Sunday Express News
As Extension heads into the second week of the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, we can report to you with pride, that thus far the 54 year-old event is once again a historical success, with record numbers in attendance at the yearly event. An estimated 70,000 persons have visited the Texas Trail Tent, and we have received many compliments on the displays and information available for the public.
Taking horticultural “center stage” in our exhibit are herbs. This week’s article will elaborate on the topic of herbs. Hopefully we will wet your gardening (and culinary!) appetite enough that you will plan to incorporate some of these wonderful plants into your spring garden.
Webster’s dictionary describes a herb as “a plant or a plant part valued for its medicinal, savory or aromatic qualities.” Most of us are familiar with herbs as flavoring agents in our food. The common herbs used in cooking are referred to as culinary herbs. Mild or savory herbs impart a delicate flavor to food while the strong pungent herbs add zest to foods. Most herbs are also attractive in the garden so their ornamental value is also important.
Many of the herbs grown today were originally native to the Mediterranean region of the world, thus they thrive upon the hot, dry summer weather we have in San Antonio. All too often, herbs are lost in the garden because of poor drainage–soggy wet soil does not suit herbs. Other than the mints and only a few other varieties, herbs must be grown in full sun to thrive.
The following is just a short list describing some of the most popular and commonly used herbs in culinary cooking. This selection is also well adapted to our growing conditions in San Antonio.
Basil – An annual, basil is easy to grow from seed, but is readily available in 3″ pots in the spring. It is associated with, but not limited to, Italian dishes. It blends well with tomato-based dishes. It’s aroma is delightful when finely chopped and mixed with butter. Fresh chopped leaves added to a combination of vinegar, crushed garlic and virgin olive oil makes an excellent salad dressing. Basil can be used with pork, roast chicken, scrambled eggs, eggplant and squash dishes. Several green basil varieties are available, including Sweet Green Basil–most commonly used in cooking), Lemon Basil, Holy Basil, Thai Basil and Spicy Globe. There is also a lovely Purple Leaf Basil (a popular choice for use in basil vinegars) that adds a stunning accent to the garden.
Chives – Smallest member of the onion family, these delicate greens are easily grown from seed or transplants. You may use any way that you would use onions. Chives blend well with butter, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and are added to sauces and gravies. Both garlic chives and onion chives are available.
Coriander – One of our favorites, this bright green, leafy herb is commonly known around town as “Cilantro.” It is a mainstay ingredient in Mexican dishes, particularly salsa. The leaves have a very strong “clean” flavor, but use only younger leaves, as the older growth can be too strong. The seeds have a flavor similar to orange and are used in pastries, sausage, cooked fruit, and are an important ingredient in pickling spice and curry powder. Easily grown from seed, Coriander (or Chinese Parsley) can be sown every few weeks, so that the gardener has a constant harvest during the warmer months of the year.
Dill – Both the delicate leaves and the seeds can be used. Use in pickling, add to cottage or cream cheese, most vegetables, fish and vinegar based salad dressings and marinades. Dill thrives in the cooler temps of early spring and early autumn, but it germinates easily from seed. The green and yellow striped caterpillars love dill and parsley. The caterpillars turn into our beloved Swallowtail butterfly, so plant enough to share.
Marjoram – Several varieties are available such as Sweet Marjoram, Winter Marjoram, Pot Marjoram and Creeping Golden Marjoram. All forms can be used in cooking. Marjoram blends well with oregano and sage. Add to roast pork, chicken, stews, stuffing, gravies, and spaghetti sauces. Marjoram is often confused with oregano, but has a more delicate, sweet flavor. It is best grown from transplants or cuttings. Except in an extreme winter, both marjoram and oregano look better in the fall and winter than in mid-summer when the growth begins to slow. Marjoram makes an attractive container plant.
Oregano – The name “oregano” is given to several unrelated plants that share the same or similar flavor. True Italian Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is the champion flavoring in Italian dishes, particularly spaghetti sauce. It is also used in Mexican dishes. It can be used to season all meats, stuffing, stews, soups and pizza. Greek Oregano renders a stronger flavor, but is more widely available in nurseries. Both are hardy plants, and Greek Oregano is useful as a landscape plant in that it can provide a green, dense ground cover in difficult soils. When it becomes too high, just like Asiatic Jasmine, one only has to mow it to keep it in control. Mexican Oregano is a small attractive landscape shrub with purple flowers. The leaves hold a pleasant aroma that is especially good in Mexican rice. All oregano leaves are best used dried and crushed.
Parsley – Without a doubt, parsley is the most used and least eaten herb in the world. Millions of pounds are used to garnish dishes, then thrown away! Parsley is loaded with vitamins and minerals, and can easily be added to any dish, just as any of the other popular herbs. Both flat leaved parsley, called Italian Parsley, and the curled variety, called French Parsley, are readily available in nurseries. Some say that Italian Parsley actually has a better flavor. Parsley is a biennial, producing leaves the first year and flowers the next. It has a long, main taproot, so prepare garden soil to a depth of 8″ to 10″. Parsley thrives in cooler temps, so to help it survive our hot summers, plant it so that it gets morning sun and afternoon shade.
Rosemary – Rosemary is a hearty, tough plant that thrives in San Antonio! It is one of the oldest herbs known to man, and doubles not only as a delicious culinary herb, but is a handsome landscape plant as well. Many varieties are available. It is available in two forms: an upright bush that grows to 4′ to 5′ tall, and a prostrate shrub that some gardeners use as groundcover. The fragrance is rather strong, but rosemary is typically used with many meat dishes, especially chicken and pork.
Sage – This is another herb that doubles as a durable landscape plant in the San Antonio area. Very drought resistant, it can be killed easily by over watering. Sage is best started from transplants or cuttings. There are many varieties of sage available including Garden Sage, Golden Sage, Blue Sage, Pineapple Sage, Tri-color Sage, and Clary Sage. All can be used in cooking. Sage leaves should always be dried before using. Sage is a must in stuffing for poultry. It blends well with pork, chicken, egg and cheese dishes.
Thyme – With over 400 species available, this herb is another valuable plant to use in beds, rock gardens and as a landscape accent. Varieties available locally include Common Thyme, Woolly Thyme, Mother-of-Thyme, Lemon Thyme, English Thyme, Silver Thyme, and Golden Thyme. Common Thyme is usually the variety used in culinary dishes. It has a warm, aromatic scent and flavor, and blends well with beef, poultry, fish, soups and vegetable dishes. As with rosemary, thyme is also a durable landscape plant and will perish in soggy wet soil. It requires full sun to thrive. Thyme, along with sage, rosemary, marjoram, and oregano, should be considered the basics of every herb garden.
In the preparation of teas, many more herbs are available to us. The mint family is one of the largest, hardiest and easiest to grow. Varieties such as Peppermint, Spearmint, Pineapple Mint, Orange Mint, Apple Mint, etc. are available. Other herbs famous for creating delicious, soothing teas are Lemon Balm, Lemon Grass, and Chamomile.
As you can see, herbs are an important part of the local culture and a really interesting alternative to planting regular ornamental plants. For some really neat examples of herb gardening ideas, come out and see for yourself along the Texas Trail at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo!
Article contributed by Texas Cooperative Extension staff in Bexar County. Call 210/467-6575 for more information.