Last August I offered a few tips on how to cook with fresh herbs while being away on a multi-day paddling trip. Many people wrote to ask me how I cultivate those fragrant and delicious beauties. So here are a few simple tips that will ensure a constant supply of fresh herbs.
Where to plant: in the ground or in planters? This is precisely the time of the year where I try to relax after a long day of work by dreaming about my next herb garden. Then the planning starts. It doesn't take much time because I confess that I am not much of a gardener. But if there is one field in which I do my fair share and have even developed some expertise, it's my herb garden because I couldn't live without fresh herbs or the simple pleasure of sitting in the sun on my patio watching basil grow and observing the mint trying to take over parsley. My two dogs love to steal my mini tomatoes behind my back and they make a feast out of it, which is also quite funny to watch. And although in my family summertime is also linked with as many paddling trips as possible, my small herb garden never gets in the way, on the contrary! I love nothing more than carrying a good variety of herbs to add personality to my camp kitchen. Make no mistake: most herbs are extremely sturdy travelers. All they request are damp paper towels and plastic bags with moisture vents. In those conditions, most will travel and stay fresh for as long as one to two weeks, depending of the varieties.
Which varieties to keep Talking about varieties, growing herb is perfect for the lazy gardener because it can be done easily in small containers with a very limited amount of space. Although I have a large yard with plenty of excellent sun exposure, and contrary to my husband, who likes to grow all things in gardens and to mix herbs in lovely beds of flowers as part of an ornamental garden, I prefer to stick with my traditional basic patio strategy. I grow 20 varieties of herbs along with 3 different varieties of small tomatoes in small planters on the deck because it is so convenient not having to bend constantly to harvest, and because it's close to the kitchen, where I spend a lot of time daily. It's also easier to plant because one starts from scratch every season and can limit the growth of certain invaders, such as mint or rosemary to their specific sand box. Even if herbs can be started as seeds I find it much easier and quicker to go to my favourite garden supplier to buy small boxes of herb plantings. That allows me to plant in mid-May and to harvest a significant amount of herbs a month later. Now, this brings summer quickly to your door, doesn't it?
A good planning is simple
When planning, start by asking yourself the basic question: which herbs do I like the most? If you are a fan of tabouleh middle-East mint and parsley salad or of traditional pesto made with basil, then you know where to start your planning. Greek cuisine cries for oregano, rosemary and thyme, while French cuisine requires marjoram, tarragon, chervil and thyme. If you like pork, veal and chicken, then go with savory and sage, even if it can be a bit peculiar to grow. If you are an avid angler, it could be interesting to try to plant dill, chives and lemon thyme, while those who love Asian cooking will certainly want to grow cilantro, chives and Thai basil. The amount to plant really depends of how much you use specific herbs. As for the basic planter herb garden, the easiest and most versatile combination would usually include parsley, chive, basil, thyme, tarragon, marjoram, mint and rosemary. All these are quite simple to grow in terms of sun exposure and watering and will also allow a lot of delicious food combinations.
The easy way to plant
When planting, the easiest way to go is to use individual planters of different sizes and heights that you can regroup to make aesthetic arrangements close to your kitchen door. This will prevent some of the more invasive herbs from going wild and to taking over their neighbours. It is especially important with mint and rosemary. Basil needs a lot of room to grow and doesn't like to share its pot. It also requires good drainage as well as at least 1 foot of depth. And don't forget to choose containers with good drainage holes that can keep a bit of humidity and which can stay outside year-round. A good depth is at least 16 inches. Cilantro likes a mix of sun and shade and hates when it becomes too hot. Seeds or seedlings also need to be planted every six weeks to allow for a constant supply. You must crush them slightly and water them for a week to simplify the planting process. As for parsley, another favorite, it is very sturdy and will grow almost anywhere as will mint, marjoram and thyme. Chives grow easily too.
Fantastic travel companions
From a paddler's point of view most herbs are good companions on any paddling trip; but some are simply essential: thyme, parsley, basil, chive, oregano or marjoram are basic staples to any camp kitchen. For my part, I cannot leave home without a big bunch of cilantro, which I add to almost everything, even if it is a little harder to grow. One has to replant its seeds a couple of times during the summer season in order to have a regular supply. The way to keep them for up to two weeks is very easy: damp paper towels and some plastic bags with moisture vents. The herbs that will keep for up to two weeks are: thyme, rosemary, curly leaf parsley and thai basil; for up to one week try: chives, basil, marjoram, tarragon, flat leaf parsley, cilantro or mint.
Herb omelette (4 portions)
- 8 eggs, beaten
- 2 tsp each of chives, parsley and cilantro
- 1 each tsp thyme and marjoram
- A bit of water
- 4 oz cheddar cheese
- Salt and pepper
- A dash of hot sauce
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp butter
Beat eggs, add water and herbs, hot sauce, salt and pepper. Beat well and pour onto a hot frying pan covered with melted butter and oil. Cook over medium heat, making sure you don't overcook it. Add cheese and serve with English muffins.
Middle-Eastern salad (2 portions)
- 1 cup cooked cracked wheat
- 1 can garbanzo beans (chick peas), drained
- 1 cup curly leaves parsley, chopped
- 1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1 small red onion thinly chopped
- 2 cloves garlic crushed and chopped
- 1 package baby tomatoes, halved
- 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Mix all ingredients together and serve as a complete meal with flat bread or omit beans for a refreshing appetizer.
Quick herb pesto (4-6 portions)
- 1/2 cup flat leaf parsley
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro
- 1/2 cup basil leaves
- 4 tbsp chives
- 2 tbsp fresh mint
- 2 tbsp fresh thyme
- 2 tbsp marjoram
- 2 tbsp tarragon
- 2 cloves garlic crushed and chopped
- 4 tbsp lemon juice
- 8 tbsp olive oil
- Water to mix
- 1/2 cup toasted almonds
- 1/2 cup grated pecorino or Asiago cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
In the jar of a blender, mix all ingredients together, adding water if necessary to blend. Put in ice cubes trays and put in freezer. Or leave it in refrigerator for up to two weeks in an airtight container. To serve: add 2 tbsp per portion to pastas, rice, potatoes, steamed vegetables, grilled fish or meat. It makes a delicious difference to any dish!
You can also add variety by picking any other herb combination you like, such as cilantro, lemon thyme and mint; change the type of nuts (toasted pecans and pistachios are extremely good). Replace lemon with lime and try another type of oil (peanut, safflower or organic canola, with 1 part of dark sesame oil) and use another type of cheese to make a totally different type of pesto.