Herbs in the Winter Garden
Herbs are a tasty way to add some zing and zip to your meals. Most herbs are high in nutrients and phytochemicals which add health benefits as well as flavor to foods. Leafy herbs should be added to cooked dishes just before serving so their flavors do not cook out of the food.
Cilantro, Coriandrum sativum, is an annual herb and it does much better in the winter garden here in Florida where it will not go to seed as quickly as it does in our summer heat. All parts of the Cilantro plant are used in Asian cooking from the leaves, stems, and roots, to the seeds. This is the Cilantro whose seeds are the spice called Coriander and are sold in the grocery store spice aisle. When ground, they impart a mild lemony flavor to potato salad, spice rubs, and dressings. The chopped leaves are a flavoring ingredient in pico de Gallo salsa. You can buy plants or seed packets or just plant from the spice aisle and keep the rest of the bottle in you spice cabinet. There are a couple of herbs which taste very much like cilantro but which are from different herb families. Culantro, Eryngium fetidum, is a high elevation plant which bolts so quickly in Florida that it is hardly worth mentioning, though it does taste just like strong cilantro. Another herb with cilantro flavor, Vietnamese coriander, Polygonum odoratum, is doing very well in my summer herb garden. Though it is so plentiful I have it contained in a pot as it seems almost too vigorous.
“Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme”
Let’s not forget the herbs parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme from the popular song “Scarborough Fair”, (1966, Simon & Garfunkel). Parsley, Petroselinum crispum, may add some green interest and vitamin A to white mashed potatoes. In Middle eastern cuisine, Tabbouleh is a superb and healthful salad of parsley and bulgar wheat- heavy on the parsley. Parsley can be added to smoothies to boost nutrient contend (vitamin A) and energize your afternoon. Fresh chopped parsley is always added to my summer macaroni and potato salads.
Sage, Salvia officinalis, is the common go-to herb when roasting fowl such as turkey with sage cornbread stuffing, in sausage and in sausage gravy. It is a short-lived annual in humid Florida.
Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, is good on roasted chicken with lemon or bundled and used as a grill brush for marinades. It, too likes a drier climate but some growers find a good dry, sunny spot and can keep it for years in their Florida gardens.
And thyme, Thymus spp., is useful in all the above preparations or herb blends and is available in numerous flavor varieties, including lemon thyme. This is a fragrant, creeping herb with tiny leaves which fills in gaps and spills over the edges whether grown in a pot or at the edge of a retaining wall or walkway.
For the Butterflies… and me
In my herb garden I always try to keep at least one of either dill, fennel or parsley (curly and flat leaf) for myself and for the butterflies. Dill, Anethum graveolens, is a short-lived annual herb which likes a bit of shade this far south. I like to grow it in the spring and fall, though it does not always cooperate. Snipped dill leaves are wonderful on poached salmon with some lemon slices, in scrambled eggs, and the seed heads are used for making dill pickles. If you want to use fresh dill weed (as the seed heads are called) for pickling your home-grown cucumbers, plant dill seed a week or two after planting your cucumbers so they can both come to maturity at the same time. Dill and Florence fennel look almost identical when young- you may have to smell the leaves to tell them apart.
Florence Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, leaves can be used as a cut herb giving dishes a slightly licorice flavor. The swollen bulbs at the base can be chopped and used as an onion substitute if you are allergic to onions. Fennel does NOT taste like onion but will caramelize just as nicely. Fennel seed is wonderful in baked goods, sausage, and on pizza (this is very popular in Wisconsin). Toasting the seeds enhances their flavor. Fennel is a good companion plant for peppers, making for a more robust pepper plant and less insect pests.
My new favorite herb is sweet marjoram, Origanum majorana, which can be used in any dish where you would use rosemary, oregano, or parsley. As you can tell from its Latin name, it is actually a member of the oregano family of herbs. It smells like a sweet combination of rosemary and lavender. But where I do not generally like the taste of rosemary, I do like fresh marjoram. It is a Mediterranean herb which likes warm, dry conditions. In Florida, where the summers are hot and humid, marjoram does not last long in the herb garden. Treat it as an annual and replace it in the fall. It may survive better in an area near the air conditioner fan which will help keep it more dry.
Chives, allium schoenoprasum, and Garlic Chives, Allium tuberosum, are in the onion family and will give dishes a strong onion flavor without the crunchy hot bite of onion. The most frequent use of chives is as a baked potato topping, on salads, and in cream sauces. They can be added to meatballs and burgers before cooking. A ten-inch pot will last for years in full sun.
Oregano, Origanum vulgare, has so many varieties it is sometimes hard to choose. I like Greek oregano, Salvia fruticose, in pasta sauces and sprinkled on homemade pizza. A Greek vinaigrette would not be without Greek oregano. There is
also a “hot & spicy” variety, Origanum vulgare subsp., sold in some specialty nurseries that has some bite. A tropical herb, Cuban oregano, Plectranthus amboinicus, makes a nice sized perennial bush here in the subtropics and is stunning in bloom, edible, and medicinal. The soft, fuzzy leaf can be rubbed on insect bites to take away the sting. One whole Cuban oregano leaf grown in partial shade will fit just right on a sandwich (if you like that much oregano). There is a beautiful ornamental oregano called “Kent Beauty” with large pale pink bracts around the blooms resembling hops flowers and would look beautiful in an edible landscape.
Basil, Ocimum basilicum, are usually annuals and are highly varied. Some varieties include dark opal basil, purple basil, lemon basil (Ocimum basilicumx O. americanum), American basil, sweet basil, Thai basil (O. basilicum var. thysiflora), summerlong, globe basil (O. minimum), holy basil (O. tenuiflorum), and others. Thai basil has a very strong licorice fragrance and flavor and deep purple flower buds which are also used in cooking. Basil is the main ingredient in pesto sauce, which is so much better made with fresh chopped herbs than any you can buy in a jar. Mix 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano, 3 minced garlic cloves, salt and pepper with 1/3 cup olive oil to make a runny paste. Slide fresh crusty sliced French bread through it for a healthier alternative to butter. If there is any pesto left over and no more bread, use the remaining pesto on naked pasta or for frying eggs. There are also a few African basil varieties, such as rose basil, but most are purely aromatic and not edible.
The Sweetest Herb
I once read that there are hundreds of cultivars of mint. Mint, Mentha spp., is the plant that got me interested in gardening as a child. Five-year-old me was amazed that there was a plant which smelled like gum. My Grandpa explained to me that gum was flavored with mint, not the other way around. My favorite mint varieties are:
- chocolate mint
- orange mint
- lemon mint
- pineapple mint
- mojito mint (minty-lime)
- rose mint
- apple mint
Some other mint varieties include peppermint, spearmint, woolly mint, lavender mint, red Raripila mint, catmint, ginger mint, horsemint (a Salvia), licorice mint. We also have native mints here in Florida. Lakelas mint is a wild variety which is the namesake for a native plant society chapter south of Indian River County. And the Florida wild pennyroyal is more minty still. Mint can be a great companion plant around tomatoes and cabbages to deter insect pests such as loopers and army worms. But keep mint in a pot or it can take over. Peppermint “tea” will sooth
the worst upset stomach. Add a quarter-cup dried mint leaf powder with the flour to chocolate chip cookie dough and it makes wonderfully green Mint Chocolate Chip cookies.
Be adventurous and don’t be afraid to add some of these common herbs to your favorite kitchen preparations. They will expand your palate, increase nutrients, and broaden your flavor repertoire.
The University of Florida’s Electronic Data Information Source (EDIS) has a topic page list of research-based herb publications at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_herbs listing herbs you know and some you may not know with links to each herb publication.
Another University of Florida EDIS publication, “Cooking with Fresh Herbs” can be found at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy1209, with recipes for herb blends and for meals containing herbs.