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Growing and Cooking Summer’s Herbs

A guide to raising and using beautiful, flavorful culinary herbs — with recipes


Lately I’ve been knee-deep in garden care: tying up tomatoes, thinning beets, mulching lettuce, weeding radicchio, spreading yet another layer of compost around the summer squash. In the garden, my mind is free to wander, and I’ve been pondering what I would want — make that need — to plant if instead of these enormous plots I had just a small city backyard or a raised bed or two outside of a low-maintenance condo.

I could get most of the vegetables I need, along with plenty of cut flowers, at the farmers’ market, thus supporting local agriculture while also snagging some great artisanal cheese. But notwithstanding everything I could find there, I know I couldn’t get (or afford) my daily fix of favorite summer herbs: basil, basil, basil and basil, also dill, parsley and borage.

These are the herbs that straddle the line between seasoning and food, as likely to be measured in cups as in tablespoons. They don’t travel all that well, even from nearby farms. And they are expensive, because some part of the bunch so often gets wasted. In short, they are things I know I’ll be growing regardless of how much space I have.

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Four Treasured Summer Herbs

Basil: I’m not kidding about the multiple basils. My must-haves include four kinds, each with its own set of virtues: Genovese, the sweet, tender heart of great pesto. Mrs. Burns, a very lemony lemon basil, good chopped and sprinkled on fruit salad or used (just a pinch) as a flavor accent for peach ice cream. Lime basil, for Italian-inflected guacamole and green mayonnaise to go with shrimp. And Napolitano, whose leaves are large enough to use as a wrapper for grilled shrimp or batons of eggplant and zucchini, and tender enough to use instead of lettuce on tomato sandwiches.

In addition to the fab four, I sometimes grow Green Globe, which my friend Susan calls “Afro basil” because the 18-inch bushes look like a ’70s hairstyle you may remember. Its tiny leaves are prettier than chopped basil and require no knife or cutting board: Just strip them off the stems right into soups, salads or mac and cheese.

I no longer grow purple-leafed basil. None of the ones I’ve tried is as tasty as the best of the green. But if my imagined super-limited space needed lots of plants that could do double duty as ornamentals and edibles, I might well go for Purple Ruffles. It’s very pretty, decent as an edging plant and in bouquets, plus it tastes good — for a purple.

When to comes to basil, I could go on and on, and as long as I have my big gardens, I probably will. Richters, the Canadian herb mecca, offers 46 varieties (including all of those mentioned here). But if — or when — my garden gets a lot smaller, I’ll have to limit the basil array so there’s room for these other essentials.

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Dill: The old-fashioned kind, often marketed simply as “dill,” produces tall plants that flower quickly, especially in hot weather. Mammoth may the best of the named varieties. I use it for pickles and in bouquets, always leaving a few plants to go to seed in the garden for next year. If I were limited to just one, this is the one I’d choose.

But old-fashioned dill has sparse foliage — not so good for dill freaks like me who need lots of leaves for potato salad and gravlax (quick-cured salmon). So I also grow Fernleaf. It’s small, it’s pretty, and it’s slow to switch from fronds to flowers.

Borage: Forget the long list of exotic varieties. Borage is borage, and the only exotic thing about it is that it has fallen out of favor in spite of being easy to grow, delicious (cucumber-flavored leaves!) and long-blooming (a handy thing because the edible flowers are a transcendentally beautiful blue). I use the sweet, mild-tasting flowers to decorate cakes and custards, to sprinkle over salads and fruit compotes, and to freeze into ice cubes for fancy lemonade.

Parsley: This is a treasure hidden in plain sight, more valued for its garnishing quality than its sweet-sharp, slightly bitter flavor. The problem derives at least partly from the fact that the most common variety is curly parsley. While it is more decorative and lasts longer without wilting after being cut, it isn’t nearly as tasty as its flat-leaf Italian cousin, which is the only kind I grow. Among its other virtues, the Italian has sweet stems when it’s young.

Herb-Growing Tips

No matter where they’re grown — big pot to big plot — summer herbs have the same needs: plenty of sun, well-drained soil, adequate water. That’s it. The strong volatile oils that make them tasty to people make them distasteful to bugs, and they’re seldom bothered by disease.

That said, there are three things that are important for success. One: A thin layer of mulch (just enough to keep the leaves clean) is fine, but thick mulch is not. If it’s heavy enough to suppress weeds, it’ll keep the soil too damp for herbs, which detest “wet feet.”

Two: Be sparing with the fertilizer. None at all is a bad idea, but too much leads to over-lush plants that are vulnerable to bugs and diseases. If you’re using a packaged product, dilute it to one-quarter the recommended strength and apply it no more than once every three weeks.

Three: Basil leaves taste best when very young. Cut them back frequently for fresh, new growth and to prevent them from going to flower. Once they start blooming, the leaves are tougher and less flavorful. No amount of cutting can prevent bloom indefinitely, so it’s a good idea to replant at least once or twice each summer. Just put a tiny pinch of seed anywhere you find an open, sunny spot, whether it’s in the garden or not.

Cooking With Summer Herbs

The whole point of growing your own is to be able to dash out and pluck ultra-fresh herbs as needed, but I don’t always remember to do the dashing, especially if a dinner guest is in the middle of an absorbing story.

That’s why I keep a small bouquet of fresh herbs on the kitchen worktable all season. There’s nothing like having inspiration right in front of you when you’re cooking, and it’s as easy as keeping a mix in a jar of water near the prep area. Cut herbs will last several days this way as long as you remove all leaves that would be below the water line before you submerge the stems, change the water daily and keep the jar out of direct sunlight.

Recipes That Give Parsley Its Due

Parsley is well loved around the world, and cooks in other countries often use it with a lavish hand. For instance, in most of the U.S., tabouli is a grain salad seasoned with parsley. In many Middle Eastern kitchens, however, Tabouli is a parsley salad with some grain it.

Similarly, parsley is a main ingredient, not a minor seasoning, in Chimichurri, the national sauce of Argentina, as common there as ketchup is here. The thick green slurry based on chopped parsley (with garlic, olive oil and vinegar) is traditionally used on grilled meat, but it’s equally delicious on grilled vegetables or baked potatoes or as a substitute for mayo in tuna salads. It’s great on hoagies, too.

My favorite foreign parsley delight, however, is Parsley-Cashew Chutney (recipe below), which combines the named ingredients with ginger, hot peppers and lemon. I serve it with everything from brown rice to grilled chicken to poached salmon. I spread it on bread instead of mayonnaise for super-duper ham sandwiches. Slightly thinned with water, it’s a terrific dip. Thinned with cream to pouring consistency, it’s a salad dressing.

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Parsley-Cashew Chutney

This is not at all like the chutney in jars. To the extent it resembles anything, it’s like pesto that went to India and came home utterly changed. Everybody I feed it to adores it, even the people who think they don’t like hot peppers.

Makes about 1½ cups

1 cup raw cashews
1 or 2 medium-size jalapeno peppers (use one pepper, with seeds removed, for a milder kick; use 3 peppers, with the seeds, if you like it hot)
¼ cup peeled, chopped fresh ginger
½ to ¾ cup lightly packed, roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice

  1. Grind the nuts in a food processor until you have smooth cashew butter, then add the peppers, ginger and parsley and grind again. If necessary, add water, a tablespoon at a time, to thin the mixture enough to engage with the blades. You should wind up with a green sauce about the color of guacamole and the consistency of very thick mayonnaise.
  2. Blend in the salt and lemon juice; let it sit for a few minutes, then taste. You may want more salt and/or lemon juice.
  3. Cover tightly and store in the refrigerator, where it will keep for several days. The color will not change.

Note: The recipe is a slight variation on the Cashew Chutney in The Yogi Cookbook, by Yogi Vithaldas and Susan Roberts (Pyramid Books, 1968). This easy guide to Indian home cooking was very popular in its time. If you have a copy, here’s a pleasant surprise: It has become a collector’s item. When I checked a couple of weeks ago, the cheapest paperback available online was $40.

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