cream or blueberry trifle with lemon verbena cream. Cinnamon basil has a bright (and cinnamon-y!) flavor that's really nice with peaches poached in red wine, a la Chez Panisse. Rose geranium is for rhubarb, raspberries, or blackberry ice cream. I also make pound cakes with scented sugar.

Beyond a dessert-oriented garden, you could organize your herb plantings by cuisine: For Asian inspiration plant garlic chives, Thai basil, Vietnamese coriander, cilantro, shiso and lemon grass. If you cook a lot of French recipes, plant parsley, tarragon, chives, chervil (which is so hard to find in the grocery store), thyme and rosemary. For Italian flavors plant various basils, flat-leaf parsley, oregano, sage, marjoram and rosemary.

Ellen Jackson is a former pastry chef at Higgins Restaurant and Bar and a Portland food writer.

©2006 The Oregonian

Sage advice from an herb grower

Tuesday, June 06, 2006
The Oregonian

Herb expert Penny Durant shared some planting tips with me. Durant's the owner of Red Ridge Farms in Dundee, a nursery that specializes in herbs and lavender.

Most herbs are grown from seed without a hitch, but don't hesitate to buy baby plants already in pots if it's late in the season or you're less confident of your abilities.

Find the largest pots that will fit your space (and that you can move comfortably), even if it means combining several herbs in a single planter. Larger pots keep the soil moist longer and therefore promote hardy, bush-like growth -- outward more than upward. Plant pretty lettuces around the edge of the pot, as Durant does, to add another decorative element that you can eat. Use pots at least 8 inches deep if you plant individually, and soak the terra cotta variety in water to jump-start growth.

Put a layer of stones or pottery shards in the bottom to ensure adequate drainage; no herb tolerates soggy roots well. In fact, Durant says benign neglect is preferable to overwatering. Fill the pot halfway with an organic potting soil and press down to compact. When you remove the start from its plastic container, tease its roots gently to encourage new growth before placing it in the center of the pot. Fill in with more soil, pressing down gently, and water until the excess runs out the drainage hole. Fertilize your herbs sparingly, with a half-strength liquid fertilizer low in nitrogen. It's not a must, but it's a nice bonus if you remember to do it even once a month.

As for picking, allow the plant to get well-established (medium-size) before harvesting. When there are lots of leaves, choose the big ones as you need them, leaving the newer growth behind. Morning is the best time to harvest because the oil content of the plant is high. Since a plant's goal is to set seed, pinch off the seed heads of more mature plants to delay the bolting. This encourages growth of the stems on lower branches. Dill and cilantro go to seed especially quickly.

-- Ellen Jackson

©2006 The Oregonian

Adding herbal intrigue to desserts

Tuesday, June 06, 2006
The Oregonian

Most of the herbs used in dessert making are best used sparingly; their flowers, leaves and petals have strong personalities that can be unpleasant to chew. Infusing a liquid is the perfect way to add herbal flavor, and cream is the ideal base. It manages to enhance an herb's floral qualities and keep it from becoming cloying.

Flavor cream for whipping or for ice cream, custard and parfait bases by bringing it to a simmer with the herbs and part of the sugar called for in the recipe; this will give you a true sense of how strong the flavor is. Strain out the herbs when it is to your liking, remembering that you'll add additional ingredients that will take away from its intensity.

Poaching is a good way to subtly perfume fruit desserts. Do this in the same way that you'd infuse cream with flavor, adding the herbs to the poaching syrup with the fruit. The leftover poaching liquid is wonderful brushed between cake layers, or reduced slightly and served with the fruit.

Flavored sugars are excellent in butter cookies and cakes. Put a clean, dry leaf or sprig for every cup of sugar in a tightly sealed container and keep for 1 to 2 weeks before using. Powdered sugar can be infused in the same way, for sweetening whipped cream or meringues.

And for a sweet flavoring agent with vivid color, try the syrup recipe using tarragon, basil and mint varieties. Drizzle it on ice cream or summer fruit, or use it to dress up a plated dessert.

-- Ellen Jackson

©2006 The Oregonian

Original recipes included:

Sweet Potato Salad With Marjoram
Snap Pea Soup With Mint
Chocolate-Chocolate Mint Leaf Semifreddo
Sweet Herb Syrup