HOME DESIGN : A SPECIAL ISSUE OF ORANGE COUNTY LIFE : Herb Gardening: It's the Spice of Life

From United Press International

If you need an excuse for turning that small piece of yard next to the house into an herb garden, one might be the joy of the harvest rather than the herbs themselves.

One of the great pleasures in herb gardening is to traipse out the back door in the early morning and contemplate how to use the day's harvest of seemingly massive quantities of an herb now too overgrown to ignore.

Many gardeners tend to use some fast-growing herbs, such as mint and basil, over time, often waiting until they are about to overtake the tomatoes before doing a radical harvest.

Early morning, before the dew has evaporated from the leaves, is the best time to harvest herbs. The dew acts as a protective coating and helps keep the moisture in the leaves from breaking down the natural oils, which contribute to an herb's bright, crisp appearance and flavorful, fragrant aroma.

If your garden were sheltered by the mighty Kangchenjunga peak, you probably wouldn't know much about growing fresh herbs. But you would know about harvesting darjeeling tea, and one lesson is the most valuable: Delicately scented and flavored leaves are the young, tender top three or four leaves of each plant.

The same is true with herbs, though most home gardeners never notice it. Always remember that the top leaves are gastronomically the choicest.

That cluster of mint leaves pressed into the shaved ice of a mint julep just before serving, and into which one virtually buries one's nose, should come from the very top of the mint plant.

On the other hand, the large, darker, more fully developed leaves from the bottom of a basil plant should be reserved for making pesto, a preparation in which the fullest possible basil flavor is demanded, and in which the leaves are pureed, making their slightly toughened texture irrelevant.

Unless you are a serious herbalist, growing exotic herbs that must go to seed to ensure a supply of seeds for next season, it is generally best to harvest herbs to prevent blooming. Once the bloom forms, most of the plant's energy goes into the flowers rather than into maintaining the leaves.

The flowers of most herbs are not good eating, often bitter and unpleasant tasting. The bright purple bloom from chive plants, however, can be a delicious addition to summer salads and vegetables.

Herbs such as chives, parsley and chervil, which grow from a center clump out, should be harvested from the outside and the entire stem should be cut.

Other herbs, such as tarragon, mint, basil, oregano, sage and thyme, can handle a rather heavy harvest during which you give the plant a substantial haircut, lopping off a rather large part of the top of the plant.

Herbs from your garden will always have a fresher quality and finer taste than store-bought bundles and bunches.

Unfortunately, even with a small herb patch, we often end up with what appears to be acres of an herb from plants that have not been trimmed correctly.

There are a number of ways to store fresh herbs to preserve them for the herb-barren winter months. The storage method you choose depends on how you plan to use those herbs in the coming months, and how excessive the supply.

If the herbs are to be used in sautes, stews and sauces, they are best preserved by chopping them finely and mixing them into creamed unsalted butter. The herb butter should be frozen in ice cube trays, then transferred to plastic bags for use in the next three to four months. A cup of softened butter will take one to 1 1/2 cups of chopped herbs.

For other uses, and when cholesterol is an issue, herbs can be oil-cured. Chop the herbs in a food processor with just enough fine quality olive oil or seed oil to moisten the herbs into a paste. Freeze the paste in ice cube trays.

Freezing herbs in butter or oil prevents oxidation, a process that causes blackening of herbs frozen on the stem.

For long-term storage and for use in microwave cooking, the herbs can be bundled together and hung in a dark, well-ventilated place for a week or two to dry. Once fully dried, remove the leaves from their stems, crushing the leaves as little as possible, and store airtight in jars until needed.

The flavor components of fresh herbs are very volatile, and while drying the herbs concentrates the flavor, it also destroys what subtle nuances the herbs may contain.

Herb vinegars, those popular items in upscale gourmet shops, are easy to make at home with white or cider vinegar and fresh herbs from your garden.

Organic Gardening magazine offers the following:

Herbs you can use include thyme, basil, marjoram, tarragon, rosemary, fennel, mint, chervil or dill.

In a clean jar or bottle combine about 1 cup of fresh herb, coarsely chopped, and 2 or 3 cups of vinegar. Cap the jar and set on sunny windowsill for about two weeks to let the flavors mellow.

Strain the vinegar into a clean decorative jar and insert a fresh herb stalk for easy identification and an attractive appearance.

These vinegars also make great gifts.

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