Two of my favorite pastimes are cooking and gardening, which seem to go together. When you plant an herb garden, you get double the satisfaction!
Living in Hawai'i , you can plant an herb garden at any time, but this seems to be the perfect time of year to start one. The nights are a little cooler, the sun is still hot in the daytime and we should soon start getting some refreshing rain. If you don’t have the patience to wait for seeds to sprout, get cuttings that you can root in a glass of water or buy plants at your nearest nursery.
If you do go the seed route, my son came up with an ingenious idea so the birds would not get the seeds before they could sprout. We had some old wood framed window screens which he used over the seed plantings and just propped them up with big rocks on each corner. This way, when the first sprouts come up, they still have room to grow without getting mashed down. This system also serves as protection during heavy rains.
Planting herbs in raised beds seem to give them the drainage many herbs need to thrive. It is also an easier way to harvest them. Mints and other invasive type herbs do better in containers where you can control the spreading. Herbs are usually tough and trouble-free, but pests and diseases do sometimes attack. Pinching off affected parts is a quick and effective control measure.
Using fresh herbs in cooking is as old as the first time someone thought that a certain piece of green leaf would go well with a certain other ingredient. Of course, the amount of herbs used in recipes is a matter of personal taste, but when following a recipe that calls for either dry or fresh herbs and you need to substitute, use this rule of thumb conversion: 1 tablespoon of fresh equals one teaspoon of dry.
When making stews or any recipe that needs to cook for several hours, you can avoid cooking out the fresh or dried herb flavor, by adding it in the last stages of cooking. On the other hand, when preparing foods that will chill, you should do the opposite and add the herbs several hours in advance to give the flavors time to meld.
When cooking with herbs that are tough (Cuban or Caribbean oregano for one and bay or laurel leaves) or have woody stems and you want to use the whole stem, such as rosemary or even thyme, crush the herbs a bit and place them in a stainless steel mesh tea ball which you can then insert or drop into the cooking pot. I have several sizes I use for just this purpose. You can fish out the whole thing and not have to pick the herbs out before serving the dish.
When harvesting your herbs, they can be preserved for months in the freezer.
You need to wash and dry them first, by laying on double layers of paper towel and then patting dry with more towels. Place them in freezer bags.
Some of the best herbs for freezing include tarragon, basil, dill, chives and parsley. Parsley, perhaps the most commonly used of all herbs, is also packed with Vitamins A and C. When you eat the little piece of fresh parsley that is garnishing your plate, remember that it not only serves as decoration, but it can also be used to freshen your breath after eating.
The best herbs to dry at home are bay leaves, marjoram and oregano. The microwave is the handiest method to use for herb drying at home. Wash them well and pat them dry before placing the leaves between layers of paper towels. At the lowest setting, zap them for about three minutes.
The most popular herbs to plant seem to be basil, rosemary, chives, parsley,
cilantro, mint, oregano, tarragon and thyme.
(c) Sonia R. Martinez
(Parts of this article first appeared in the Hawaii Tribune Herald of Hilo - September 14, 2004)