I have been forcing myself to garden more this spring than I have in the past. And while I wait for the peppers, zucchini, cucumbers and tomatillos to ripen, I have enjoyed the addition of numerous herbs that have thrived, thanks to recent rains.
They join the few I had planted years ago, herbs that somehow managed to survive both heavy rains and heavy drought. Some are in pots, others in the ground. A few get a little shade, but most are in full sun for most of the day.
There’s an enormous patch of mint, which spread from a single plant that went into the ground about 10 years ago. There is so much now that I have enough to keep vases of it in the house while other leaves are steeped in boiling water for a tea that’s great either hot or iced.
Then there’s rosemary, sorrel and several types of chive as well as an enormous thyme plant that has spread over the edge of its pot down to the ground below. New this year are dill, perhaps my favorite herb of all, as well as tarragon, two basils, Mexican mint marigold, Cuban oregano with its fuzzy leaves, parsley and purslane. Cilantro came up in about six spots in the yard after a single plant last year fried in the summer heat.
Another volunteer is lambsquarters, a bright green plant with magenta leaves at the center of small clusters. The leaves are fuzzy to the touch, but the leaves add color and brightness to the mix.
All are doing well, except for a sage plant that the woman I bought it from said wanted things as dry as possible. The exact opposite proved to be the case and it never had a chance to establish itself. (Most of my gardening is done in the morning before that first cup of tea, when the cobwebs in my brain haven’t been swept away yet and I didn’t really see how dry the plant got during the heat of the day.)
Morning is the perfect time to gather snippets from each herb to toss into a salad for lunch. There’s something that feels so alive and refreshing about biting into a piece of sorrel, the flavor of which reminds me of cold mountain water, or the bold tang of tarragon.
I don’t want to mask those flavors with a heavy dressing. Instead, I toss the herbs with a few spring field greens, a pinch of flaked sea salt and the tiniest drizzle of exceptionally fine olive oil. I then shake it all up vigorously, so that a teaspoon or two of oil proves more than enough. A grind or two of black pepper is all that’s needed to finish it off. I could graze through acres of it with just a little cheese or salami on the side.
Of course, the herbs pack a wallop in whatever I’m cooking, but the salads are what I’ve enjoyed the most.
The big surprise this year has come from my two basil plants, one of which had been a table decoration at the inaugural SA Chefs Coalition dinner. Both are now growing like weeds, thanks to a tip I learned last fall on how to handle the plant. Susan Belsinger, the guest speaker at the Herb Market last October, shared a tip that works perfectly: Cut the plant back regularly to just above the leaf that is the second from the bottom. It will look as if you are butchering your plant, but the plant actually loves it. This year, using that method, I’ve harvested three times the amount of basil that I’ve gotten from my plants in the past, and it’s still spring. (Click here for more of Belsinger’s tips.)
One of our Twitter friends, Jessica, from the Bake Me Away blog, has a great idea for a Balsamic Strawberry Basil Pizza. It’s one of several herbal new recipes you can try. The others are for Lemonade Made with Vanilla, Mint and Rosemary, a great thirst quencher over Memorial Day weekend and the rest of the summer, and Chilled Shrimp and Peruvian Corn Salad, which has plenty of cilantro and mint adding flavor.