Kitchen Shrink: The herb garden of my dreams

KITCHEN SHRINK:

While recently chatting with a family friend, she exuberantly mentioned that she was whipping up a mixed-green salad with the herbs, lettuces and cucumbers that she freshly picked from her garden, as well as a marinara sauce with the Technicolor heirloom tomatoes overflowing in her planter boxes, and a zucchini and onion pie also from her glorious organic garden. Green with envy, I wondered if I could also coax nature to let me create my own edible garden. My wishful thinking was quickly followed by vigorous digging in the organic soil with which I had filled my patio planter. Since my goal was an herb garden I purchased and planted such Mediterranean herbs as Simon & Garfunkel's classic parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, (remember Scarborough Fair?), along with basil and oregano.

As my garden flourished, I was thrilled I no longer had to race to the market on a culinary whim to hunt down a particular herb to flavor my assorted dishes, rather I could just step outside and snip away as the heavenly aromatics filled my senses, and perfumed my fingertips.

In case you, too, have been dreaming of an herb garden, here's the quick and dirty way to make it a reality. Quite simply, delicate herbs need plenty of sunshine (about four hours daily), nutritious soil, some compost or fertilizer, water, and a little love to be happy. They can either be planted in the ground where they sprawl and grow freely, or in a planter box or pot on a windowsill, patio or deck, which cramps their style and stunts their growth, but keeps them safe from hungry critters like rabbits and squirrels.

If you go the latter route like me, select a large, deep and spacious container to lessen cramping. Typically rosemary, sage, oregano and mint need more elbow room to grow, thyme and tarragon require about half the diameter of growing space, while cilantro, chives, dill and parsley are the most space-conserving. Basil, on the other hand, needs a deep pot to accommodate its sprawling root system.

It's most important to remember that these dainty plants need quality organic potting soil to survive and thrive. Please don't dig up your existing garden soil, which is probably nutrient-deficient for these little sweeties, along with being rife with pesticide residues. Add a layer of medium-size rocks to the bottom of the container (to assist with drainage and help with root aeration) before filling with soil. Mix with a gardening fork, then add roughly an inch of compost material, whether your leftover coffee grounds or breakfast melon rinds, and blend into the soil for an added oomph of nutrition.

Once the soil is properly prepared, you're ready to plant the organic seeds of your choice, germinating seedlings or potted starter plants. Whichever you choose, scoop out soil, and gingerly place in the hollows, allowing an eight-inch diameter between individual herbs. Cover the seeds with soil, while tightly packing soil around the seedlings or plants. Now water the thirsty darlings until the soil is moist, not soggy. (Don't forget to buy a planter saucer to prevent spillage). Check daily, adding water when the soil is dry to the touch.

They also crave food about every six weeks, so add liquid fertilizer or more compost to satiate the hunger pangs. When the plants start to thrive (I'm told basil can reach three feet) it's a good idea to transplant these behemoths to a larger container.

Keep a pair of scissors handy to gently snip your herbs when they're ready for harvesting, about four inches high with bright green foliage. Never tear the tender leaves, which leads to bruising.

Herb Hints

• As fresh herbs are less pungent than dry ones, use 3 teaspoons of fresh to 1 teaspoon of dry.

• Delicate herbs like parsley and chives should be added at the end of cooking to retain their flavor, while robust ones like rosemary and sage should be added at the start.

• Tarragon is chicken's best friend, sage is turkey's, mint is lamb's, while dill is fish's. Chives and parsley enliven salads and potatoes, basil dials up tomatoes. Oregano makes a zesty rub, cilantro rocks in Mexican and Asian dishes, chervil is France's secret weapon, while rosemary and thyme are divine with chicken and stews.

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Recipe: Herb-infused Butter

Ingredients: 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature (I prefer goat butter); 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh mixed herbs (rosemary, basil, oregano, sage, parsley, your choice), chopped; sea salt to taste.

Method: In a mixing bowl, blend ingredients well. Spread into a ramekin, or roll into a log, and wrap in parchment paper. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.

Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: kitchenshrink@san.rr.com

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