A ripe seed head of dill is a spontaneous sculpture in the garden as it gets ready to toss its seeds to the wind.
Photograph by David Cavagnaro
For many herb gardeners, dill signals summer’s arrival. Its feathery fronds, so wispy and insubstantial through the vacillations of spring weather, now put on a bold display, growing at breathtaking speed and flushing into a tall, fernlike mass. Indeed, their carefree, lacy appearance is almost a metaphor for lazy, sun-baked days in the backyard. Perhaps that’s one reason dill assumes such prominence in summer foods. Can you imagine barbecues or picnics without dill-spiked potato salads, deviled eggs, or pickles?
Dill offers two variations on one flavor theme. The foliage, called dill weed, tastes crisp, fresh, and herbaceous like parsley but with added sweet-citrusy notes. The seeds, which develop later in the season, have a stronger flavor—more aromatic, minty, medicinal, and pungent.
The difference in flavor between the leaves and the seeds results from the differing composition of their essential oils. The seed oil, which constitutes 2 to 5 percent of the weight of the seeds, consists mainly of d-carvone and limonene, compounds that also dominate the oil—and thus the flavor—of caraway seeds. The two kinds of seeds are interchangeable in many recipes.
Dill weed contains roughly a third as much essential oil as the seeds, and its oil contains less of the rather strident carvone and limonene; these are replaced in part by the fresh and faintly minty alpha-phellandrene.
Dill weed is the perfect match for the foods we love when the temperature soars: grilled fish, vine-ripened tomatoes, blanched baby carrots, shellfish cocktails, bean salads, cucumbers in yogurt, guacamole, and chilled vegetable soups. Even zucchini, so welcome at its first appearance but so tiresome thereafter, retains its appeal when thin slices, quickly sautéed in olive oil, are dressed with snipped dill weed.
Though dill weed is native to the Mediterranean region, its admirers extend deep into the Middle East and north into Scandinavia. The dill-filled dishes of these regions offer some delicious uses of this herb. Iranians add it by the fistful to their classic sabzi polo (dilled pilaf) and serve dill weed and other fresh herbs with yogurt or fresh cheeses on hors d’oeuvre platters. The Scandinavians embellish pickled herring with dill, and it is essential for gravlax (salt-cured salmon). Russians relish dill with fish, wild mushrooms, beets, sour cream, and even vodka. For a tasty Bloody Mary (or Virgin Mary if you omit the vodka), muddle a sprig of dill weed in a glass with tomato juice, add vodka and ice, and serve.
Don’t rule out dill weed when the air turns nippy; the fresh-cut herb is available year-round in supermarkets. Try it with hearty barley pilaf, stuffed cabbage or mushrooms, baked potatoes with sour cream, and cheese soufflés. Buckwheat blintzes and caviar with dilled sour cream are heavenly.
As though tied to the seasons in your kitchen, dill plants flower and set seeds when the temperature reaches its zenith, just in time for late-summer pickling and harvesting the seeds for hearty winter dishes.
The seeds add a pleasing crunch and a burst of flavor to rye breads as well as crackers and bread sticks. Crushed, they enliven braised cabbage, provide a crisp counterpoint to sturdy beef stews, and add zest to fricasseed chicken. For a finishing touch to your Christmas goose, roast it with apples or pears spiced with crushed dill seeds.
You can store fresh-cut dill weed for a few days in the refrigerator or at room temperature below 70 degrees. Immerse the stems in water and cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag. Change the water every day or two, and keep the leaves themselves above water level. Leave purchased sprigs in their store packaging; make sure there’s no excess moisture clinging to the leaves. Most frozen or dried dill weed is tasteless.
Dill seeds keep well in an airtight jar stored in a cool, dry place. Harvest them just when the seeds turn brown. Clip the umbels with some stem attached, bundle loosely, and hang upside down in an airy, dark place. Spread paper under the bunches to catch any seeds that fall. When the seeds seem dry (after three to five days), rub the seed heads between your hands to dislodge the remaining seeds. Spread them in a pan for a few more days, then bottle a few, screwing the cap on tight. After several days, if no mold develops, bottle the remaining seeds and store, as above, for up to a year.
A single dill plant, raggedy when going to seed, seems a poor bet for garden design, but less mature plants, massed or bordering other plants, can add a knockout touch to your landscape. The young, feathery, emerald foliage looks lacy and gay. Later, the yellow flower umbels mimic bursting fireworks. Not until the plants turn brown and brittle do they lose their appeal.
At least nine dill cultivars are available by mail order (see “Roll Call of Dills”, page 30). Although some of these register subtle flavor distinctions, the main difference is in growth habit: some soar to 5 feet while others grow no taller than a diminutive 18 inches.
A group of at least four plants of the tallest cultivar, ‘Mammoth’, could visually anchor the center of a formal herb wheel or square. In the vegetable garden, these 3- to 5-foot giants are appealing planted between shorter vegetables and tall pole beans, corn, or tomato towers. They also give a laciness to the carefree look of naturalistic gardens in which they are not the tallest plants.
Medium-tall varieties that grow 2 to 3 feet tall add a breezy touch to an informal fence line or background strip with such companions as borage, yarrow, cumin, caraway, rue, tansy, daylilies, southernwood, or feverfew. Broadcast a mixture of dill and flax seeds to produce a mass of green foliage that later sparkles with yellow umbrellas and tiny blue flower cups. The planting will attract bees and butterflies, and brushing against the foliage will release dill’s heady scent.
‘Bouquet’ and ‘Fernleaf’, the two shortest cultivars, are excellent in patio pots or as compact edging plants.
Dill foliage grows best when daytime high temperatures are between 75° and 95°F. Hot and/or dry weather admonishes the plants to hurry up and flower, set seed, and die. To ensure a continuous supply of dill weed, sow seeds every two to three weeks from early spring until the advent of hot weather. In the Sun Belt, you can sow a fall-winter crop in mid-August.
Select a sunny, well-drained site. In warm climates, plants benefit from filtered afternoon shade. Work the soil well, then sow seeds in rows 30 inches apart or in small clumps. Cover them with 1/4 inch of soil. Keep the soil moist until the seedlings are at least 5 inches tall, then water as needed—daily during very hot weather. Thin 5-inch plants to 6 to 12 inches apart (and eat the thinnings!). Feed plants lightly with diluted fish emulsion or other liquid fertilizer every four weeks. Dill often self-sows year after year. Look for (and harvest) the ferny seedlings before digging up your garden in spring.
Although direct seeding is preferable because transplanting the seedlings can damage their delicate taproots, you can jump-start dill plants with minimal handling by sowing pinches of seeds in small peat pots three to four weeks before the date of the last expected frost. Cover them with 1/4 inch of potting mix. When the seeds germinate, place the pots in a sunny window or under fluorescent lights. Keep the soil moist but not wet. Harden the seedlings off for a few days before transplanting them, pots and all, into prepared garden soil. Tear off any pot rim that sticks up out of the soil as it can wick moisture away from the roots. If growing dill in a container, select the largest, deepest pot you can find.
You may have heard that dill and fennel can cross-pollinate, producing hybrid seeds with inferior flavor. Although the pollen transfer can be effected by hand, it doesn’t normally occur in the garden. Plant your dill and fennel wherever you like and be assured that the seeds of each herb will taste the way they’re supposed to.
All of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations valued dill. Dill seeds were found at a 3,500-year-old archaeological site at Kastanos in Thrace, and dill weed is said to have been found in an Egyptian tomb of the same era. Dill is mentioned in many early Greek writings. The Hebrews also knew and used the herb; scholars have asserted that the word “anise” in the Bible actually refers to dill. Among numerous Roman references to dill, the naturalist Pliny suggested using dill seed in breads, and the epicure Apicius provided a recipe for pork cooked with dill, suggesting ways in which we might enjoy their ancient cuisine.
Some superstitious European cooks and healers, believing that dill warded off witches, protected their households with dill plants. Others, believing it to have aphrodisiac powers, compounded the seed into elixirs.
Apart from these quaint practices, the ancients clearly were aware of dill’s medicinal value. As Pliny noted more than 1,900 years ago, “Dill acts . . . as a carminative, allays gripings of the stomach . . . . The seed of it will arrest hiccup . . . and dispels indigestion.” Modern herbalists agree. In fact, dill’s common name is derived from the Norse word for “lull”, referring to its widespread use in “gripe water” to soothe colicky babies. Today, many Indian markets stock gripe water next to the rose water and other liquid flavorings.
Dill (Anethum graveolens), a member of the Umbelliferae (carrot family), is the only member of its genus. The Indian dill once called A. sowa is now assigned to A. graveolens. The suppliers are keyed to the source list below.
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Foss Hill Rd., Albion, ME 04910-9731. (207) 437-4301; fax (800) 437-4290. Catalog free.
• Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 North Pacific Hwy., Albany, OR 97321-4580. (541) 928-9280; fax (541) 967-8406. Catalog free.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON, Canada L0C 1A0. (905) 640-6677; fax (905) 640-6641. Catalog free.
• Seeds of Change, PO Box 15700, Santa Fe, NM 87506-5700. (888) 762-7333; fax (888) 329-4762. Catalog free.
• The Thyme Garden, 20546 Alsea Hwy., Alsea, OR 97324. (800) 487-8670. Catalog $2.
Cornelia Carlson grows herbs in Valley Center, California, and is the author of The Practically Meatless Gourmet (Berkley Books, 1996).
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