Get to Know Herbs

Check Out What’s Cooking at Raleigh City Farm.

By Chef Belynda Chambers 

Upper left clockwise: Chives, oregano, rosemary, thyme perking up at Raleigh City Farm.

Herbs—culinary, medicinal, protective, cosmetic, aromatic—are potent plants. In this blog, we’ll focus on the basics for enjoying culinary herbs—planting, harvesting, preserving.

            We grow familiar perennials like oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, mint, chives, lemon balm, and sage. (A perennial is a plant that returns year after year.) Our happy hardy oregano at the farm started as a two-inch baby and is now an ever spreading blob that just begs to be divided to take over a new plot. Biennials (2-year plants) that grow at the farm include parsley and dill. A variety of annual basils, including purple, Thai, tulsi, Greek, are musts for any cook. 

            Herbs can be started from rooted plants, cuttings, or seeds. In Raleigh, it’s easy to find rooted plants here at the farm, at Logan’s, and at your local market. If you’re a beginner, rooted plants will give you the quickest results. 

            It’s easy to multiply mint and basil by cutting the stems just below the leaf/stem juncture, popping them in fresh water, and watching them root. Keep the water fresh and enjoy them as a bouquet until they’re ready to plant. The magic of sprouting seeds is, well, the magic of life. 

            Your herbs will live in a very bright window when it’s freezing but they all prefer outdoors. Some herbs love dry, well-drained soil while others (basil, mint) like moisture, but they ALL love sunny spots. Keep in mind their water preferences when you plant them. Basil, mint, dill, chives, and parsley make great plot companions, preferring a moisture retaining soil, while oregano, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, and sage prefer well-drained earth.

            Imagine—your oregano is creeping in the garden or drooping over the side of the pot and one day you see a tiny bud about to bloom—it’s time to harvest! Right before the plant blooms is when its flavor is at its peak. You can cut the blooms and keep the plant producing but it will lose its intenseness and some of its nutritional value. Annual basil likes to be pinched back at the leaf juncture and continues to produce all summer. 

            Harvest is easy. Herbs’ aromatic oils will be most intense in the early morning, just after the dew has dried before the midday sun. With sharp herb scissors or Chinese kitchen clips, cut the herb no more than a few inches from its base if it’s a ground cover or annual, leave enough foliage to keep the plant thriving through summer. It will regrow and bloom again. For dill,  chives, and cilantro, harvest a few sprigs, and then all summer and let them bloom and reseed. Rosemary will grow into a serious bush and you can trim sprigs all year.

            Hardy herbs like oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, and sage dry well and keep their flavor. Simply snip the herbs, rinse them, spread them on a rack to dry then rubber band them together, and hang them in a dry dark place. Tent them with a brown paper bag if you’re concerned with dust. They’ll dry in about two weeks. Slip the leaves off of the stems and store in glass containers. Plastic is porous and will not keep them fresh.

            I like to freeze mint, chives, dill, lemon balm, and basil to retain their fresh flavor. Wash, spread out, and dry the herbs then destem them, chop or not. Freeze in freezer safe glass Ball jars. Mince basil with olive oil, scoop it up with a tablespoon, drop on parchment-lined trays, and freeze.  Pull up the tablespoon-sized blobs and place them in a freezer jar. Frozen herbs taste like they’re fresh from the garden. Chive blooms are delicious and beautiful, fresh and frozen.

            How long should you keep your dried and frozen herbs? Six months. They won’t hurt you but they won’t have the nutrition and flavor. 

            At the end of the growing season be sure to convince a few of your herbs to keep growing in that sunny window. Save seeds. Here in Raleigh, you’ll likely have oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage, rosemary, maybe chives, year round but their potent perfection is in late spring, right before they bloom.

            Gather your herbs and your family and friends and make your own blends. Tasty tinctures/teas made from savory herbs are immunity boosting powerhouses. Spice blends make a great quick flavor booster. Check out Oregano Immunity Booster and Herbes de Provence

            Come play and learn more at Raleigh City Farm’s events. Reserve here and join us on March 26 for our p1 Tourism Culinary Herb Workshop. 

            Check out what’s growing and cooking at Raleigh City Farm.

Dried herbs are always hanging around my kitchen.

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