Culinary Herbs in the New Mexican Garden
by guest writer, Deborah Madison
One of the rewards of life itself is tending a small garden plot of herbs. I think of herbs as adjectives for they modify what you put them with. And I also think of them as the lively boarder collies of the plant world, the nippy little buggers that can transform your basic vegetables into wonders. A carrot changes depending on whether you’ve paired it with earthy thyme, clean bracing parsley, lively lovage, early sage or mint, aromatic basils, or a lemony herb, like lemon verbena. Mix dill, parsley, basil and cilantro together and you have a pretty striking super-herb that’s both familiar and exotic.
Many herbs are perennials, like lovage, thyme, sage, rosemary and sorrel, which is very convenient because once you’ve got them going they come back each year. Some that are perennials in warmer places are treated like annuals here. Marjoram in one such herb that I’m thinking of. Many herbs tolerate poor soil and even abuse and neglect.
Annuals are generally pretty easy to grow. You can buy starts or you can also grow them from seed. Anise, cumin, and caraway —all from the cupboard—do well enough here. Regardless, compare fresh with what you get in the supermarket, which are those nasty little plastic packages which hold a few herbs and costs at least $3. If the herb is sorrel, there are, at most, a worthless 8 leaves, and they are often spoiled since they give off a great deal of moisture which causes them to wilt. Buying herbs in a plastic container is one of the most disheartening and costly things, you can do. If you’re on a food budget, you’re not going to be buying herbs. And yet, herbs are one of the most useful, delightful and functional plants you can grow. Here are some of my favorite herbs.
Cilantro/Coriander— I’m grew mine from seeds I collected from a plant that volunteered in the garden path last year. Despite the heat it is doing very well and has made plenty of green coriander “balls” that are so good with beets.
Cumin — The umbel flowers and seeds are so good with so many summer vegetables —eggplant, carrots, potatoes, beets, and so forth. And you can grow cumin!
Anise —you can plant these with seeds from the market if you like. I did when writing Vegetable Literacy. They make a small delicate umbel-like flower.
Dill—I was impressed that this does very well in the Master Gardeners vegetable garden as a volunteer where it doesn’t’ even get water! There is nothing better than fresh summery dill and its pretty golden umbels.
Chervil —“Chervil or parsley” are often called for in French recipes but chervil has a different, anise-like flavor. It’s a lovely delicate spring herb and often paired with parsley tarragon and chives to make fines herbes. Basils— All kinds are easy to grow and each kind has its own flavor and characteristic. I was amazed the first time—years ago— I went to the botanical garden on the big Island of Hawaii and saw all these different kinds of basil that we are now familiar with.
Marjoram—Think of using marjoram wherever basil is called for. It’s summery in the same way. And very different from Its relative oregano. Sweeter.
Lemon verbena—(Treat as an annual here) Especially good with stone fruits!
Lovage—my favorite herb, I think, but it’s challenging to grow here because it likes water. Tastes like a wild cross between celery can parley, but better.
Parsley—it’s such a basic herb – why not walk outside and pick it? Also it is a good host for the catepillars that fee our songbirds.
Angelica –I adore angelica (Bob Pennington has a huge on at Agua Fria) but
I’ve never been good at growing it. The stems are traditionally candied and used in French desserts. To me it tastes like pine.
Oregano —a good summer and winter herb that does well here.
Salad Burnet—lovely with cucumbers and as a garnish for little sandwicihes.
Sage—I plant the culinary variety rather than the variegated. It’s the perfect herb to pair with winter squash and potatoes and its purple flowers in spring have a mint-like flavor.
Sorrel—Plant in a big pot or in the ground. It’s a tart herb.
Rosemary—Plant near a southern facing wall. Arp works well but you can plant a lot of varieties.
Mints of all kinds— (Useful —but I confess – these are a challenge for me!)
Chives, garlic chives, and their blossoms—Pretty and somehow essential
Tarragon—one of the first herbs to come up; always good with vegetables and in salads. Has a strong licorice flavor.
Rue—not for eating, but the black Swallowtail caterpillars love it. Good to plant near roses.
Anise Hyssop—Makes a lovely tea! Has purple flowers.
Thymes of all kinds—Thyme even lemon thyme is grounding and especially good with sweet vegetables.
And don’t forget Deborah Madison has a new book out–An Onion in My Pocket, a memoir about her life which is great read!