This is a totally subjective list—let’s just get that out of the way at the outset. However, these are the herbs that I simply have trouble envisioning any kitchen garden living without. Feel free to correct and tweak my list, and to add recipes of your own (particularly for tarragon, my favorite, for which I have oddly few recipes). Here’s the list:
1. Basil: Is there a better flavor in the summer than fresh basil, tomato slices, fresh mozzarella and basil leaves, drizzled with a bit of balsamic vinegar? I can’t imagine it. And for sheer beauty and generosity, basil has to rank at the top of any gardener’s list. Even in my earliest, dumbest gardening days, I never killed a basil—which tells me it’s one fabulous, hearty plant. I know people can live without pesto, but really. What kind of life is that? Genovese remains my favorite variety, although I also love growing a purple basil (‘Opal’ or ‘Purple ruffles’), just because they’re so pretty. I haven’t grown lemon basil, but might try that this year if I get myself together to do a container garden.
2. Dill: The unmitigated joy of dill—other than the fact that it’s this year’s Herb of the Year—rests in its beauty, aroma, flavor and gardener-friendly growing habits. As Susan Belsinger wrote in her article “2010 Herb of the Year: Dill”, dill is “stalwart and accommodating all year.” You can plant it in the early spring with your first lettuces, and watch it bloom into beautiful umbrellas at summer’s end. And if you leave them be, those seed heads seem perfectly designed to catch the first snows of winter and arrange themselves artfully even after every green, growing thing has turned brown and called it a wrap.
3. French Tarragon: I don’t know anyone nuttier for French tarragon than I am. My friend, Cheryl Long, editor in chief over at Mother Earth News, is my tarragon pusher. I asked her eagerly last week if hers had started greening up yet. She said No, but she still had some dried from last year. The next morning, I found on my desk a bagful of the sweet-smelling stuff and I could have just buried my head in it then and there. Pure deliciousness. The odd thing is, I don’t like licorice at all, and tarragon has a little licorice-y under-flavor. But tarragon is one of those aromas that just make me swoon. Oddly, I have only two favorite recipes with it—Tarragon Chicken and Tarragon Vinegar. So if you have suggestions, I’m open.
A word of caution, however: Some nurseries don’t know the distinction between French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus L.) and Russian tarragon (A. dracunculoides L.), a weedy and not wonderful plant with a resin-y flavor. You need to start French tarragon from cuttings or live plants, as it’s very difficult (maybe impossible?) to start from seed. If you’ve tasted tarragon that isn’t happiness in your mouth, my bet is that you got Russian rather than French. Ptooie.
This kitchen garden includes parsley, chives, lovage, fennel, dill and lots of basil.
Courtesy Flickr/Photo by Lydiat
4. Thyme: What a storied history this simple survivor has. It’s found in cuisines around the world and has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years, allegedly propagated by the Romans in their march to annex the world (and maybe they got it from the Egyptians, who used it in their embalming process). Thymus vulgaris doesn’t flop over if it’s somewhat neglected. It likes growing in sunny, well-drained and even somewhat inhospitable locations and tastes like nothing else in the world. It likes to stew a bit before it lets go of its flavor, so, unlike many herbs, it’s OK to throw it in at the beginning of a soup rather than adding it as a last flourish. It also has sweet little flowers that make me happy.
5. Marjoram: I prefer marjoram (Origanum majorana, Lamiaceae) to its stronger flavored cousin, oregano. It is another Mediterranean herb that loves sun and well-drained soil. It isn’t a beautiful plant like the showy basil and dill, but so tasty.
6. Garlic: I have to admit, I have never grown garlic myself. There you have it. However, many of my friends grow garlic and I will always take as much as I can get because I try to eat some garlic every day. I simply cannot imagine life without garlic.
7. Onion: Ditto onion, although I have grown onions from time to time. How can one cook anything savory without onion? I understand (somewhat, but not really) objections to the aroma of raw onions on one’s breath, but this is why God gave us mint. And I completely believe what my Grandmother Whetstone said when she used to eat onion sandwiches (between slices of Wonder Bread!) that you’ll never have colds if you eat plenty of onion. This could be because no one will get close enough to transmit the viruses (see “breath” above). Still, life without onions would be sad indeed.
8. Sage: Since I first discovered gnocchi in sage and browned butter sauce, I have been a big sage fan. It always reminds me of Thanksgiving because my mother made the best cornbread stuffing in the world and what set it apart from every other Southern cook whose stuffing I’ve tasted is that she really saged it up. But it was the gnocchi that really made me a sage fan.
Extra points: Pineapple sage. This is another one that I could just sit and smell all day. I have no idea why some aromas land harder in my psyche than others, but pineapple sage is one I’m completely crazy for. I’m afraid I haven’t been very inventive with it—just use it in fruit salads, in vanilla yoghurt or on baked chicken. Anyone else have a better idea?
9. Flat Parsley: I hadn’t really developed a passion for flat parsley until I went to Italy a couple of years ago and found it in most of the dishes I really loved. Then I came back to the states, googled it and discovered how incredibly healthy it is. Now, my pasta in the summertime is more an excuse to serve parsley than a reason to eat noodles. I could eat flat parsley every single day. (Not so much the curly variety, for some reason.)
10. Ginger: Again, confession time: I have never grown my own ginger. I also have never turned it down when someone offered it to me. It is a beautiful plant and worth having around for no other reason than that. But it also is a medicinal and flavor powerhouse, able to perk up the taste buds, settle the stomach, lower cholesterol and ease the pain of arthritis, among multiple other uses. It, along with garlic, is one of my desert-island plants.
I could go on and on. Limiting myself to 10 is a challenge, and I find that I’m somewhat promiscuous where herbs are concerned: I tend to love the one I’m with, and find my affections quickly swayed by a whiff of something new or unusual. But at the very least, these 10 are the ones … no, wait … I left out lemon balm. And mint. And …
OK, maybe the top 20 herbs every gardener shouldn’t be without …