The Secret Side of Herbs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Do parsley, rosemary and thyme leave you yawning? Have basil and oregano lost their allure? Maybe it's time you tried growing something different in your herb garden.

There are thousands of unusual culinary herbs out there, just waiting for a place in your garden and kitchen.

"People are used to a limited amount of culinary herbs, because they only know the old standards," says V. J. Billings, owner of Mountain Valley Growers Inc. in Squaw Valley, a mail-order company that offers 140 culinary herbs, many of them little known.

"Few people have heard of culantro, but those who find out about it are delighted," says Billings. "This herb has the exact same taste as cilantro, but it is much easier to grow and doesn't bolt, like cilantro tends to do. It also produces edible leaves most of the year, whereas cilantro only tolerates cooler weather."

Another unusual herb found in a variety of Mexican and Asian dishes is lemongrass, which many people don't realize is a snap to grow in the garden, says Malee Hsu, owner of Upland Nursery in Orange. She carries a variety of unusual herbs, many of them in spring, but she always has lemongrass on hand.

"Lemongrass does really well in our climate, and it is very easy to grow and propagate," she says.

Stevia is another little-known herb that thrives in Southern California.

"They call Stevia the sweet herb of Paraguay, because its leaves are 100 times sweeter than sugar yet it is said to have no detrimental effects for diabetics," says Billings. "Everyone is always amazed when they eat a leaf because it tastes just like pure sugar."

Although many unusual herbs aren't well-known, they're beginning to catch on.

"There has been an incredible explosion in herb interest," says Billings. "When we opened our doors at the nursery 15 years ago, we had just seven plants on our list, and we didn't think people would buy them. One of them was Italian parsley."

More people are becoming aware of exotic herbs, agrees Michael Jordan, a professional chef, who is now general manager at Pinot Provence in Costa Mesa, a restaurant that uses a lot of fresh herbs in their cooking and places an herbal bouquet--instead of flowers--on every table.

"Supermarket shelves are beginning to fill with uncommon, exotic herbs that you wouldn't have seen 10 years ago," says Jordan, who is also an avid gardener.

"Not only do a variety of herbs give foods a wonderful taste, it is a very healthful way of cooking. We use herbs and fresh vegetables to flavor our meats and fish, which creates light, healthy food with out-of-the-ordinary taste."

Growing Unusual Herbs

Now is a good time to plant culinary herbs. They can set down roots before winter, then take off in spring.

Although many culinary herbs are warm-weather plants, most don't go dormant in winter, and some provide usable, yet more limited foliage in the cold months.

Growing unusual culinary herbs is similar to growing more common herb types. For best results, keep the following growing tips in mind.

* Separate your culinary herbs. "In order to maintain their vigor, culinary herbs should be cut frequently," says Billings. "They won't get pruned enough if they're out in the landscape or mixed in with annual vegetable plants."

Even when you don't use your herbs, make sure to cut them frequently to encourage fresh growth.

* Select a sunny or partially shady spot with excellent drainage. If your soil is hard clay, amend with at least 50% organic matter, such as homemade or bagged compost. Also add organic fertilizer, according to package directions.

* Use containers when space is limited, or if your soil is too hard to work and doesn't provide ample drainage.

"The important thing about container growing is to make sure the potting soil isn't fine," says Billings. "The soil needs a good amount of chunky humus so that the roots have something to wrap themselves around. We suggest using high-quality, coarse potting soil and adding more perlite at a rate of 30%."

Also add a slow-release organic fertilizer to the mix.

* Water herbs daily until they are established and begin to show new growth. Then keep the soil moist but not soggy.

* Plant culinary herbs at the same level as you found them in the original nursery container.

* Only fertilize culinary herbs with a slow-release organic fertilizer when you see a problem with the plant and know the soil pH is between 6.5 and 7.00. This can be tested with a kit from a home supply store or nursery. Soil that does not test in this range should be corrected. Consult with a nursery professional or soil lab on the proper amendments to use.

Unusual Culinary Herbs

There are thousands of little-known culinary herbs. The following represent a small sampling of easy-to-grow plants sure to add interest to your garden and zip to your cooking. You'll find some in specialty nurseries and many are available through mail-order. All are suitable for container growing.:

* Culantro (Eryngium foetidium): This Central American plant tastes just like cilantro but is much easier to grow. While regular cilantro bolts readily, leaving you with flowers and seed, culantro keeps on producing and tastes great most of the year. It also dries well.

Culantro leaves and flower stalks can be used as long as the flowers are still green. Remove the flower stalk and foliage at the base of the stem, cut up very fine and use like cilantro. A new flower stalk will grow in its place.

Also use whole, as you do bay leaves, in cooked foods such as stews and sauces and roasted meats. Stalks impart their flavor to a cooked dish in less than one hour.

Give culantro morning light and afternoon shade. Provide good drainage and water frequently.

* Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum): These chives have a flat-blade leaf with garlic overtones. In summer they flower with eye-catching white or mauve flowers that make a great addition to salad. Use as you would regular chives, in baked potatoes, dips and sauces toward the end of cooking, since their flavor won't hold up under heat.

To keep the plant growing well and looking good, harvest chives at the ground level. Grow in full sun to part shade and divide every three years when they produce a large clump.

* Lemongrass (Cymbopogan citratus): This popular herb is used in a lot of Mexican and Asian dishes and to make tea. It is a large plant that creates a four-foot clump within three years, which should be dug up and divided. Plant has large, grasslike blades and is not particularly attractive.

Its allure is in the white, blanched part of the blades that lie below the soil surface. These can be removed from under the soil with a knife, starting with the outside leaves.

Plant takes full sun. Prune out dead leaves regularly, making sure to wear long sleeves, because the blades are sharp.

* Lovage (Levisticum officinale): This herb tastes like celery. It reaches 2 to 3 feet tall and has glossy, deep green leaves resembling parsley, but with a rib, like celery. Use it chopped up in soups and stews and fresh in potato and green salads.

Grow in full sun or partial shade.

* Greek sage (Salvia fruticosa): Although you won't often find this sage in nurseries, it is the sage found in many spice jars sold in the supermarket. The plant is large, reaching 4 feet high and 2 feet wide with light green, curled, rough-textured leaves that are about 2 inches long. Can be used fresh or dried as you would ordinary sage, although it has a stronger flavor. Add to stuffing, meat sauces and poultry.

Plant in full sun and provide good drainage.

* Pink savory (Satureja thymbra): This savory is a small, erect shrub that gets about 12 inches tall and blooms with light pink flowers in summer. It has sweetly flavored leaves that add a delicate flavor to eggs and pastry. Best used for making tea and as an addition to other tea blends.

Grow in full sun or part shade. Prune flowers once blooming finishes.

* Winter savory (Satureja montana): A perennial herb that takes the place of summer savory, which is a short-lived annual. It has a hot flavor and can be used in spaghetti sauce and with strong meats and vegetables. Especially good combined with basil and oregano.

Although it will grow more than a foot tall, keep at 4 to 6 inches high so that you'll have fresh, tender growth. Cut back at the ground when the stems become brittle or plant flowers, and it will grow again within two weeks.

* Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana): This little-known herb's leaves are considered 100 times sweeter than sugar. The plant grows two feet high and two feet wide with dark green, soft oval leaves about the size of a nickel. Use leaves raw, or dry and powder them and use like sugar.

To dry, cut new leaves with the stems and hang upside down in a dry, dark place. Once dry, put leaves in an airtight container and powder as you need them.

In our mild climate, this plant produces leaves most of the year. Keep well watered and avoid letting the plant flower, as flowering tends to burn the plant out and shorten its life.

* Caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona): This ancient herb is a true thyme that makes a great ground cover, as it readily spreads, looking stunning in spring with profuse pink blooms. It imparts caraway flavor to foods and can be used with beef and in breads, and any other dishes that lend themselves to thyme and caraway.

Good to plant between pavers and in small patches. Releases a pleasant fragrance when stepped on. Also makes a good hanging basket. Keep moist and make sure the drainage is good.

* Conehead thyme (Coriothymus capitatum): Technically not a thyme, this plant resembles a thyme, but has a much sturdier root system and is very easy to grow. It is a low-growing plant, reaching just eight to 10 inches tall and spreading 2 to 3 feet.

It has eye-catching purple flowers in early summer, which, along with the leaves, have a spicy, jalapen~o pepper flavor. Use fresh or dried as you would any spicy herb in stir-fries, breads and with meat.

Plant in full sun and expect plant to grow slowly for the first year. It is self-cleaning, not requiring pruning or shearing.

Using Fresh Herbs

What to do with all those fresh herbs from your garden? "Use as many as you can when cooking," says Florent Marneau, executive chef of Pinot Provence in Costa Mesa, who suggests the following:

* Use fresh herbs as a base for salads. Then mix in other vegetables such as gourmet lettuce, carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes.

* Marinate with fresh herbs. To do so, mix olive oil with a small amount of garlic, salt and cracked pepper, and then add a handful of chopped herb of your choice.

* Grill meat and vegetables over coals that have been covered with herb leaves, which will impart a subtle flavor to the meat.

* Blend fresh herbs into soup right before serving.

* Mix herbs into desserts, such as fruit salad, sorbet and ice cream. Top cake and pie with fresh herbs and herb flowers.

* Make herbal oils and vinegars.

* Add fresh herbs to breads.

Reach Mountain Valley Growers at (209) 338-2775 or on the Internet at http://www.mountainvalleygrowers.com. Free catalog.

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