Monday, July 29, 2013

Herbs All Year

The first ripe tomato finally burst onto the scene last night. Naturally, it didn't make it more than two inches from the vine before being popped into the nearest mouth. The next few forbidden fruits will surely go the same way.  When self-control is restored, I'll stretch my culinary abilities to the next level: tomato and basil salad with a little olive oil, Balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper. We'll dine happily on this simple recipe for several days, until the urge for tomato sauce kicks in.  I'll need to call on parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme to do it justice. Salsa and gazpacho will quickly follow. While tomatoes fill the backdrop for a range of creative salsa and gazpacho recipes, they're lost without cilantro. Even I have to admit, tomatoes take you only so far.

I've been snipping bits of basil throughout summer, both for use in recipes and to prevent it from going to seed. Even so, I usually underestimate the amount of basil I'll want for sauces and pesto. The new growth on the parsley still looks good this time of year, but older leaves may succumb to leaf hoppers or mildew. Rosemary is going strong, despite an early bought with flea beetles. Thyme never ends, but cilantro is just plain gone. It peaks in June, of all things!

Fortunately, the constant gardener can have her herbs and eat them all year round. Before going out of town last week, I took three minutes and potted parsley, basil, and cilantro in the kitchen windowsill. I went away for a week, and when I came back - Voila! - fresh herbs, ready to plant outside or keep in the window.  

Note the styrofoam cups. While they may seem environmentally unfriendly, they are in fact reusable, durable, easy to label, and simple to clean. Follow these steps to create a three-minute windowsill herb garden:

1. Poke a few holes in the bottom of the cup;
2. using a soilless potting mix, fill the cups to within 1/2 inch of the top;
3. moisten the soilless mix with a bit of water, but do not flood the cup
4. sprinkle seeds on top;
5. cover with plastic wrap and set in a sunny window. 

The plastic wrap and warm light create a greenhouse effect and invite germination.  
Once the seedlings emerge, remove the plastic wrap. Thin them to 8 inches apart, and transplant them into a more fertile soil mix. Either keep them in the window, or harden them off to plant outdoors by setting them in a protected area for a few hours each day. This will acclimate them to sun and heat. Plant them in a partially shaded area. Basil and cilantro transplants will last into September in zone 7 climates. Parsley is winter hardy and will last through the cold season, particularly if protected with a floating row cover in frosty weather. Rosemary and thyme may die back a little, but they've made it through at least 5 winters in my garden.

Herbs are packed with flavor, as well as nutrition. Keep them going, and you'll be flavoring soups and sauces all year long. 

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