Growing your own flavorful varieties

THE BALTIMORE SUN

1 // A SIMPLE HERB GARDEN

Start with three or four of the basics, such as basil, oregano or thyme.

There are more than a dozen easy-to-grow herbs that reflect what's in the spice rack, so consider what kinds of cuisine you like before choosing the three or four varieties you might want to plant.

Italian? Grow basil, chives and parsley to start. And add oregano, rosemary, marjoram, sage or thyme.

Mexican? Start with basil and oregano, and certainly include cilantro.

Seafood? Dill and French tarragon are a good place to begin. Add lemon thyme or lemon balm, chives, basil and parsley.

Basil is perhaps the most popular among herb gardeners, and there are a couple of dozen varieties. Kerry Kelley, annuals manager at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville, recommends 'Pesto Perpetua,' which is slow to flower and produces an abundance of leaves.

Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms, whose father, John Scheepers, created Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog, recommends 'Napolitano Mammoth-Leafed' basil, a giant that will produce "enough pesto for the whole winter."

To have basil to last the season, consider several plant- ings. And when cooking with basil, add its fragile leaves at the last possible moment or the flavor will cook out, says Richard Stuthmann of Baltimore International College.

Parsley is also a satisfying herb to grow. Flat-leaf parsley is an increasingly common ingredient, so plant plenty of it. Curly-leaf parsley has moved into the culinary background and more often assumes the role of garnish.

Greek oregano is the variety preferred by chefs, said Kelley, of Homestead Gardens. If it is too strong for your tastes, grow marjoram instead.

If you don't have enough room -- or enough pots -- add your favorite herbs to planters already planted with annuals. Their color, variety and flowers make good accents.

2 // KICKING IT UP A NOTCH

Build on the basics by adding tarragon, different kinds of sage, chives, rosemary or mint.

The flavor of fresh herbs only creates an appetite for more. A little more space in the garden, or a few more pots on the porch, and home cooks can add thyme, sage, rosemary, tarragon, dill, mint or chives. They are easy to grow and easy for even a modest cook to incorporate in menus.

There are more than 20 varieties of thyme -- golds and silvers and with delicate flowers -- and it is perennial in the Mid-Atlantic region, so it is a good choice for the perennial garden. It is ideal in soups and stews and can stand up to long cooking times.

Sage most often is associated with meat and game, but think about roasting butternut squash with onions, brown sugar and lots of sage in a slow oven, as cookbook author Maria Helm Sinskey recommends.

Sage 'Berggarten' has huge leaves but, like thyme, there are many attractive varieties.

Rosemary also has its associations -- most often with lamb. But consider using its woody fronds as skewers for kebabs on the grill.

Tarragon is indispensable in French cooking and makes an excellent herb vinegar.

Chives add punch to summer salads and cold soups and, when mixed with soft cheeses or butter, make a flavorful spread.

Not everyone enjoys dill, but there is no doubt that it makes a wonderful summer salad with cucumbers and onions, oil and vinegar. It is great for poaching seafood as well as in creamy dressings and dips.

Mint can be a thug in the garden, overrunning everything else. Consider assigning it to its own pot. Another choice for iced teas and summer drinks is lemon balm or lemon-lime balm.

3 // FOR THE ADVENTUROUS

Think about adding bay, fennel, savory, lemon grass, lavender, lemon or lime basil, cinnamon basil, lovage, par-cel, borage or chile peppers.

A visit to the National Arboretum's Herb Garden and a conversation with Chrissy Moore, its acting curator, can give herb gardeners a glimpse of what is possible.

"We have a more sophisticated palate today," said Moore. "Americans travel more, eat out more, and they want to bring that home."

For the adventurous gardener, she recommends planting a bay tree, whose foliage will put to shame the dry, cracking leaves in jars.

Bay leaf is a common ingredient in soups and stews, but Moore recommends trying it in custard and ice cream.

"We call it sweet bay, but nobody thinks to use it that way," she said.

Fennel is popular with fish dishes and has lovely, wispy foliage and a unique licorice flavor. "But the caterpillars love it," Moore said.

Creeping savory is an attractive ground cover in the garden, but it also has more leaves per stem than most oreganos, to which it is closely related.

"Savory will take your cooking up a notch," Moore said. To see if you like it, mix it with butter or cream cheese, allow it to infuse and then taste it on bread or a potato.

Lemon grass is popular in Thai cooking, and Stuthmann of BIC recommends using it to steam scallops or shrimp. But Moore warns that lemon grass hates having wet feet and needs good drainage.

We most often associate lavender with aromatherapy, but it has a place in the kitchen as well.

"It is a challenge for the cook to find a way to allow its subtle hint in the background," Moore said.

For cooks looking to "spread their wings," van den Berg-Ohms of Scheepers recommends trying a lime or lemon basil, or cinnamon basil in brownies.

Lovage is a celerylike herb that can be used in potato or egg salads, as can a new variety, par-cel, which carries the best attributes of parsley and celery.

History tells us that soldiers used to eat borage before battle to give them courage. Cooks can use it -- always fresh -- to add a hint of cucumber flavor to cold soups or summer salads or risottos. Its tiny purple flowers look lovely floating in soup.

Moore also recommends growing chile peppers. "Make your own salsas," she said. "There are 80 different kinds and all different heat levels. They are easy to grow and very ornamental."

But that also can be said of herbs.

E-mail Susan Reimer: susan.reimer@baltsun.com

Cucumber Soup With Borage

Serves 6 to 8 as a first course

3 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped

5 scallions, chopped

1/4 cup borage leaves

2 cups cold chicken stock (divided use)

1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup sour cream

dash cayenne pepper

salt and fresh ground white pepper

1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons lemon zest, for garnish (divided use)

1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons red pepper, roasted, skin removed, and diced, for garnish (divided use)

borage flowers, for garnish (optional)

In a food processor, blend the cucumbers, scallions, borage leaves and half of chicken stock to make a puree.

Add remaining stock, yogurt, heavy cream and sour cream; blend well.

Season with cayenne pepper, salt and white pepper. Transfer the puree to a large serving bowl or soup tureen. Chill.

Serve in chilled bowls, garnished with 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper each.

If you have any borage flowers, float them on the surface.

Adapted by Baltimore International College director of instruction Richard Stuthmann from "The Classic Herb Cookbook" by Jill Norman

Per serving (based on 8 servings): 124 calories, 4 grams protein, 10 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 6 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 29 milligrams cholesterol, 234 milligrams sodium

Grilled Steak With Basil-and-Oregano Salsa

Serves 6

SALSA: 1 small shallot

3 garlic cloves

6 sprigs of oregano

a large bunch of purple basil

1 stalk of fresh green peppercorns, or 1 tablespoon green peppercorns preserved in brine

2/3 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar

1 red chile, seeded and chopped

STEAKS:

6 thick sirloin steaks, or 2 large steaks, about 3 pounds total

oil, for brushing

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

GARNISH: watercress or arugula

sprigs of purple basil

To make the salsa, place all salsa ingredients in a food processor or blender and pulse gently to make a coarse paste.

Brush the steaks with oil and season well with salt and pepper. Heat an outdoor grill or a stove-top grill pan and cook to desired doneness.

Remove steaks and let rest for 5 minutes. Slice thickly and serve with salsa and sprigs of watercress or arugula and purple basil.

Adapted from "Cooking With Herbs and Spices," by Linda Tubby and Manisha Gambhir Harkins

Per serving: 486 calories, 33 grams protein, 39 grams fat, 8 grams saturated fat, 2 grams carbohydrate, trace fiber, 83 milligrams cholesterol, 119 milligrams sodium

Corn Bread With Parsley and Basil

Serves 6 to 8

1 cup cornmeal

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup oatmeal

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons poppy seeds

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped basil

3 eggs, well beaten

scant 1 cup milk

4 tablespoons cream

4 tablespoons butter, melted

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix cornmeal, flour, oatmeal, baking powder, salt and poppy seeds in a large bowl. Stir in the herbs. Add the eggs and enough milk to form a thick batter, beating well with a wooden spoon. Stir in the cream and melted butter.

Liberally oil an 8- to 9-inch cast-iron skillet, the traditional pan for cooking corn bread, or a similar sized baking dish or cake pan. Pour in the batter and bake for 15 to 18 minutes. When the corn bread is cooked, a skewer or toothpick inserted in the middle should come out clean.

Cut the corn bread into triangles or squares and wrap in a napkin to keep warm. Any leftover pieces can be cut in half and toasted or fried.

From "The Classic Herb Cookbook," by Jill Norman

Per serving (based on 8 servings): 239 calories, 7 grams protein, 11 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 27 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 102 milligrams cholesterol, 327 milligrams sodium

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