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Choosing an herb or herb palate for a dish is a lot like choosing a tie, an opportunity to give your look some nuance and personality. Think wearing a pastel tie to a spring wedding or deciding to top a roast chicken on buttery mashed potatoes with some freshly chopped chives.
It’s also an opportunity for failure: you shouldn’t put Italian basil on a taco just like you shouldn’t wear a striped tie with a striped shirt or a tie with little airplanes on it to the funeral of a guy who died in a skydiving accident.
Point is, choosing an herb palate is an important opportunity to complete the flavor profile of a dish. And while I’ll sometimes go without a necktie, I rarely exclude herbs in my cooking.
Since you choose the herb based on the dish and not vice versa, it pays to have options at hand. But this spontaneity presents a problem: Herbs are best in their fresh form and fresh herbs are perishable.
In these warmer months, instead of stocking your fridge with a variety of fresh herbs to use in a moment’s notice, stock them in your garden.
I use the word “garden” loosely—you don’t need gardening gloves and a floppy hat to be a gardener. All you need for an herb garden is six hours or more of direct sunlight.
My garden, according to my girlfriend, Lauren, is an “excessive” number of potted herbs that I “obsessively” arrange and rearrange in the yard. For renters like me, it’s hard to beat the affordability, durability and mobility of plastic pots.
If you have a big sunny spot for a garden bed and feel ambitious, ask a green-thumbed neighbor or an expert at a garden center or nursery about what soil to buy or how to condition the soil in your yard for gardening. Find someone who seems invested in your success.
Herbs need space. If you’re planting in a bed, give your herbs plenty of room to grow. If you’re unsure about the mature size of a plant, ask someone or look it up.
What to Grow
It might sound obvious but start by growing the herbs you anticipate using. If you don’t remember the last time you used thyme, go with rosemary. Contrarily, if you love thyme, growing more than one variety can be rewarding: I have found that lemon thyme excels in lighter applications with seafood, poultry and potatoes, where standard thyme remains my preference for rich sauces and stews.
Dr. Catherine Browne—owner of Ageless Herbs out of Hamptonville and a generous font of botanical knowledge, urges us to consider a plant’s nature in addition to its flavor when choosing between varieties. For example, Browne suggests growing Italian oregano over Greek, whose aggressive roots are more readily restricted by the pot resulting in a shorter and less productive plant than the Italian variety.
Some herbs—like dill and cilantro—simply won’t grow well in our hot climate.
If you love dill and want to keep it in your arsenal, it holds well in the fridge when wrapped in damp paper towels and stored in a Ziploc bag. Or, try using the juice from a pickle jar to add some fresh dill flavor in a pinch.
Unlike most other garden and herb stores, Archer Lodge Herb Farm owners John and Deva King don’t sell dill and cilantro. Their reason: “Once you remove integrity, you can sell people anything that there’s a market for,” says John. “I could sell you cilantro,” he continues, “but it won’t last very long.” Archer Lodge grows herbs in Clayton and sells them at Raleigh’s State Farmers Market.
Fortunately, not all is lost for cilantro lovers. Archer Lodge sells Vietnamese coriander, which, despite looking completely different from cilantro, tastes remarkably similar. I’m growing it for the second year in a row and I use it all the time in Latin and Asian cooking.
When shopping for herbs, I recommend starting with plants instead of seeds, and, generally speaking, the bigger the plant the better. If you buy a tiny plant and then use most of it, it will take 2 to 3 weeks for it to bounce back and become usable again. Larger plants have more to offer and recover more quickly.
Unless you want it murdering all of your other plants and taking over your yard, mint should be grown in its own container.
Tending your Garden
Go on social media and you’ll see cat parents, dog parents, actual baby parents, and, in this time of quarantine and crisis gardening, people like me—plant parents. Once you have chosen your herbs and potted or planted them in a spacious environment with plenty of sunlight, it’s easy to be a good plant dad (or mom).
Your first responsibility is to water them but pay attention; you can thoroughly water two similarly sized herbs in identical pots and the next day, one could be dry and one could be damp. Watering the plants usually doesn’t mean watering all the plants—only the ones that need it. Put your finger about an inch deep in the soil, and if it feels damp, leave it alone. If it’s dry, water it thoroughly—never partially water a plant, this encourages shallow root growth.
Next, you are responsible for weeding your pots and garden beds. Weeds compete with your plants for water and nutrients and should be plucked immediately.
Your last responsibility: use your herbs! Counter-intuitively, trimming your herbs habitually encourages them to grow more, so don’t feel like you’re using them up—they like it.
Not all herbs should be cut the same way, so look up each plant online. Parsley, for example, grows from the inside out like a fountain, so it’s best to harvest the outer stems. Basil can be clipped back about halfway down any stem, as long as you cut right above a leaf joint.
Always harvest with scissors. Pulling and tearing signals to the plant that it’s being eaten by insects, while clipping tells it to grow more.
Rules For Growing Herbs In Pots
1. Any type of pot will do as long as it has holes in the bottom for drainage. Keep in mind that clay pots are porous, so they dry out much faster than plastic.
2. With some exceptions, herbs grow rapidly, so they need at least a 12-inch pot. “Think about how miserable you’d be if your shoes were too small,” says Deva King of Archer Lodge Herb Farm. “You can’t expect your herbs to be happy in that situation either.”
3. Only use potting soil—do not put topsoil, garden soil, or yard dirt in your pots. Organic potting soils work great, as do most of the name brands. Do not use potting soil with “moisture control”—they will hold too much moisture and drown your plants.
4. Loosen the ball of roots when re-potting a plant to encourage outward growth. (See photos above.)
5. Do not pack the soil into the pot—put it around the plant with your hand, then lightly tap the pot to settle the contents.
6. Water your plants immediately after potting them. This will help set the soil and gives immediate relief to the distressed roots.
If you want flavor but don’t feel like tediously picking herbs like thyme, use butcher’s twine to tie the herbs in a little bundle. In restaurants we call this a sachet and it can be added early in the cooking process and removed whenever you’re satisfied with the imparted flavor.
Chiffonade (pronounced shiff-oh-nod) is a classic French cutting technique translating literally to “little ribbons” most commonly applied to basil. To do it, stack the leaves upside down on a cutting board, roll them up, and slice through very thinly with a sharp knife.
In this series, local chef Bobby McFarland offers tips on how to cook like the pros. Currently the lead culinary consultant at The Kitchen Raleigh, McFarland loves eating pomegranate, cheese and all things pork. His culinary hero is Alton Brown.
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