Savory Harvest: Cooking with Herbs
One of the very best things about summer cooking in Colorado is the opportunity to use fresh herbs. Sure, you can buy herbs in the grocery store year round, but who wants to pay $3 a package for a few wilted basil leaves? Even if you don’t grow anything else at home, make space for some herbs. You’ll be overwhelmed by how much they produce and thrilled at the flavor fresh herbs add to your meals.
Choosing Perennial Herbs
I’ve been growing my own herbs for years, and I’ve found that some are all-stars here in Colorado. Chives, thyme, oregano (marjoram), mint, sage and tarragon are all perennials that over-achieve. Chives fill out to a nicely sized clump and flower with a purple ball of beauty on the tips of the flower stems. You can even use clumps of chives throughout your garden for a splash of color.
Thyme can be found in a seemingly unlimited number of varieties—some grow like a carpet and others are more upright, but they all grow quickly, producing generous amounts of small leaves to cook with. Oregano and sage are both strong flavored herbs, so I don’t allocate much space for them, but rather rely on one small perennial plant to produce enough each year to meet my cooking needs. Tarragon grows like a weed, so you’ll want to thin it from time to time to keep it shapely, and you might use a wire tomato cage around the bush to keep it upright.
Mint has a mind of its own and will take over almost any landscape. Either designate a bed off by itself to plant mint, or plant the herb in pots to then place in the ground to contain the roots. Last year I actually planted mint in a little dirt strip behind my garage in the alley, and I’m thrilled that it’s thriving this year. Since it’s blocked off by the alley and a building, it can’t spread beyond the bed I have it planted in.
I haven’t had much luck growing either dill or cilantro—both tend to bolt very quickly in our summer heat, going to seed too fast and producing very little to actually use. If you have a secret for growing these, please share!
Several annuals also deserve some space in your herb garden. Basil is a summer classic for so many recipes, but it takes a healthy sized plant to get enough leaves to make pesto. I usually grow 8-12 basil plants in a section of my garden, or in a large whiskey barrel to make sure they produce plenty. Both parsley and rosemary are also annuals in our climate, so plant a few parsley plants and one good sized rosemary bush that’s at least one foot tall. If you have room for a larger rosemary bush, you can actually cut the woody stems and use them for skewers to make wonderful herb-infused chicken, steak or vegetable kebabs.
Selecting a Location
Because you’re going to be cooking with your herbs, select a location near your kitchen if possible. If you plant your herbs against a sunny south- or west-facing wall, you’ll find the perennials will bloom earlier (my herbs reach a usable size well in advance of the first day of spring) and all of them will survive longer into the fall and winter.
Don’t have room for a garden? Try growing herbs in pots on your deck or patio. Just make sure they get sun at least half the day, and don’t let them dry out too much.
Extending the Season
When the summer nears an end, you can either just let the herb garden die off naturally with the first frost, or you can preserve your herbs before that happens. I let woody, stemmed herbs like thyme, sage and rosemary linger in the garden through the winter. Although they may look dead, the leaves still hold pungent flavor and I continue to clip them and cook with them throughout the winter, sometimes even digging through the snow to snip them.
For more delicate herbs like basil or parsley, harvest them before the first frost and make pesto which you can store in the freezer and use through the winter. I’m not a huge fan of drying herbs, but have found mint to be an exception; it retains strong flavor when dried. Just lay it out on a baking sheet in the oven at a low temperature, and then crumble into a jar for storage.
Michele Morris runs Cooking with Michele, providing private cooking lessons to both kids and adults. As a chef educator for Operation Frontline and a guest chef for the Seed to Table school gardens programs, she teaches people throughout Denver how to cook healthy recipes with local, fresh foods. Visit www.cookingwithmichele.com and click on the tag for HERBS to find more great recipes using fresh herbs.