Friday, August 22, 2008

Small is beautiful

Herbs are one of the best things you can grow in your garden if you like cooking. I have all the classics growing here: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, mint, basil, coriander (or cilantro), oregano and, despite my best efforts to get rid of it, weedy lemon balm. Whereas vegies can be quite hard work to get all the way to the cooking pot, herbs are a breeze.

Over the years I've also come to appreciate herbs for more than just their wonderful flavours. Their flowers can be exquisite, if you're prepared to get up close and personal. So, when herbs decide it's time to flower, it really is time to get your knees dirty and take a closer look. At first glance lots of people could be forgiven for thinking of their tiny flowers as 'insignificant', but that would be a lost opportunity.

Right now it's mid August and the weather has been typically cold and a bit windy. It'd be nice if it rained a bit more, but I got my wish today: cold and wet. And the sage is in bloom. A lovely blue colour, too. This is such a hardy plant. I usually cut it back hard in late winter, after flowering finishes, and as soon as the weather warms it rockets away, producing far more leaves than I could ever use. It needs zero fertiliser, but a fair bit of winter rain, and no added water in summer. It has a strong flavour, so the main trick is not to use too much. A favourite sage dish is saltimbocca: thin escalopes of veal, each topped with a thin slice of prosciutto ham, and then with two sage leaves per escalope pinned in place with a toothpick. Cooking time in a lightly oiled frypan is about 1 minute either side.

And here's a flower head I always hate to see! Rats, the flat-leaf parsley is going to seed again. Time to pull them out and sow more seed. I have tried to let a few plants self-seed, but the results have been patchy, so a packet of seeds sown by me in late winter is my much more reliable annual ritual. The seed is very slow to germinate, about 3 weeks is normal, but seed-sown plants grow more strongly than seedling-sown plants. The transplanted seedlings suffer badly from transplant shock, and wilt easily in warm weather when young.

This is a much prettier and happier sight – chive flowers. Looks like a small blue firework held in suspended animation. I grow my chives in pots, and always have a couple of pots going. I find that chives bounce back well from the odd crew-cut down to pot-rim level, so if one pot is getting a bit long and tangled, it's haircut time. While I used chives in all sorts of dishes, nothing beats freshly snipped chives stirred into breakfast scrambled eggs.

Oregano has proven to be a pleasant surprise when in flower. This is such a hardy groundcover, and it can handle a bit of semi-shade too without complaining. To tell the truth, I now mostly cook with dried wild rigini that I buy from local Greek delis, but this plant has been with me for so many years that it's here to stay.

Mint flowers are remarkably delicate and complex things, one of the prettiest of the herb flowers. These plants, however, are best treated like caged beasts, so I confine them to pots and regularly cut them back, just to show them who's boss. The leaves make nice tea (and I've discovered the trick with mint tea is to use green teabags as well as the mint, gives the tea better 'body'). And if you've run out of coriander and are cooking Asian dishes, mint isn't a bad coriander substitute, and it's rare to have no mint on hand.

Ahh, my transplanted success story of the last spring and summer. I think I've posted about this before, but this is such an oily, fragrant rosemary and it's grown from cuttings simply stuck in the ground where I wanted the new plant to grow. And the blue flowers, which appear in winter, are a light, cool blue.

Flowers on basil are hardly a welcome sign, as that means it's time to pull up the plants and sow another crop. I find that sowing two or three crops of basil over summer gives the freshest flavour. Turning basil leaves into pesto works well not only with pasta: it's great in potato salads and served a side dollop with chicken breast or thigh fillets. And pesto freezes really well, so I divide it into small, serving-size plastic containers and use it regularly.

Probably my favorite herb in the garden is common thyme. I've tried all the other thymes, such as lemon thyme, and nothing compares to the common stuff for versatile flavour. Its flowers are probably the smallest and most beautiful of them all, tiny, delicate and complex pink constructions. One thing I've found with picking the herb is to pick older, tougher stalks. These are the easiest to strip the leaves from with your fingers, simply by running your pinched fingers down the length of the stalk. The light green young stalks, as pictured here, are far too soft and tender, and they always break when you try that method. Thyme makes its way into many dishes, but I love it especially to flavour chicken stock in which I then cook a vegetable stew with plenty of potatoes, carrots, eschallots and broad beans.

And so that's a quick lap of the flowering herb garden. All of these plants, except the mint, love lots of sunshine. The basil, parsley, chives and mint love their occasional liquid feeds, but the rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme never get fed or watered by me, and they thrive on neglect. The only other useful hint is to regularly use your herbs. This constant trimming and pruning seems to keep them vigorous and dense.

They need little care, compared with vegetables, but when they decide it's time to flower take the time to have a close look – you might be surprised how pretty they can be.

1 comment:

lilyflax said...

Great photos of herbs