Posts Tagged ‘herb gardening’

Living in Interesting Times: Tough Herbs


Joyous Ostara/Passover/Easter, happy Spring, or whatever you choose to celebrate when life is returning to the soil. “Spring is Christ, raising dead plants from their shrouds” Rumi said, and any ordinary yard shows us the truth of it.  These are strange times indeed, and the best way to keep yourself safe is to stay home. Gardeners and permaculturists are used to staying home, and have plenty to stay home for. This is the glory season for greens and herbs.

I have written before about one of my favorite plants, bronze fennel, and you can find that post here. Today I’ll just remind you that it is very ornamental most of the time and you can easily sneak it past your homeowners association if you are unlucky enough to have one. Pollinating insects adore it, and so do I. It will take two or three years to reach a good size, so start now.

in the spring I like to make herb pesto used to have on hand for all kinds of seasoning uses. Essentially, pesto involves garlic in some form, herb leaves, nuts of some kind, and olive oil. I typically add the cheese at a later stage.

Don’t make pesto just by throwing together all the herbs you have. Herbs have strong flavors, and some contemplative tasting, sniffing, and thinking is called for to make sure you have a coherent and appealing flavor picture. I made this one yesterday morning, picking the  fennel first, and decided to go with the anise flavor and chose anise hyssop and a fruity mint, a couple of stout sprigs of each, and two stalks of green garlic.

in my opinion, proper pestos are made with a mortar and pesto. Use the food processor if you must, but please, don’t even think about using the blender. Blended leaves all acquire an off, grassy taste. Wash the herbs, remove tough stems, chop the leaves coarsely, and peel the green garlic down to tender parts and finely slice it crosswise. Pound the garlic in the mortar with a good pinch of salt until it is pretty thoroughly crushed, then add the chopped leaves and pound to a chunky paste. Then add nights of your choice and decide how finally to crush them. The herbs had a Sardinian taste so I added roasted salted pistachio kernels and pounded them only until coarsely crushed. Pound in a little really good herbaceous olive oil, then stir in more oil to the consistency that you want. Check for salt.

It smelled so good that I was eager to eat some right away, so for lunch we had fresh handmade egg linguine with half the herb pesto, a couple of glugs of additional olive oil, and some top notch Parmesan. Yum. The rest of the pesto went in a jar, and later that day I stirred up some sourdough bread dough and left it to rise in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day I took the dough out of the refrigerator mid-morning and let it come to room temperature for a couple of hours. Then I patted a loaf’s worth of the dough out into a large somewhat erratic rectangle on an oiled board, smeared it thickly with the rest of the pesto, and then topped it with grated Romano. This was rolled into a long loaf and left to rise on a baking sheet, then slashed across the top, brushed with more olive oil, and baked in a preheated 425 degree oven until done. After cooling on a rack for 15 minutes, it was ready to break into beautiful fragrant chunks and eat as an Easter lunch full of the flavors of the season. Butter was excessive, but that didn’t stop us.

The amount of pesto to make is a very individual decision. The flavor of this one is subtler than it sounds, and I picked a nice sized bouquet of fennel leaves and ended up with about a cup of pesto, divided between the two dishes here.

Nose-to-tail Cilantro

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Cilantro is a lovely and evanescent thing. It is a major seasoning herb in Thai and Indonesian cuisines, is widely used in China and Southeast Asia, and fills me with wellbeing whenever I eat it. It was a few years, though, before I learned how to make it pay for its garden space.
First, choose your variety carefully. You need a bolt-resistant type that can be bought in ounces, not packets. Don’t plant the seeds sold as spices. Currently my favorite is Calypso. Second, forget rows. Plant it in bunches that you can harvest all at once, and only have as many bunches maturing per week as you will actually use. I like the bunches to be spaced 8-10″ apart each way, and I plant 15-20 seeds in each bunch, all clustered into an area about 2″ in diameter. I plant 4 bunches a week, every week that I remember and have some bed space available, starting well before the last frost because cilantro likes cool weather and stopping as the days heat up. They will not occupy their real estate more than a couple of months, so I plant them in places where big heat-loving crops like tomatoes or zucchini will take over the space. In the picture above, you see the stem of the young tomato which will spread out when the days heat up. You may also note the early lettuce that occupied the tomato’s space over the winter, now serving as a light mulch.
When the plants are 7-8″ high, I harvest the bunch by cutting about two inches above the ground. They are quite clean because the crowded plants hold each other up, and just need a quick rinse before being used in your favorite way. Cut the bunch rather than pulling, because those stems will keep on working.
Leave the cut stems in place. When they show a good amount of new growth,you will notice that the leaves are finely cut and feathery rather than looking like grocery-store cilantro. This new growth doesn’t have the full cilantro flavor by any means, but I still like to throw chopped handfuls into salads and pounded green herb sauces. But what we are really after at this point is not the leaves. When some of your bunches are tall and starting to bolt, pull them for the roots and lower stems. Scrub the roots and thick lower stems well, cut off the finer roots and discard (into the compost, of course) and chop the roots and stems thinly crosswise. This is your supply of cilantro root, which is used extensively in classic Thai cooking, while the leaves aren’t used in authentic curry pastes etc. In fact, make sure that no leaves get into your root, because the flavor is different and not right for this use. Thai cooking aficionados refer to it as the “unobtainable, mythical coriander root,” but it is highly obtainable if you have a garden. Now you can pound your roots and stems in your faithful mortar and pestle to make curry and seasoning pastes, or freeze them in little plastic bags in quantities of about 4 tablespoons. I tend to use mine up during the summer, which is when southeast Asian cuisine tastes best to me.
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But don’t pull every bunch. Let some bolt, because you want the green seeds.
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These have a flavor in between the leaves and the dried coriander seed and are delicious sprinkled over salads, used as a garnish on grilled meats, or tossed over bulgur or rice dishes.
Now you are finally done with your cilantro plants and can pull them and compost them, unless you want to let some set and dry seeds to use as coriander seed. I don’t dry and save seeds, personally. I can buy seeds easily, and prefer to use my own seeds green, when they are a fresh treat that can’t be bought.
For more on using the roots, check out David Thompson’s huge and highly addictive “Thai Food,” the best Thai cookbook in English in my opinion, although it does assume a scary amount of kitchen time😉