Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The Urban Huswyfe's Herbal

I have a terrible habit of reading up on subjects in a hasty voraciousness, becoming passionate about said subject...but ultimately applying very little of the "book learning" to my everyday life and going on my merry way, using my newly gained knowledge in a generally haphazard and lackadaisical fashion. I went through a "herb" fad when I was pregnant with my eldest girl. I read up on herbal folklore, medicinal remedies, culinary uses, herbs for beautifying myself, the history of herbs and I even read Culpepper. However, please do not think that I am a suburban version of the village wise woman; curing scrofula with marigold petals and bad breath with plantains; what I do know however, is that the average summer pasta dish becomes something quite special with the addition of fresh basil or parsley, that you need a lot of coriander and mint to make a good tabbouleh, that calendular cream isn't hard to make and mint tea does cure indigestion! Moreover, using your home-grown herbs is a very cheap way of umphing up frugal cooking, that mint tea is better for you than shop bought indigestion tablets and that making some of your own creams and unguents is fun!

In the my garden I grow lavender (it edges the front lawn), rosemary (in pots), bay (in a pot) sage (in the corner of the veg patch), lemon balm (in the flower border), chives (again in a corner of the veg plot), oregano (veg plot), thyme (flower border), bergemot (flower border), St John's Wort (flower border) mint (invading the veg plot as I type) and chamomile (again, in the flower border). These are the herbs that come up every year, some of which, like rosemary, sage and bay, can even be used successfully during the winter months, indeed I always think of sage as a a very winter-y herb. The most useful of these herbs are the culinary herbs; I use rosemary two or three times a week, it just seems to make a roast chicken a bit more lively and sage and pork is a lovely combination. And, although I do use it quite sparingly, many stews and roasts deserve a bit of thyme. However, there is no better non-culinary (unless you are a posh chef) herb than lavender; you can use it to scent your linen cupboard and underwear drawers, as potpourri in the bathroom, as a cut flower (particularly the French bearded variety) and even as a carpet deodorizer (mix the petals with bicarb in a glass jar, leave for a week or so and sprinkle onto your carpet, hoover it up after an hour or two).

But now is the time to plant my very favourite culinary herbs; coriander, basil and parsley. They are very easy to grow in pots and troughs and germinate quite quickly. You just sprinkle the seeds, reasonably thinly, into a pot of potting compost, cover the seeds with 5-10mm of compost and water well. Put the pots in a sunny position, keep the seeds/seedlings well watered and you may be harvesting your herbs in a month or so. With this in mind, it is best to sow a pot of herbs at two week intervals from now until the end of summer, this should ensure that you have plenty of herbs for kitchen use. They freeze quite well too, that is if you only want to cook with them. Just wash the herbs and pop them into the freezer in "portion" sized bags, you don't need to chop them, just crumble the frozen herbs into the stew or sauce when you need them.

Marigolds are yet another herby winner. I no longer sow them as they have self-set all over the garden, but if you buy a packet of "pot" marigold seeds now, sow them directly into your flower bed/veg patch, and leave them to do their thing you can use the flowers for making a cream for very dry skin, to decorate a salad and making calendular oil. Also, if you let the flowers go to seed you can collect the seeds and plant them next spring...believe me, if you're canny you will never have to buy another packet of marigold seeds again! I do believe they are useful as companion plants too, but I can't for the life of me remember what they're meant to protect/get rid of!

I think the trick to successful herb gardening in a small space is that you must choose herbs which really pull their weight! They must look pretty, as well as smell nice and their uses should not be too dangerous, complex or obscure. So although I grow bergemot and St John's Wort, it is mainly for their value as fragrant and beautiful plants...I shall not be using them to cure a friend's depression, as some things are better left to doctors and medical herbalists! However, lavender is a very benign, beautiful and fragrant herb, a proper hard-working herb, and mint, although a garden bully, is just wonderful in so many drinks and dishes and is very good for your tummy. Rosemary is good around a chicken, but a strong infusion of the herb works well as a hair tonic for people with scalp problems and is anti-bacterial enough to be used as a kitchen cleanser! The joy of herb gardening is that these plants are often incredibly easy to grow and have a myriad of uses within the home, which I hope I have given you a glimpse of here. Is anyone out here a herb gardener too? Which are you favourite herbs and how do you use them?

Edited on Thursday morning when I noticed the glaring homophone error "sew" for "sow"! Ahh!


Anonymous said...

I have just purchased some lavender seeds and you reminded me that I need to get them into a pot. I love it when you do these types of posts because you always seem to be able to make things seem doable. (o:

Oh! And I'm the same way you described when I'm learning about a subject--reading voraciously and then applying very little of it to my every day life. *sigh*

Many Blessings!

Anonymous said...

We planted some marigolds (and minuture cornflowers) on tuesday and already they've popped up through the soil. They are planted indoors and on our living room windowsill which is south facing.

I have some basil, tomatoes, sunflowers, and carrots to plant yet. I wanted to do the tomatoes today but I have been busy all day. Durn teachers are on strike tomorrow so I had to try to cram everything in today.

Thanks for the carrot advice BTW.


Zillah said...

Ah yes, I have herb sowing to do as well. I have been giving myself the excuse that being so far north I can slack off for a while for too long now. Time for action.

A note on freezing coriander - I had great success with freezing the green seeds of the coriander once it had flowered. Don't let them dry, just freeze in a freezer bag as soon as the seed has set. They freeze brilliantly and give a fresh coriander zing to anything you use them in. I found it less faff than freezing the leaves.


Anonymous said...

I often have very little freezer space. Do you ever dry your herbs? Where's best to dry them? How long do they take to dry and once dry how long do they keep? When I've grown herbs before I've always used them fresh...which is such a waste to have to bin what I don't use, I want to be more organised this time.


Dulce Domum said...

Hi Michele
I'm glad there is another voracious reader out there! Enjoy your lavender!

Hi Linnet
My eldest is still in school, no NUT members at her school, obviously. Anyway, to answer your questions, you're better off not drying soft herbs like basil, parsley and coriander. I just think they lose too much flavour when dried. However, rosemary, thyme, sage and bay are great when dried. In fact, it may be worth drying thyme and sage, particularly, as I've noticed my plants don't link a wet winter. You can dry herbs in a very low oven, as low as your oven can go. Wash them and put them of a shallow baking tray, leave them in this low oven for an hour or more until they look dry. Pop them in jam jars and hey presto!

You can dry mint like this too, and mint is a soft herb that *does * do well dried. It's particularly good in middle eastern meat dishes, and also you can used dried mint for mint tea. Dry mint as above.

The *best* way to preserve soft summer herbs is in oil or vinegar. Pop the herbs in a jar, cover with olive oil (not extra virgin, it would be a waste) leave to infuse for a week or two, no more, strain the oil and get rid of the herbs. This works for garlic, chillies, and all soft herbs and is a time saver in the kitchen.

Also, could always use Zillah's idea of collected the green seed of the coriander...they are yummy.

Hi Zillah
I think the green coriander seeds are absolutely yummy. But I'd never thought of freezing them before. Thank you for the tip!

Anonymous said...

Most of the school is off today, only about 4 classes in.

Just checking I've understood you: So the oil retains the flavour, the herbs get thrown away and you add the oil to the recipe? Sounds a great idea, thanks! Do you know how long it keeps? Only I made my own furniture polish with olive oil and lemon and within about 2 weeks it was full of mold; would the herb mix go mouldy or does it keep as long as the olive oil keeps?

Sorry more questions...

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Linnet
If you strain the herbs out of the oil through muslin (or a clean tea towel), then the oil should keep pretty well. If you leave the herbs in the oil (especially the soft herbs) then you are entering a world of mankiness!

Anonymous said...

Cheers chuck, v. interested in your Martha post, but must dash, will return...