Sunday 29 August 2010

Culinary herbs

Culinary herbs are expensive to buy in the shops, they don't keep well if you buy the ready-cut ones, there is seldom a big range available, and most importantly of all you have to think ahead if you are going to use shop-bought herbs. How often have you been in the kitchen cooking, and thought "This dish would be a whole lot nicer if only I could chuck in a few sprigs of thyme or something"? It's really convenient to have your own herbs growing in your garden (or even in pots on a sunny windowsill). This way you can pick whatever you want whenever you want, on the spur of the moment; you can have just a sprig or two rather than a whole bunch if you don't want much; you can have a little bit of several herbs all at once if you need a bouquet garni (which would be a very pricey option of you bought them in a shop). And of course, herbs from your own garden will be fresh, and will not have travelled hundreds / thousands of miles.

Herbs in the cold-frame during Summer (with the lid removed)

Over the years I have experimented with growing lots of different herbs. At one point I had about 50 different ones -- but that was when we lived in a smaller house and I didn't have space for growing vegetables. These days I tend to concentrate mainly on the herbs that we regularly use in the kitchen, and that means the traditional parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme - along with basil, mint, chives, and oregano / marjoram.

Unfortunately, many people never discover the full potential of parsley. In England it is often treated as simply a garnish, with one solitary sprig plonked inappropriately on a plate of bangers and mash or something, and subsequently scraped to one side and not eaten. This is a shame because parsley deserves better. If you doubt me, try making a Tabbouleh  -- a North African / Mediterranean salad comprised chiefly of parsley and bulgur (cracked) wheat. Go on, look it up on Google and find out how to make it! You won't regret it.

For me the trick with growing parsley is to sow it successionally. In my garden it never lasts long, for two reasons: firstly we use a lot; secondly, it seems to be very prone to pest attack -- little grey aphid-like bugs clustering around the base of the stems seem to be the most common, but it is also attacked by carrot root fly. You can tell when the latter attacks, because the parsley leaves turn from green to yellow, and eventually nearly red. In order to assist pest-control, and to ensure that I have always got some parsley ready to use, I tend to grow it in pots, which I can move around as required.


Parsley in pots, at various stages of development

If you are transplanting parsley, remember to do it while the seedlings are still pretty young (maybe 3 or 4 inches tall?), before the main tap-roots get big. They don't like being transplanted as adults.

Parsley seedlings ready for transplanting

Sage is a herb that needs to be used sparingly, because it is very strongly flavoured. Unless you are confident in its use, I suggest using about half of what any recipe suggests, just in case the herb overpowers the rest of your dish. You can always add more later, but it is usually impossible to take any out!

The sage plant is a woody perennial -- it lasts several years, but will eventually go too "leggy" and will need to be replaced (perhaps using rooted softwood cuttings from the original plant). For culinary purposes you use just the nice fresh tips of the branches, not the older (sometimes yellowing) leaves further down. Sage tends to be pretty dormant in the Winter, and doesn't produce many new leaves, but it always bounces back into action in the Spring. We like this herb in stuffings and with pork dishes. Jane traditionally uses it to make stuffing for with our Christmas meal.

Sage -- the "green" variety

Sage is also grown for its decorative qualities, but I find the better-looking ones tend to have less flavour

Variegated sage

Purple sage

Rosemary is another very pungent herb, so use sparingly. The spiky dark green aromatic leaves are quite tough, and you may want to chop them finely when using them in cooking. The woody stems are sometimes stripped of their leaves and used as barbecue skewers to add more flavour to grilled meat. This herb goes very well with lamb dishes, particularly roast lamb. Another good way to use it is chopped finely, along with some garlic, mixed with a little oil and "massaged" over some baby potatoes which are then roasted in the oven.


 My rosemary plants only just survived the severe weather last Winter / Spring, but they have recovered fairly well.

Rosemary in close-up

My personal favourite amongst the herbs is thyme. I love it! It goes well in dishes from so many different cuisines -- classic French, hearty English, even Caribbean. It works well with slow-cooked casserole-type dishes (try it in a Cassoulet), but also with salads (e.g. sprinkled on top of some sliced beef tomatoes). When using it, try to strip the leaves off the stalks and use only the leaves, because the stalks can be a bit stringy or woody.

I only wish thyme would grow more enthusiastically in my garden. I suppose, being a Mediterranean herb, it would prefer more warmth and sunshine than the English climate normally provides, but I do find that it is a constant struggle for me to produce enough to keep up with our demands. I normally have to buy a couple of plants from the Garden Centre each year to keep stocks up.

Thyme -- surrounded by French Marigolds

Regular followers of my blog will have realised that tomatoes are high on my list of favourite vegetables... And of course if you like tomatoes, you probably also like basil (tomatoes + basil = a marriage made in heaven, maybe?)
I grow my basil indoors, because it likes warmth, and growing it outdoors would be too much of a risk for me. Each year I pot-up four plants which I then grow on my dining-room windowsill. They generally do well, and produce a decent crop. I love to use a layer of basil leaves as a bed on which to serve a tomato salad. Jane is less keen on "visible" basil (i.e. leaves, either chopped or whole) than I am (but then I'm perhaps a bit TOO fanatical on this), so what we tend to do is make it into pesto, which can be used as a dip, or as an ingredient in made-up dishes. We have recently discovered that pesto freezes well, and we freeze it in ice-cube trays. When the cubes are fully frozen, the cubes are tipped out and stored in a plastic bag in the freezer. This means that you can use them individually if you wish -- for instance melted into a tomato soup just before serving. Another wonderful use for basil pesto is in "Pasta a la Genovese" -- pasta with salad potatoes, cooked green beans and pesto -- highly recommended!

Basil -- the pots normally live on the Dining-Room windowsill

Here's a picture of some pesto cubes...

Pesto, frozen in an ice-cube tray

These two are closely related, and there are more varieties than you can shake a stick at! Generally speaking, Marjoram is milder-flavoured than Oregano, and probably more suited to English-style cooking, whereas Oregano is normally bolder and more pungent, and more suited to Mediterranean cuisines, as befits its origin.

I like growing Marjoram because of its abundant and long-lasting flowers, which are very attractive to bees and butterflies

Marjoram flowering profusely

Oregano is also extremely decorative, and is my herb of preference (over Marjoram, that is) for cooking, because I love the intense flavour. For me it seems to add a bit of "Mediterranean warmth" to a dish. It is certainly used a lot in Greek and Italian cuisine. One of my favourite treats is Kalamata olives in oregano-infused olive oil -- great with a glass of chilled dry Sherry or Manzanilla. Like so many herbs, this one needs to be treated with caution simply because it is so strongly flavoured and can easily overpower things if you add too much.

Greek Oregano

Chives are in the Allium or onion family. They provide a nice mild onion-ey flavour. Best served raw, chopped and sprinkled on top of a dish, because they tend to lose their flavour rapidly in cooked dishes. I love them with tomatoes, and with boiled beetroot.

Growing them couldn't be easier. Stick them in a pot, water them regularly (they need moist conditions); harvest a few leaves as required. If you keep cutting them more leaves will grow. A point to note here is that it is best to cut the leaves very close to ground level rather than half-way up. This promotes stronger re-growth.


If you don't cut the chives, they will flower (in early Summer normally) and the pink blooms are very decorative, especially en masse. (Sorry, haven't got a picture. Next year maybe).

Mint is another indispensible herb for the serious cook. Where would we be without mint sauce for with our roast lamb, or without a couple of springs of it to add flavour to succulent fresh peas or new potatoes newly unearthed from the plot???

I grow my mint in pots, for two reasons. Firstly it is easier to keep the soil moist this way, and mint really needs lots of moisture. It will tolerate a bit of shade, but it will not thrive in dry soil. In order to conserve moisture in the pots during the Summer I stand the pots in large plastic saucers. I strongly recommend these; without them much of the benefit of watering is lost because the water just runs through the pot and escapes. With the saucer in place, the soil (and thus the plant) has enough time to soak up as much as it needs. Secondly, mint spreads rapidly if you allow it to, so having it in a pot helps to restrain it.

Mint growing in a pot

Of course there are lots of different types of mint available, and they all have their pros and cons. Mine is Moroccan mint, which I find is very vigorous and very strongly flavoured -- which I like. All of mine comes originally from one small plant I bought several years ago on Farnborough market for £1, so that's been a pretty successful investment! Early each Spring I empty out the pots, select a few of the most promising shoots / roots and re-pot them in fresh compost and they always flourish. I'm normally able to crop the plants for the first time by about the end of April. Incidentally, don't put the rest of the roots (the ones you are discarding) in the compost, because they will grow rapidly and take over the whole compost bin!

My final thought on herbs is this. They score highly on "VSR" -- Value For Space Rating. In other words, you can get lots of useful yield from a very small space -- even just one windowsill or one decent-sized planter on your patio. Even if you live in a flat with no garden you can grow SOMETHING!


  1. I agree with your post. Herbs are SO expensive to purchase yet they are so easy to grow. My favourite herbs are basil, thyme & rosemary.

  2. I have the same herbs you have in this post! But I tend to have not much success with thyme though.


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