On the Importance of Growing Herbs

There’s a reason I don’t cook as much in a strange kitchen: they don’t have what I need.

I love traveling, as you know, and as I have grown older I’ve found that I like having a home base in a new country. I like being able to stay a week or so somewhere and rent a house or apartment for that time. I like having my own little kitchen, to be able to make coffee without having to get dressed and fix my hair in some fashion (you would understand this if you saw my hair in the morning), just to eat a little something with my coffee. You could save money this way too, by cooking for yourself instead of going to a restaurant. I find, though, that I seldom cook real meals while in these places.

Of course, one of the reasons for this is that I travel to eat local food. Honestly, it’s one of the things I like best about a new place – trying new food. Sharing food is a great way to connect with other people (please read How to Eat Like a Costa Rican), allowing them to teach you through offering what they value most. Certainly, eating the food introduces you to so much about a culture and environment. So cooking at home loses some of it’s allure for me when traveling.

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Local cheeses, sampled outside Bellagio, Italy

But there’s another reason I don’t cook as much in a strange kitchen: they don’t have what I need. Is there a little known law prohibiting sharp knives in rental places? There must be! All pots must be dented and thin, and non-stick pans must be dangerously peeling. In one house in Costa Rica, there was no more than a single example of any given drinking vessel, meaning that each person’s cocktail or coffee was a radically different experience. There will be a colander, but it will be located in a dubious spot, like the laundry room or the bathroom, giving you pause about using it for your pasta.

Staple foods may or may not be there. Sugar is a big maybe, cooking oil may not be the freshest if it’s there at all. Anything other than that, salt, pepper, and some mysterious hot sauce in the fridge, is going to be absent.

I can handle that. I don’t mind buying oil at a market and leaving the remains behind for whoever cleans the place to take home. I like shopping at foreign markets, so this is fun too. But my cooking just doesn’t taste as good in a strange kitchen, and I know why: I depend on fresh herbs.

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Parsley, garlic, thyme, oregano, and cilantro, all from my garden

I want you to start growing some herbs. When I lived in apartments, I kept herbs in pots on the window sill. When I rented a room in someone’s house in New Mexico, I begged to start a little garden in their back yard and they let me. I immediately put in some perennial herbs, like thyme and mint and oregano. When we were in Italy for a month, I bought a basil plant and kept it on the window sill and it’s the only reason I cooked at home. I grew a little basil plant in my first apartment in Arizona, and someone stole it off my porch and I cried some bitter tears, I tell you. (I may have written about this trauma elsewhere (The Terrifying Truth about Pesto), but I repeat it here because it was so cruel. If I live to be 100, I’ll be telling this story.)

The first garden I planted in my extremely ample yard, which was entirely grass when we move in, was devoted to herbs. My quart-sized rosemary has grown to a behemoth that shelters small animals, probably six feet in diameter today. My thyme and oregano have migrated around the garden, dying in one area and establishing themselves in another. The lemon balm may have been a terrible error, but I just can’t bring myself to eradicate it completely because it smells so good. I read a book years ago whose title and plot has entirely faded from my memory. My only recollection of it is a character who always planted gardens that were more than visually pleasing – they had to have a scent or a taste to accompany the leaves and flowers. My lemon balm reminds me of that book.

There is nothing I love more than running out to my garden, even after dark or in the snow, to fetch an herb I need for a recipe.

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I shook the snow off these . . .
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To add to this beautiful dish

Obviously, not everyone has the time or space or resources for a garden, but you might have it for your window sill.

If you do have room for a little herb garden, then I want to tell you about my pollinators. My herbs are a huge draw for a wide variety of bees, moths, butterflies, and caterpillars. In this age of insect decline, I am delighted to create a tiny, healthy environment for insects. I’ve watched swallowtail caterpillars decimate my parsley and fennel (they grew back), and seen little bees and wasps in my plants that I see nowhere else in town. Observing that one type of wasp come back every year to my leeks is a reward only matched by the beauty of their flowers.

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A leek ready to bloom
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Monarch butterfly and friends in the lavender
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Pollinators amongst the rosemary, basil, Thai basil, and lemon balm

I’m writing this on a cold, dreary day in January, but my rosemary has tiny blooms on it, as it often does this time of year. My parsley is coming back and the cilantro volunteers are popping up all over the garden. My oregano is leafing out again under the dead and dried blooms of late summer. These three herbs – parsley, cilantro, and oregano – are the backbone for my chimichurri sauce, a recipe I’ve come up with from trial and error. We serve it on grilled meats and vegetables. Our favorite is on grilled chicken or steak, with chopped avocado, rolled in a warm tortilla. I am going to reward you with my special recipe, which is not at all “authentic” to Argentina, where chimichurri originates. It is tasty, though, and another excellent reason to grow your own herbs.

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Add some fresh tomato if you like

Anne’s Chimichurri

¼ cup fresh parsley
¼ cup fresh cilantro
¼ cup fresh oregano
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
½ cup of olive oil
¼ cup of red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 shallot (about ¼ cup), chopped

Combine all ingredients in a food processor (or use an immersion blender as I do in a mixing cup) and blend until smooth. Taste for salt and enjoy on grilled veggies or meat.

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My mouth is watering just looking at you, chimichurri

 

 

Summer. Isn’t. Over.

My garden wants to remind you that we are more than two weeks away from the autumnal equinox, thank you very much.

I’ve heard you all talking. I’ve heard the comments about getting back to school, about Labor Day, about not wearing white. I’ve seen you looking longingly at your sweaters. You’ve been thinking about making a casserole or baking some muffins, admit it. Just give you one cool morning and this is where we wind up.

My garden heard you too, and she is having none of it. She sent me here to correct these false rumors. First, she wants to remind you that we are more than two weeks away from the autumnal equinox, thank you very much. Second, she wants to emphasize that the equinox is just a formality anyway. Haven’t you noticed these nice warm days persist into October? Like, most years? She is going to make the most of it, and she suggests you do it too.

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I made a sauce with these to go with grilled salmon tonight.

Actually, she’s been getting a little forceful about this point. Every time I go inside, I feel her saying, “Don’t you turn your back on me! Do you see these okra? When you get back they are going to be enormous and too tough to eat! I had better see you out here EVERY DAY until I say so!”

Those okra. I’ve had actual dreams of going to the garden and the okra had grown into small trees, taller than my head. You have got to watch those suckers every minute.

My tomatoes are a bit more gentle about it. They stop setting fruit when it gets too hot, but they are only too happy to start up again once things get reasonable again. My cherry tomatoes are ripe again and my slicing tomatoes are setting. That means we’ll have fresh tomatoes until the frost comes, which in Arkansas can be into November. And even then you can harvest and fry up the green ones. Such a good idea!

And this is the time when my basil just gets out of control. I have to harvest so much. So much. Basil goes in everything this time of year. The fact that you can eat basil every day is just proof that it is summer.

Summer eating is simple eating, in my opinion. The flavors of ripe veggies and herbs just want to be appreciated. You don’t really want complex sauces this time of year. You want corn that is barely cooked, with salt and butter. You want a caprese salad. You want green beans cooked just so. Summer cooking doesn’t really need a recipe, does it?

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Keeping It Simple

But perhaps you aren’t sure about the green beans. Or how long to cook the corn. For you, I will write some not-recipes. Just in case you wanted them because you did not grow up with someone who made them. These are for you.

Green Beans, Just So

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It is all so perfect.

First, snap the beans. That means you just snap off both ends of the green bean. Don’t worry about where and don’t cut them. Snapping, by bending until it breaks, helps you get beans that are fresh. Ideally, you can snap right to the edge. But if they don’t snap until you get close to the middle, you are better off with less of that bean. Flexible, bendy beans are not fresh. You want ’em snappy!

Bring some salted water to boil. Add the beans and boil only until they turn bright green, about 4-5 minutes. Meanwhile, get out a bowl to put those beans in. Crush a clove of fresh garlic and add a dollop of mayo to the bowl. When the beans are bright green, drain them and put them immediately, steaming hot, into the bowl. The heat of the beans will release the scent and flavor of the garlic and make a sauce of the mayo. Add fresh ground pepper and salt to taste.

Now, don’t freak out about the mayo. (I use Duke’s, by the way.) Mayo is oil and eggs. It’s not weird or some kind of chemical. The French make it. Just call it aioli. And if you just can’t abide it, toss with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. You might want the lemon even if you use the mayo.

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So tasty with mayo

Corn on the Cob (Not a Real Recipe)

Seriously, I know you can’t believe you are reading this, but you might want it. First of all, get the corn in the husk and don’t put it in the fridge. I try to use corn the same day I get it. I think that’s the key to having really sweet corn because the cold starts working on the sugars. Husk that corn when you are ready to cook it. Boil enough water that the corn could submerge. Bring to a boil and add the corn. Return to a boil and let boil for one minute. You heard me. Turn the heat off and cover the pot for five minutes. Now it is done. Take it out of the pot and slather with butter and salt. The end.

And for dessert? Maybe you would like a fig.

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You probably would like a fig.

So don’t rush into fall! It will get here soon enough and we will revel in winter squashes and persimmons. Just enjoy the now. If you don’t, I’m gonna hear about it from my garden.

Summer Begins, Or Anne Struggles to Keep Up with Berries

I know you came here for the cake.

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I am really a terrible gardener. The only thing I can do well is put things in the ground. It’s pretty easy for me to decide that I want a plant to grow close to me. Most of my decisions about plants are motivated by the potential for eating them, or at least smelling them. My daughter will pick things solely for how they look, and I’m grateful for her perspective but I don’t understand it. Me, I want to put them in my mouth.

My husband is generally very supportive of my poor gardening, in that he does nothing to criticize or discourage me. He does occasionally suggest plants, and blueberry bushes were at the top of his list. I quickly followed those with raspberry and blackberry canes, given to me by a friend when his bushes spread. Now I have a nice little patch. and I get this every few days.

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Faced with this abundance, I have to act fast. I freeze, I snack, but I also make desserts, which brings me to this beautiful cake. I know you came here for the cake.

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While I am definitely bad at gardening, I am a decent cook. Okay, I’m a good cook. I know you are eyeing that very homemade-looking cake and you are doubting me. My food may not always look gorgeous, but it tastes amazing. I think you should probably try making this cake and see what you think.

I got the original recipe from the August 2001 issue of Bon Appétit, and they got it from Thymes Two Catering out of San Francisco. Don’t you think those chefs lie a little bit when they give out their recipes? I mean, I probably would. But I’m not going to lie to YOU. I made this cake just a little different. Some would say better, but let’s just assume that they were lying about the real recipe and I somehow accidentally discovered it. I have restored it to its previous glory!

Lemon-Blueberry Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

2 cups plus 6 tablespoons cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon Penzey’s double strength vanilla extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon Penzey’s lemon extract
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1.5 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter and flour three 9-inch cake pans, and  line with parchment paper. Sift cake flour, baking powder, and salt into a small bowl. Take one tablespoon of flour mixture and toss with fresh berries until coated in separate bowl.

Stir together the milk, lemon zest, vanilla, and lemon extract in small bowl. Beat the butter and  sugar together in a mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Alternate adding flour and milk mixtures, about a third at a time, until blended.

Divide the batter between the three pans. (I honestly think you could use two pans if you wanted thicker layers, but then you get less frosting per slice, so I’m going to leave that up to you.) Sprinkle on the blueberries evenly over the batter. I use my fingers to lightly swirl the batter over the blueberries. You could just mix in the berries, but I like a more even distribution and I don’t want them all stuck on the bottom.

Bake cakes for about 25 minutes, until golden brown and the tester comes out clean. Cool cakes in pans on racks for about 10 minutes and then turn out onto the racks to cool to room temperature. Now make the frosting!

Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

2 8-oz. packages cream cheese, room temperature
¾ cup (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon Penzey’s lemon extract
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Penzey’s double strength vanilla extract

Beat the cream cheese and butter together using a mixer. Gradually add the powdered sugar, followed by the lemon juice, vanilla, and extract. Taste for lemon! I like mine strong. Refrigerate until cool enough to spread easily, about an hour.

Assemble your layers, covering each with about 3/4 cups of frosting. I always have frosting left over, no matter how much I slather on, so be generous. Use some of your other berries to decorate the top. I have tons of raspberries, so I like those, but any berry would be fun. Or leave it plain or add some lemon peel curls.

Eat and enjoy! Let me know how it turns out for you. I store mine in the refrigerator because Arkansas is hot this time of year!

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