One of the easiest ways to boost the flavor of anything you cook is to use fresh herbs. Unlike spices, which are meant to be dried (think curry powder, paprika, pepper or cinnamon), herbs should be eaten fresh for best flavor. Herbs contain aromatic compounds found in the natural oils of the plant. These oils are what give the herbs their scent and their flavor and, interestingly, have been shown to have natural antimicrobial properties (likely why, evolutionarily, we eat these plants in the first place). Dried herbs have smaller amounts of these oils because, in the drying process, they evaporate, which is why dried herbs often do not taste nearly as good as when they are fresh. Also, it is likely that the jar of dried rosemary you might buy at your local grocery store is months, even years old, and slowly turning into an off-green color sawdust, not something you want to add to your food. Chopping fresh rosemary to sprinkle on chicken will make you wonder how you ever used the dried stuff in the past, the flavor and scent are that much stronger and more impressive.
Buying fresh herbs is one way to go about getting them into your food, but this method tends to be a short-term solution and one that isn’t very cost-effective. Growing your own herbs, however, is not only cheaper in the long run but incredibly satisfying. Even in a typically cramped New York apartment, you can grow your own herbs with very little in the way of supplies or space. Also, growing your own food (or in this case, seasoning) is satisfying in a way that goes beyond cooking “from scratch” for oneself. It is not an overnight phenomenon, but there is a real pride in seeing seeds you planted turn into plants and is a process that is well worth the wait.
Herewith, how to go about growing your own herbs:
Things to Have:
• Pot or planter—you can go the hardware store and buy one or use an old tin (McCann’s oatmeal tins are great for this) or a glass vase, anything that is big enough to hold at least a few cups’ worth of dirt
• Gravel—this is used to help create drainage in your pot or planter, and to help prevent you from washing all your dirt away when you water the plants
• Seeds—this is the time of year to buy seeds. You should be able to find them at a hardware or gardening store
• Dirt—really, you want to use potting soil, which is richer in nutrients and fertilizers and made for potted plants, rather than going out to the park and digging some up
What to Do:
1. Lay about an inch of gravel or small stones in the bottom of your planter.
2. Cover with enough potting soil to have a healthy foundation for your plants. This should be enough soil to come within about 2 or 3 inches of the top of your planter (it should really be at least 8” deep, but if you’re using a smaller tin, plant fewer seeds)
3. Follow specific directions on seed packages with regards to depth of planting. Usually, you will be fine with just sprinkling the seeds evenly and covering with a small amount of potting soil (usually seed packets advise planting seeds less than 1” deep).
4. Gently water—you want to use enough to get the soil wet but not so much that you wash it all away or so that it gets soggy.
5. Put planter on sunny windowsill.
6. Wait and watch.
Plants should begin to sprout within a week or so, and will grow over the next few weeks into more full sized looking plants. You should water the plants once the soil begins to feel dry (usually every other day or every three days) and only use enough water such that the soil, when touched, feels damp but not wet (too much water will drown the plants). Herbs planted in soil are ready to be eaten once you can pick off leaves without taking most of the plant with you and, with care, should last you a long time.
The thyme plants that are growing (to the right in single pot) are about a week old.
I’ve also started a wide planter with, from left:
Basil, Chives, Coriander (cilantro), Dill, Parsley and Rosemary (Dill and Rosemary are looking a little anemic, but I’m giving them some time). These plants are about 3 weeks old. In about a week or two I’m going to think about transferring two or three of the bunches to another planter so that the plants have more room to grow.
In deciding which types of herbs you’d like to grow, I would think about what kinds of food you like to cook. Rosemary, Thyme and Parsley are three of the four classic poultry herbs, while Coriander (Cilantro) is more common in Indian and Mexican cooking (fresh cilantro is great for guacamole). Dill is great on fish and chives really add kick to cream-based sauces or dips (and make sour cream taste great on a baked potato). Basil is great on tomatoes in the summer and, if you grow enough, you can make your own pesto for salads and pasta.