Home-grown herbs enhance home cooking


Staff Writer

Fresh herbs are a good way to add depth of flavor to home cooking, and growing them at home is a great way to save money and be creative with cooking.

Gene Evans, assistant professor of culinary arts at West Virginia Northern Community College, said it is easy for the home cook to grow herbs.

“If you don’t have the space for a garden you can grow them in 5-gallon buckets, or even small flower pots on the windowsill,” Evans said.

“You can grow them from seed, or you can purchase the plants at garden centers. If you take care of them and treat them right and bring them inside before first frost, you can grow them all year round.”

Evans said the most common herbs he and his students use are flat-leaf parsley, basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage and mint. Rosemary, sage, thyme and mint are all perennials, so if they are grown outside they will come back each spring.

“I had thyme in my garden that started out as a tiny plant that grew to a 4-by-4 (foot) area. I had a rosemary plant at one point that was as big as a shrub,” Evans said.

“You do have to be careful with perennials because they can take over — especially mint. Mint is kind of a predatory plant. Unless you take steps to contain it, it will take over.”

Evans said mint is used mainly in presentation and preparation of desserts, but it is also also commonly used in savory dishes such as lamb and provides a complement to peas.

“We also use a lot of chives, chervil (an herb related to parsley) and tarragon in our kitchen. Chives grow really well. We planted chives in our garden here at the school about seven years ago and they keep coming back,” Evans said.

Evans provided an overview of how the most common herbs can be used in home cooking.

“Parsley is used in French, Italian and Spanish cuisine. It is an herb that brings a fresh kind of grassiness to dishes, subtle enough to use in fish and chicken dishes but still holds up to beef and lamb and pork,” he said. “Basil has an Italian influence and goes well in tomato sauces, and is commonly used in salads featuring mozzarella cheese and tomato and is a main ingredient in pesto. It is also light enough to use with fish and chicken but hearty enough to hold up against red meats.”

Evans said thyme, rosemary and sage tend to be paired more with pork, beef and lamb, the stronger-flavored meats that can withstand stronger, more savory elements, but they also go well with chicken and pork.

“The nice thing about pork and chicken is they are relatively neutral and tend to taste like whatever you want to put with it, and they have enough of their own flavor that they can hold up to those stronger herbs,” he added.

The common herb oregano is used in Italian, Latin American, Greek and Spanish cuisine and, according to Evans, marjoram is used as a substitute for oregano and vice versa.

“Chives can be used with anything you can use onion with, anything you want to have onion flavor but don’t want it to be overpowering. It works nice with potatoes and chicken and is a nice thing to throw into an herb salad to add a little onion flavor in a spring mix that is unexpected.”

He said there are certain herbs that are considered to clash with one another, whose flavors don’t meld well — for example, tarragon and dill don’t mix well.

“Those flavors work against each other. But a lot of the other herbs are pretty much complimentary,” Evans said. “For example if I wanted to get a really strong, savory flavor, I could use thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley and basil and herb-crust a tenderloin. The tenderloin would hold up to that, and all those herb flavors will play off each other.”

Evans said using herbs and knowing what works with which dishes is a good thing in the home kitchen, and he recommends the book “Culinary Artistry” by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page to help cooks know exactly what goes with what.

Evans uses the book when teaching his courses, and it is required reading for his students. It includes an alphabetical list of ingredients and what is commonly used in conjunction with that ingredient.

“It basically is almost kind of like a bible of ways to use food,” Evans said. “For example, if you would look up ‘chicken,’ it would give a laundry list of things that go well with chicken. It explains the methods you use for grilling, broiling or sauteeing, and then it breaks down the different things that go well with chicken. It lists herbs, spices, potatoes and grains.”

He also recommends “The Flavor Bible,” by the same authors, which focuses on the “nuances” of different herbs used in cooking.

He encourages home cooks to experiment with different dishes using herbs and different techniques.

“They are really nice books to have around,” Evans said. “I always encourage people that we’re just cooking, and it’s just food. If you try something that just didn’t quite work out, chalk it up as a learning experience and move on. Don’t be afraid to try it again sometime using a different technique, flavor combination or a different protein for that matter.”

He encourages the home cook to explore all of the many possibilities that come with using fresh herbs in the home garden.


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