Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cooking with Herbs

Last week Vron emailed me a link for a fancy cocktail (be on the lookout for its debut at a future Virtual Dinner Party).  The drink calls for both basil and mint, and we got to chatting about how expensive buying herbs can be.  It's always the same story: you find an interesting recipe you want to try; you buy the grocery package of fresh herbs, which costs $4 each time; you use about 3 springs/leaves; the rest goes bad before you have the chance to use it again...

Though we no longer have any backyard space for a full garden, we do have a balcony, and I've made it a priority to grow all the herbs I use frequently.  You drop that same $4 for each small plant at Home Depot, Lowes, or Trader Joe's, but if you plant it and show it some occasional love, you've got herbs all summer and fall (rosemary and parsley year-round!)

Basil, Rosemary, Cilantro, Thyme, Oregano
After growing an herb garden for a number of years, here are some random tips I've learned:
  • Don't waste your time growing herbs from seed.  Two weeks into your labors, you are elated to see two sweet little leaves.  But just think how many more weeks it will take for that little seedling to become large enough to harvest anything from it without wiping out the whole plant!
  • Mint will overtake all the space around it, so grow mint in a separate pot.  
  • Pinch off the tops of basil as soon as they begin to flower.  If they flower, the plant puts more energy into making seeds and growing flowers, and you will see the number of new leaves for eating quickly dwindle and weaken in flavor.
  • Cilantro, no matter how well you care for it, will go to seed after about 4-6 weeks, and that's the end of your cilantro harvest.  Come to terms with the fact that you will need to replace this particular plant when it flowers and goes to seed, for the same reason as basil, above.  You can use the seeds it produces for cooking, though--that is coriander.
  • Rosemary needs less water than other herbs.
Trader Joe's has been a good place to buy herb plants.  Today at the store they were selling these cute little pots of herbs.  The tag says this old Italian clay pot was found on a California ranch dating back to 1908.  Seems a bit fancy.   But hey, I had mint on my grocery list to make the cocktail, and this mint pot was $2.49.  The container of fresh mint in the produce section was nearly twice that price.  Obvious answer there.

(Have any of you seen these herb pots at your local Trader Joe's?  I'm a bit skeptical that these pots are truly Italian antiques from an old California ranch, yet can be mass produced and sold at TJ's...)

Anyway, the other time and dollar-saving trick I use to keep herbs on hand is to freeze them.  At the end of the summer (or with any leftovers from your grocery store packs), harvest the remaining herbs, rinse and dry them, and store them in a bit of olive oil in a plastic ziplock bag in the freezer.  When I need some herbs, I take the ziplock out, crack off a piece of the frozen herb and oil block, and chop it up on a cutting board before adding it to my recipes.

And you've likely seen my recipes call for "2 cubes of Trader Joe's frozen basil" in the ingredient list.  These things are a huge time saver in my book!

Which herbs do you grow or which would you use most often if you had some always on hand?


  1. I usually use my plants too fast and "do them in". Thanks for the great idea of freezing herbs in olive oil. I'm going to try that!

  2. So many good tips in this one!


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