Monday, October 22, 2007

From the Garden to the Table

I thought I would share an article I wrote recently for my county's Master Gardener Association's monthly newsletter. Oh, did I mention that they were silly enough to elect me president of the organization for the past two years? I'm up for re-election in late Novemeber. Why do I keep saying yes? Anyway, on with the program:

Herbes de Provence from Your Garden

There are many reasons to garden: for the natural beauty, to attract wildlife, for our personal enjoyment, and perhaps most importantly, for food. Certainly one of the greatest joys for the gardener lies in putting the bounty of the harvest from the garden onto the dinner table. Likewise, growing one’s own herbs also adds to the enjoyment of gardening as well as eating.

People in the Provence region of southern France have been growing and blending their own herb mixtures for centuries. While the herbs used vary somewhat, certain herbs are almost always used. Bay leaves are often used, along with oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary, sage, marjoram, fennel seeds, and summer savory. Some recipes even call for the addition of lavender buds. My personal blend combines dried basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme and lavender buds.

One of my pots of herbs - here we have thyme, chives and rosemary

Herbes de Provence can be used to season dishes of meat, poultry, eggs and vegetables. Italians have a similar blend, using many of the same herbs. Herbes de Provence is most often used for roasting and long stewing or braising, but can be sprinkled on anything that would benefit from a boost of Mediterranean flavor. However, the herbs are generally only used in the cooking process, as the flavors are a bit strong.

As these herbs are indigenous to both the southern France and northern Italian regions; they share many of the same conditions to flourish. These plants are adapted to hot, fairly dry conditions and rather poor soil, so they require a minimum of care in the garden. Indeed, basil is the one exception, as it requires a bit more water because the large surface area of its leaves allows for moisture loss. In contrast, the fine hairs on sage leaves protect the plant from excess transpiration.

These plants easily adapt to container gardening, with the added requirement that they be watered daily. A sunny spot and a large enough pot are all that is needed. These herbs evolved in an area where soil nutrients were poor, so extra fertilizers are not needed.

It should be noted that while basil and summer savory are annuals; fennel, oregano and thyme are perennial plants. Marjoram, rosemary and bay are all tender perennials and must be protected from cold weather. As bay, or laurel, is a rather expensive plant and can grow into an attractive small shrub or tree in a container; it is well worth the effort to bring this cold-sensitive plant inside in the winter.

Dried basil has a weak coumarin flavor, like hay. Bay laurel gives an aromatic and slightly bitter taste. Fennel seeds (or more correctly, fruit) have a strong licorice flavor. Lavender buds add a floral note and marjoram imparts sweet pine and citrus flavors. Oregano has an aromatic, warm and slightly bitter taste. Rosemary has a strong pine flavor, while sage adds an aromatic and slightly bitter flavor. Summer savory imparts a sweet, delicate aroma to foods and thyme is strongly aromatic.

Freshly picked herbs for my Herbes de Provence blend

At any time in the growing season, the leaves from these plants may be harvested for culinary use. For the best flavor, pinch the plants to encourage branching and to discourage flower production, as the flavor suffers once flowers appear. The exceptions are the fennel and lavender, where flower production is desired. Fennel seeds and lavender buds must necessarily be harvested at specific times of the year. Plants should be harvested in the morning after the dew has dried, but before the sun has a chance to activate the volatile oils in the plants.

Make sure the leaves are dry as to prevent spoilage, and clip a few sprigs of each plant desired. If using the herbs as a dry mix, rubber band a handful of herbs together and hang upside down in a cool, well ventilated, dry location for a few weeks. Once the herbs have dried sufficiently, remove the leaves from the stems and lay out on a paper towel to continue the drying process. It is important that the herbs not be stored in direct sunlight, as the light will cause the herbs to quickly lose their flavor.

Dried herbs stripped from the stems and ready to be chopped

Once the herbs have been thoroughly dried, finely chop the leaves and mix together. Store in an airtight container for up to six months.

Herbes de Provence

Herbes de Provence

Equal parts crushed leaves of:
Dried sage
Dried oregano
Dried thyme
Dried basil
Dried rosemary

One half-part dried lavender buds

One of our favorite uses for this blend is for homemade croutons. This is the recipe my daughter and I developed:

Homemade Croutons

This is an excellent way to use scrap bread that is leftover from other recipes. A firm bread works better than the usual white sandwich bread. Herbes de Provence adds a light, fresh flavor to the croutons. Otherwise, any dried herb blend or your favorite dried herbs can also be used with great results. CAUTION: This is not a dish that can be put in the oven and forgotten. The browning will occur within minutes and there is a fine, but disgusting, line between brown and burnt.

Bread, cut into a ¾ inch cube
Olive oil
Herb seasonings
Garlic powder, optional

Toss all ingredients together on a baking sheet or a toaster oven pan. Spread out evenly and bake at 350 degrees until golden brown. Watch carefully as this browns/burns quickly. A good tip is to toss the croutons once some begin browning and then turn off the oven before returning the croutons to the oven to finish drying/baking. Serve fresh croutons on your favorite salad and securely seal and freeze the remainder for another time.

I hope you can see that growing one’s own herbs is simple and rewarding. So give it a try and see how you can liven up your next meal.

1 comment:

Rosie Hawthorne said...

I like your neighborhood. Looks a lot like mine.

We have hog nosed snakes and the aggressive black snakes. I have a video of a hog nose eating a toad. From start to finish. My boys were at school. I found it. I knew they'd want to see it.