I am a terrible gardener. I hate weeding, and within weeks of planting anything, the tomato, pepper and other plants start to become overrun with unwanted greenery, and it’s just not a pretty sight.
The few plants that do seem to persevere despite my sloppy gardening efforts are the herbs, and they are truly enough of a payoff to keep going.
Having an ongoing supply of fresh herbs on hand during the summer ensures my cooking never becomes dull or uninspired. The secret to excellent pasta salads, tantalizing bruschetta and lively pasta sauces always comes down to a simple handful of chopped fresh herbs.
If a garden – even a terrible garden – is not in the cards for you, you can easily grow herbs in a windowsill pot. Many herbs thrive in containers, and then you can snip off little bunches of basil, dill, oregano and thyme to your heart’s content, knowing there will be more to come.
You can start your herbs as seeds, or purchase small plants and repot them in progressively larger pots as they grow. Read package instructions for how to plant and care for various kinds of herbs.
Now, what to do with all of those wonderful, fragrant herbs? Everything!
To me, the summeriest of all the herbs. Basil belongs to the mint family, and is an essential herb in Italian and Mediterranean cooking. It’s the key ingredient in traditional pesto. But different varieties of basil (there are over 60!) are also frequently used in other types of cuisines, including Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian.
I use basil in pretty much anything that involves tomatoes: bruschetta, pasta sauces, caprese salads. But don’t stop there – have you ever had basil in a cocktail? Amazing. Add some to your sangria for a surprising burst of flavor.
Or make basil oil by blending up 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves with ¼ cup olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. You can strain the leaves out if you want a clearer green-hued oil, or leave the pretty green flecks right in there. Drizzle basil oil over roasted peppers, poached salmon, sliced tomatoes and mozzarella, or grilled zucchini and summer squash, to name but a few options.
Although it's popular in a number of countries and cuisines, we most often associate thyme with European, particularly Mediterranean, cooking. I probably use this herb in my cooking more than any other year round. The taste is potent and decidedly herbal in flavor, with sharp grassy, woodsy and floral notes.
Thyme works well with meats of all kinds, fish, chicken, eggs, pasta, vegetables and beans (I love it with lentils). It’s a great addition to pasta and potato salads.
You can make a delicious quick compound butter featuring thyme. Mince about a tablespoon of fresh thyme, and blend it with 1/2 cup softened butter, a teaspoon of minced garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Use this thyme-flavored butter to finish steaks and chicken breasts and salmon right off the grill. Or add a pat to a baked potato or some hot cooked grains, such as rice.
The humble, unsung hero of the fresh herb world. Yes, parsley can be used as a garnish, either in sprig form, or minced and sprinkled over a dish to give it a finishing pop of color and flavor. But don’t overlook it as an herb to use in all kinds of dishes, both cooked and uncooked.
The fresh, clean, ever-so-slightly peppery flavor of parsley is wonderful. It is highlighted in dishes like Middle Eastern Tabbouleh and falafel, and is also a key component in a bouquet garni, a bundle of herbs used to season many Mediterranean dishes.
I like to add a generous handful of fresh parsley (I prefer the flat-leaf Italian variety to the curly version) to everything from soups and stews to shrimp scampi to grain and orzo salads. It’s excellent in condiments and sauces like salsa verde and chimichurri. And yes, it’s great as a finishing garnish to many dishes as well.
Another easy-to-grow and very versatile herb. Many of us think Italian, Greek or Mexican when we think of oregano, and with good reason, but it’s also popular in Argentine and Turkish cooking. The flavor is peppery, sharp, a bit sweet, and even a little pleasantly bitter. Use oregano in marinades, dressing, sauces and salads, as well as anything tomato-based.
If you have ever grown it, you know that once mint gets going, it’s hard to stop! So finding ways to use it is an imperative. Sweet and sharp and refreshing, mint adds interest to drinks (a sprig in a glass of lemonade or a cocktail is delightful), marinades, salads, salsas, pesto and desserts. It is also an important herb in Southeast Asian cooking.
Another prolific herb (part of the mint family, which makes sense). The flavor is piney, a bit lemony, sharp and quite strong; a little goes a long way. You can find terrific uses for rosemary in marinades for meats and poultry, and it’s a great partner to potatoes.
And you can use rosemary sprigs as skewers and make kabobs with them!
Tarragon, chives, marjoram, dill — all terrific options for growing and cooking. The world of fresh herbs is vast. With a few pots on the sill, your summer cooking is about to game up in a big way.
Chopped Salad with Chicken, Tomatoes and Lemon Thyme Dressing
Rib-Eye Steaks with Thyme Garlic Butter
Katie Workman writes regularly about food for The Associated Press. She has written two cookbooks focused on family-friendly cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook.” She blogs at http://www.themom100.com/about-katie-workman. She can be reached at Katie@themom100.com.
Katie Workman, The Associated Press