By Steven Hightower, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme? Yes, but you need a few more, too. Many of us in Sonoma county do a fair amount of what has come to be called Mediterranean cooking—simple, very fresh ingredients, good olive oil. Very central to this style of eating are fresh herbs, and while herbs in the vegetable garden are great, it’s maximally convenient to have all the basics right outside the kitchen door.
That’s easy enough to do with a group of pots, a mix of eclectic containers, a small plot out the kitchen door--you could even do one of the new vertical gardens with herbs. I’m not much of one for growing things from seed, but in addition to the things that have wintered over there are plenty of 4” pots of herbs in the nurseries by March. Here are the basics—those things that get snipped in my kitchen in some mix virtually every day:
Greek Oregano—(Origanum vulgare hirtum) is a pungent form of this herb, and useful in both Mexican and Italian dishes as well as Greek and, to my taste, essential on Pizza Margherita. Use it with restraint due to its strength. Oregano pounded with a bit of rosemary, garlic, salt and olive oil makes a great rub for a pork roast. We discovered an incredible vegetable dish on the island of Santorini: mix new potatoes and zucchini with lots of olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast for half an hour, and then toss in lots of fresh oregano, mint and good feta cheese and cook for another 15 minutes.
Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is actually a type of oregano, and is culinarily very similar, but a bit more delicate. If you’re short on space, choose one or the other, according to your desire for pungency.
Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is somewhere to the left of parsley, with a very faint taste of licorice, and is another herb that winters over well. Good in soups, simple pasta and those spring and summer salads, too. Chervil contains a volatile oil that disappears when cooked, so add it to hot foods at the last minute.
Italian parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. ‘Neapolitanum’)—also called flat-leaf parsley is
Mint goes year-round, and this is one that you must plant in a container, never in the ground! Just keep it cut back, and use it in ways you might not normally think of—minted carrots; with beets and goat cheese in a salad; mixed and chopped with basil, cilantro, parsley and chervil along with a little bit of balsamic vinegar and some extra virgin olive oil to top a grilled skirt steak. And there’s nothing wrong with an occasional mint julep, even other than on Derby day. Spearmint (Mentha spicata) and peppermint (Mentha × piperita) are quite different flavors, so grow both. Moroccans and Egyptians alike live on strong black tea with lots of fresh mint steeped in it, and it’s a very refreshing alternative to coffee.
There are more, of course, but if you keep these basics outside your kitchen door, your meals will be lively and healthy, too.
For more ideas on cooking with herbs see The Mediterranean Herb Cookbook
by San Francisco food writer Georgeanne Brennan.