Winter Herbs to Grow and Eat
By Robin Haglund
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Not only are they low maintenance plants that require little supplemental watering once established, but they are also a way to add year-round interest and food to the garden. Plus, think about every time you’ve paid several dollars for a few plastic wrapped sprigs of fresh herbs at the grocery store. If you spend that hard-earned cash on the plant instead of the sprig, you’ll only have to step into the garden – anytime of year – to snip tasty sprigs for your seasonal dish. And, it won’t cost you another dime or require yet another plastic container.
Not every herb is going to look great – or even survive – through winter. But, here’s a list of a few must-grows for year-round interest and great taste:
Sage: Pungent sage is a primary ingredient to many winter meals. It’s key to most poultry seasonings and is delicious mixed with grapefruit. And, because it is available in any number of colors from traditional grey-green to variegated golden to deep purple blues, it is easy to blend into any mixed border needing a bit of foliar color all year long.
Rosemary: Available as a creeping trailer to add interest to a retaining wall or as an upright conifer-like shrub to punctuate a perennial border with year-round green, Rosmarinus, is another must. It blooms intermittently throughout the year in bee-attracting shades of white, pink, purple and blue. Chopped with garlic, pepper and salt, it makes a fast, flavorful rub for just about any roast. And, should this one give up the ghost in a very harsh winter, it’s inexpensive and easy to replace the following spring.
Parsley: Following a harsh freeze, parsley may disappear from view as it hides underground until it re-emerges come spring. But, in milder winters and less harsh climates, it is a reliable source of delicious, fresh flavor. Grow a big patch so you can harvest fistfuls for delicious salads to stave off winter blues.
Thyme: If I had to choose only one herb to grow, this would be it. Available in diverse forms from tough, tiny shrubs to carpet-forming groundcovers in greens, greys and even speckled purples and whites, this herb is a gorgeous garden performer that the bees can’t resist. And, it is unsurpassed in the kitchen. Mixed with a bit of salt and pepper and rubbed on the inside of a chicken with a squeeze of lemon juice, this tasty leaf makes for an easy roasted bird to feed the whole family.
Winter Savory: Staying under a foot tall, and blooming white in summer for the bees, this plant is a graceful edging to the mixed perennial border. Tasting a bit like thyme, it exerts its own distinctive tang to any dish. Tied into a bouquet garni (see below) and added to a slow braised beef stew, winter savory will knock the socks off your dinner guests.
Bay: Plant this herb, and you’re not likely to every run out of Bay again. Unlike so many other woody herbs, this unique flavor comes from the leaves of a large, evergreen tree. And, one leaf is usually plenty to infuse your dishes with lots of taste. A large pruning job will yield gorgeous, scented holiday wreaths and swags. Pop a single leaf into pot of beans with onion and garlic for a tasty, protein-infused meal that won’t break the bank. Just be sure to remove the leaf as soon as your dish has reached a perfect taste; bay will continue to infuse a dish with more and more of its pungent flavor the longer its left in the mix.
Making and Using Bouquet garni: There are no hard and fast rules for how a bouquet garni is composed. It may consist of only a few herbs like thyme, bay and sage. Or, it may include any number of other herbs from annual basil to lemony sorrel. These herby bundles may be used to infuse béchamel sauces with garden-fresh tastes. Added to a basic vegetable stock or to highlight meat and vegetable flavors in a slow braise, they can really make a simple meal simply spectacular. To use them, add your finished bundles to a simmering pot, removing them toward the end of cooking, before serving. Whenever I can, I use long, supple lengths of herbs themselves to tie the bundle together. If this isn’t an option, tying the bundles together with food-grade twine or a small bit of cheesecloth works well.
Here’s how to get started with a great bouquet garni to add to your favorite braise:
1. From the garden, collect about 5-7 long sprigs (each) of thyme and winter savory. Snip one or two tips or several large leaves from your culinary sage. Gather one or two bay leaves.
2. Wash and pick out any dirt or detritus from the herbs.
3. Working on a flat surface, place 2-4 of the thyme and savory sprigs on the counter parallel to the edge of your work surface; these will be your ties. Then place the remaining sprigs across the middle of the first sprigs. Next, lay the sage sprig and bay leaves in the middle. Wrap the first two thyme and savory sprigs around everything and tie it all gently together. So long as everything is loosely held, your bouquet is now ready for cooking. Even if it falls apart as everything simmers, you’ll be able to strain out any larger twigs and leaves later, ahead of serving.