Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How to Grow, Care for & Use Your Herb Packs!

By Chef Andrea

Fresh herbs bring a fragrant vitality to your kitchen as well as adding beauty to your landscape or patio if your garden space is limited to potted plants.  Back in our early days of CSA, we used to include more herbs in the CSA shares.  We wanted to give members fresh herbs to cook with, however we heard frequently from members that they were not using all of the herbs in a bunch before they went bad.  We brought this issue up at a meeting with our members and one member suggested we send the herbs as plants that they can plant themselves.  What a great idea and an even better way to accomplish the overall goal of making fresh herbs available for CSA members to incorporate in their meals!  When you need a fresh herb, you simply cut it from your plant—it doesn’t get any fresher than that! 

This is our second week of deliveries for herb packs, so hopefully by the end of this week everyone will have a pack!  You can plant your herbs in a garden space or in pots to keep on your patio, porch or kitchen window sill if you’re limited on space.  Choose good, loose garden soil mixed with lots of compost (up to 1” mixed into the soil if you’re planting into a garden space).  The plants will do best in well-drained soil with full sun.  If you don’t have a space with full sun exposure, partial sun will be ok too.  If you have rabbits or other little herb-loving critters in your yard, you might need to fence your herbs to protect them. 

If you need help identifying the herbs in your pack, please refer to this diagram as well as the pictures that follow. 

There are four perennial herbs in your pack:  Sage, Oregano, Savory, and Thyme.  These herbs can survive the winter and will consistently come back year after year, so consider where you’d like to establish these herbs in your garden.  Sage and oregano will get quite large, so it is best to give them about 2 square feet of space in the area you plant them in.  Each year we cut off all the old wood from our sage plant to make room for the new growth.  Thyme and savory are a bit smaller and only need about 1 square foot of space. 

Italian Basil

The remaining plants in your pack are annuals and include Italian Basil, Chervil, Italian Parsley and Curly Parsley.  Annuals will only produce for this season and will not survive the winter outdoors.  Italian basil and chervil need to be cut back regularly to delay flower and seed formation so they continue to produce usable leaves.  If you see even the earliest sign of flowering in either of these plants, cut them back to keep them vegetative.  Parsley will continue to produce throughout the season, so don’t be afraid to cut these plants back too.  If you can’t use your herbs as fast as they are growing, cut the extra herbs anyway and preserve them.  There is more information about that below.  When harvesting your herbs, use a sharp knife or scissors so you can make a clean cut.

Curly Parsley
Italian Parsley
Herbs are a great way to add flavor and nutrition to your cooking.  Sometimes herbs are used to provide a background flavor, such as when you add herbs to the pot when making stock, broth or braised dishes.  Often the herbs are put in as whole stems or bundles, are left to impart flavor and then are removed before using or serving.  Other times herbs are used as a garnish, added just before serving with the purpose of complementing the dish.  Examples of this include adding a little fresh parsley to a bowl of chicken soup or a plate of pasta or perhaps you add a little fresh basil to a pizza after it comes out of the oven.  Fresh herbs should be cut as close to serving as possible and with a sharp knife so you don’t bruise the leaves.  The flavor and aroma from herbs comes from the oils in the herb and will lessen over time.  This is also why you usually add fresh herbs to a dish at the end of cooking or shortly before serving.  In contrast, dried herbs need more time to develop the flavors that have been preserved in the process of drying.  Dried herbs are added earlier in the cooking process to give them time to develop and come together with the other ingredients in the dish.  In culinary school, we were taught to strip the leaves from the stems on fresh herbs and either discard the stem or use it in stock.  If the stem is tough or more like a stick, you will want to do this.  However, some herb stems are tender, flavorful, juicy and totally usable!  I often chop the leaf and the stem when I’m using fresh thyme, parsley, chervil and sometimes young basil stems.  Sage, savory and oregano stems are sometimes a bit more coarse and not as usable.

Halibut with Chimichurri
There are some classic preparations from around the world that feature herbs not as a garnish, but rather as the main ingredient.  When your plants are really producing and you have a lot of fresh herbs available, consider using them more as a main ingredient in some of these preparations.  Pesto is a great example of this and is traditionally made with fresh basil.  Gremolata is an Italian condiment made from fresh parsley, lemon and garlic.  It is traditionally served with osso bucco, an Italian dish of braised veal shank, but can also be served with lamb, beef, chicken or bean dishes.  Chermoula is a Morroccan herb condiment made with fresh herbs including parsley and cilantro.  It is often served with fish and seafood dishes.  Chimichurri is another parsley based condiment originating in Argentina.  It also includes garlic and parsley as the main ingredients, but also often includes fresh oregano, red pepper flakes and red wine vinegar.  Salsa Verde is another fresh herb sauce, different from the salsa verde made from tomatillos.  The herbal version of Salsa Verde is a simple herb sauce, similar in some ways to a coarse pesto.  It’s often made with parsley, but you could make it with any fresh herbs. 

There are also some traditional salads that feature fresh herbs.  Tabbouleh, a Lebanese salad, is a combination of bulgur, tomatoes and lots of fresh parsley and mint.  The Italian Caprese salad is another delicious salad built on simple ingredients of fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella and a little olive oil.  You can also make your own simple vegetable and herb dishes with a few simple ingredients.  In the middle of the summer I like to make a salad with whatever fresh vegetables are available.  It could be something as simple as chopped peppers, shredded carrots, cucumbers and or tomatoes.  Put them in a bowl and toss them with salt, pepper, olive oil and handfuls of whatever fresh herbs are available!  These types of fresh vegetable salads make a delicious, fresh accompaniment to simple summer dinners which may be nothing more than a simple piece of grilled fish, a plate of fresh pasta or some good bread and cheese. 

If you do have more herbs than you can use fresh, cut them back and preserve them.  Some herbs, such as basil and parsley, can be pureed with a little oil and frozen in ice cube trays or muffin tins.  Other herbs such as parsley, sage, oregano, thyme and savory are good as dried herbs.  After you harvest them, give them a quick rinse and then dry them in a low-heat oven or in a food dehydrator.  The other option is to bundle the herbs in small bundles and hang them in a dry place with good air flow and let them air dry. If you do this, make sure the herbs are more on the dry side when you bundle them and don’t put too many stems in a bundle or they may mold or take longer to dry.  I hung bundles of herbs in my kitchen last year and they dried beautifully.  Once your herbs are dried, strip them off the stem and put them in a glass jar.
Herb Infused Honey
Some herbs also have medicinal uses and can be preserved for use throughout the winter to keep your immune system strong and help treat colds, etc.  Jean Schneider, Madison CSA member and an herbalist, shared some ideas for medicinal uses of some of the herbs in our herb packs in an article last September.  You can read her full article on our blog and learn how to make sage honey and how to use thyme as a tea. 
We hope you enjoy growing your own herbs and find interesting and delicious ways to make use of them throughout the year.  They really are a simple way to brighten up your landscape as well as your meals and the benefits they offer go beyond the flavor. 

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