Sunday, May 20, 2007

Potted Herbs for the Nongardening Cook

When it comes to gardening, I am a reaper, not a sower. I rely on the farmers and my gardening friends for my produce. I’ve tried, I really have. I don’t at all mind—in fact, enjoy--digging the dirt and putting things in the ground. But I forget to water. I don’t like to weed. Pests baffle me. I’ve had successes over the years, from amazing beans and cucumbers to seeming bushels of cayenne peppers. But my crop losses have outweighed them, and the fickleness of the weather and its effects is more than I really want to deal with. Or need to. The farmer is down the road, wants to sell to me, and I, quite frankly, would rather buy. One of Nature’s true symbioses.

So my gardening days are over. The only thing I plant, and then only in small quantities in pots, are herbs. There is a particular economy to having your own herbs in pots. Even if your farm stand has herbs in abundance, and even if you frequently buy them, a small selection of certain herbs is important to have on hand. The logic of this is variety, security, and parsimony.

First, variety. While many grocery stores carry a fairly extensive selection of herbs, they are often expensive, skimpy packets that are not fresh, and your local farmer generally will not offer every herb that you might want. Most farm stands will reliably have basil, flat-leaf and curly parsley, and cilantro (coriander), perhaps dill, at a minimum; this is good, because some of these, particularly parsley and cilantro, can be temperamental for the home gardener in the New England climate (at least, for me). Not many farmers grow fresh Greek oregano, sage, tarragon, French thyme, rosemary, or peppermint, possibly due to low demand, as they are all a breeze to grow. So these are what I plant in pots, because each of them is essential in their own way for things I cook.

Security: There is nothing more annoying than not having that one crucial herb on hand that is indispensable to a dish or drink (juleps, mojitos) when you are in the mood for it, or to not be able to find it at your farm stand or market when needed. With your own herbs, this never happens.

Parsimony: Potted herbs outside your kitchen door allow you to step out and snip or pinch only what you need: a sprig of rosemary for the marinade, oregano for the grilled pizza, tarragon for an egg dish, mint for the lemonade. Herbs are highly perishable, both in terms of flavor volatility and condition of leaves, and we have all thrown them away after using a small amount. In New England, a very waste-not-want-not place, potted herbs are a virtue.

Although I do not plant most of the herbs that I can, and do, buy in big bunches from the farm stands and use in abundance, I do plant a few basil plants (in a pot). I like to pinch off a few leaves for a chiffonade garnish, or to lay on a tomato sandwich. But for pesto, I go to the farm stand and buy huge bunches for a dollar or so, and because I can reliably do this, I don’t worry when something (snails? I can never figure it out) starts defoliating my few basil plants.

Of course you can put your herbs in the ground. I used to have a rather nice, circular herb garden, about 12’ in diameter and divided like a pie into wedges for different herb combinations, everything edged with granite curbstones. But I now find that a few pots, which I plant anew every year (even the perennials don’t winter over very well here), suit me better. And for the wilder spreading herbs, like mint, there is the added benefit of containment. This, of course, is essential for the urban dweller. Herbs indoors struggle for air and sun, so if you are in the city and have a tiny patio, ledge that doesn’t threaten pedestrians below in a sudden gale, or even a very sunny window that you can leave open and place the herbs right into against the screen, they will do best there. Potted herbs require little attention—forgetting to water is not fatal—and for an investment of perhaps $20.00 plus the pots and soil you will soon have a thriving assortment for most of your summer cooking needs. Indeed, they will last deep into the fall; you can harvest them before the first frost (either leaving them on their branches or stripping the leaves), leave them to dry, and seal in little bags or rinsed spice jars for use throughout the winter.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now, select and pot your herbs as soon as possible; it’s time. When they start growing like mad, around the time the first greens appear, you may want to try this dressing. Or you can blend any combination of herbs of your choice with a little (very little) chopped garlic, salt, and pepper into goat cheese or cream cheese to spread on crackers, or into soft butter for superb herb-garlic bread (on the Pao deMilho, last post, would be nice), sprinkled with a little parm and broiled briefly. You can also add a little cognac or calvados and a dash of cayenne to this same herb-garlic butter, roll it in wax paper into a log, chill it, slice it, and drop it onto a hot steak for a quick sauce. Or float it on last summer’s tomato soup, pulled from the freezer, as in the photo. Whip all these up an hour or few in advance to allow the flavors to blossom. You can refrigerate for several days or freeze.

I generally snip most herbs with scissors rather than chop them, which can bruise them too much and press out their oils. For large leaves such as basil or mint, stack and fold them into quarters and snip fine; snip tarragon, oregano, and other smaller herbs while still on their stems. Strip thyme whole by holding the stem between your thumb and forefinger and pushing them firmly along the stem. I do chop when I need something very fine: always use a very sharp small chef’s knife, and draw your herbs into a tight little mound to chop.

LCM Dressing

This dressing is very flavorful; it’s nice at this time of year on peppery baby arugula (which, too, you could grow in a pot…) and pea shoots, both showing up locally now; the salad in the photo is made from this combination of organic greens from my neighborhood. The recipe is proportioned to be rather light-textured so as not to overwhelm baby greens, but for firmer salad items you could cut the coffee in half, or double the cream for more body. I also like this tossed with very lightly blanched (2-3 minutes), still-crisp sliced carrots, or with cold leftover beef or pork. For the carrots, I whisked in an extra tablespoon of cream.

So that you don’t drown your salads, add a small amount of dressing and toss; you can always add more. If you overdo, add more greens and toss again. Same goes for seasoning; taste after tossing, and add more salt and/or pepper if you like.

2 T honey (I use a local raw raspberry honey; you can substitute another raw honey that is the color of a Sam Adams)
1 tea Dijon mustard
1 T heavy cream
1/3 cup plus 2T extra-virgin olive oil
2 T leftover strong coffee (see first May post)
2 T lemon juice (1/2 large lemon)
1/3 tea salt
4 or 5 twists of the pepper mill
2 tea mixed tarragon, mint, and thyme, finely chopped/snipped, roughly 1:1: ½
1 small clove garlic, smashed and peeled

With a small whisk or fork, blend the honey, mustard, and cream; whisk in the olive oil well, then whisk in the coffee, followed by the lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir in the herbs and drop in the garlic. Give it a good stir. Let sit 5 or 10 minutes, then remove the garlic and discard (stick your finger in and taste to decide when). Makes just under 1 cup.

Salads are best at cool room temperature, so don't refrigerate the dressing unless you are making it the day before, in which case remove several hours before serving.

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