(T-G Photo by John Philleo)
The piney smell of rosemary, the citrusy freshness of lemon verbena and the grassy greenness of the flat leaf parsley -- all enticing with their aromas -- inspire me to rush to the kitchen and whip up a flavorful dinner.
Fresh herbs can turn a plain dish into a spectacular one that is bursting with flavor.
Fortunately for me, herbs are some of the best plants for those who were born without a green thumb. All you need is a sunny spot (at least 6 hours daily), ordinary soil (herbs don't like a lot of fertilizer, just some organic matter), a little water when it's really dry, and some time. The great thing is that the more you cut and use them, the more they grow.
Herbs can be used in a variety of ways in your normal cooking. Try adding chopped rosemary or thyme to your regular biscuit dough, or sage to your cornbread. You can simmer herbs in milk, sugar syrup or other liquids called for in a recipe to add flavor to homemade ice cream, baked goods, custards or beverages -- try mint, lemon verbena or scented geranium. I have also added herbs to pound cake batter. Scented geranium leaves (especially rose or lemon) can be laid in the bottom of the pan with the batter poured over the top. When you remove the cake, pull the leaves off and you're left with a subtly flavored and scented cake.
Here are some of my favorite herbs growing in my garden:
* Rosemary is a strong, assertive herb with a piney aroma. The plants can get quite large and have woody stems with pine like needles growing along them. The needles are stripped off the stem and then chopped for use in cooking.
Because it is a woody herb, you can simmer it for hours in a stew or tomato sauce and it will only intensify its flavor. Sometimes I bake chicken breasts rubbed with a little oil and chopped rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper.
When the chicken is finished baking, add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. When roasting a whole chicken (or turkey for Thanksgiving), place rosemary branches in the cavity or rub chopped rosemary under the skin.
* Another favorite is thyme. This low-growing staple of the kitchen is good in just about any dish. I grow regular English thyme that works well thrown into a quiche or egg casserole or into cheese straws for a special touch. I also have lemon thyme (or you can get lime thyme) which I add to baked or broiled fish or to a chicken salad.
The tiny leaves can be pulled from the stem by holding the end in one hand and pinching the stem with your other hand and running it down the stem.
* Lemon verbena is a more unusual herb that I love to grow and use. Mine grows to about 3 feet tall on long woody stems that come out of the ground with the leaves growing all along the stems. The leaves have a fresh, bright lemon flavor.
Because the leaves are a little rough, chop them up finely. I like the chopped lemon verbena tossed with fruit and a little sugar for a refreshing fruit salad or you can add it to pound cake batter.
* Basil is the Italian staple. While it doesn't last through the winter (it turns black at about 45 degrees), it's a great annual to grow during the summer. Sweet Genovese basil has large leaves that are perfect for making pesto.
Use the pesto as a pasta topping or spread on toasted slices of Italian bread. I also like the leaves paired with garden ripe tomatoes and fresh mozzarella slices that are drizzled with balsamic vinegar and oil and sprinkled with a little salt and pepper for a Caprese Salad.
When making homemade pizza, top it with fresh tomatoes and shredded basil leaves.
These are just a few of the herbs available for the herb garden. I also grow chives, oregano, savory, parsley, cilantro, sage, lemon balm, spearmint and rose scented geranium. Pretty good for a girl who can barely keep flowers alive! So green thumb or not, put out a few herbs this year and see what you're inspired to create in the kitchen.
(T-G Photo by John Philleo)
1 cup butter
2 cups flour
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tbls. fresh thyme leaves
Dash Tabasco sauce
1 cup crispy rice cereal
1 egg white, slightly beaten
Pecan or green olive halves
Cut butter into flour. Blend in cheese, cayenne, salt, thyme leaves and Tabasco. Mix in cereal.
Roll into marble size balls and flatten. Brush with egg white and top with pecan or olive.
Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes.
2 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 ounces stemmed sweet basil leaves (about 3 cups gently packed)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
In a food processor, finely grind the garlic, pine nuts and salt, about 15 seconds. Add the basil leaves and process in spurts just until no whole leaves remain.
With the machine running, pour the oil through the feed tube in a steady stream.
Stop and scrape down the sides, then process for several more seconds.
The mixture should be ground to a paste-like consistency but a little bit of the leaves' texture should remain.
If necessary, quickly pulse the mixture again.
Add the cheese and pulse until just incorporated.
-- Whitney Danhof is a UT Extension agent and runs the UT School of Gourmet Arts in Shelbyville.