You’ve likely been told—in magazine articles, on television and by indoor herb garden kit packaging—about the ease with which you can grow an indoor culinary herb garden. In reality, however, most culinary herbs do not grow well indoors, especially in winter. Light levels are simply too low and, unless you have a greenhouse, you probably will not be very happy with the return on your time investment as you struggle to coax a few leaves out of paltry, non-producing herbs this winter. Luckily, you can greatly improve your odds of success by growing these four hardy culinary herb superstars, delicious plants that make themselves quite at home on a sunny windowsill and add a wonderful burst of fresh green flavor to your winter meals.
The unbeatable taste of fresh basil compared with its much-blander dried counterpart makes it worthwhile to grow indoors. Plus, a pot of sweet, fragrant basil smells wonderful in the house. Basil is fast-growing and easy to grow when started from seed—just follow the directions on the packet. Give the plants bright light and harvest leaves as needed.
You can simply dig up a clump of easy-growing chives from your garden and pot it up. Cut the leaves extremely short when you pot the plant. After the leaves grow back in a few weeks, harvest them as needed by snipping them at the base. If you don’t have a clump in the garden, you can start chives from seed, but be aware that the plants will take awhile to reach harvestable size. Sow the seeds thickly—chive plants are skinny and don’t mind being crowded. Though fresh chives are of course superb mixed into sour cream on a baked potato, they’re also delicious in scrambled eggs, green salads, pasta or anywhere you might use onions. Snip and freeze chives to use to top all kinds of savory foods—use frozen chives exactly as you would fresh.
Fresh spearmint is terrific on steamed carrots and in tabbouleh or fruit salads. To grow it indoors or out, simply buy a plant (taste a leaf to make sure it has a good flavor) and plant it in a large container. If planted in the ground, aggressive mint will take over your yard or garden. If you grow a spearmint plant outdoors, you can simply bring a few shoots indoors to plant for year-round harvesting. You don’t even need to plant it in soil—just put a few stems or roots into a jar of water and it will do quite nicely for a few months. When it declines, bring in some fresh material to replace it (you’ll have plenty of mint once you plant it).
If you love cooking with fresh herbs and are not growing sorrel, you should absolutely try it. The leaves have a zesty, lemony flavor that makes them a great substitute for lemon juice in all kinds of salads. The plants are perennial and grow fairly well in partial shade. If possible, start the plant in a pot outside, and for indoor growing, simply dig or pull up a section with some roots on it and pot it. Sorrel is a very tough plant and your section should root easily as long as you water it well. Otherwise, pot a seedling from the garden store indoors.
If your climate doesn’t have intense winters, your toughest outdoor herbs—notably chives, mint, oregano, parsley, some lavenders, lemon balm, thyme and savory—can survive the chilly weather if you pack on mulch to keep them warm around the root zone. But severe temperatures and harsh winter winds damage even the cold-hardiest of herbs. You can save many of your favorite outdoor herbs throughout the winter by simply bringing them in. The cold-hardy herbs mentioned above, as well as lemon verbena, rosemary, sage and tarragon, will provide you with fresh flavors if you handle them properly.
To overwinter your herbs:
1. Kick-start a dormant period by digging up the herbs and setting them bare in a cold area such as the garage or basement for a few days.
2. Pot them up and prune them back.
3. Water minimally until they look alive again, then water regularly.
Cooking with Windowsill Herbs
This sauce is a pasta classic, but it’s also great stuffed into mushrooms, slathered on pizza and drizzled over roasted vegetables.
4 or 5 large handfuls fresh basil leaves
½ cup pine nuts, toasted
½ cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
2 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled
About ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Crush basil to release its oil. Scrape leaves into a food processor, and add pine nuts, cheese and garlic. Add oil in a stream while processing until pesto reaches desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper.
On Sundays in England, you’ll find a version of this sauce atop roast lamb in every dining room and pub from London to Leeds. Experiment to see what else you like it with.
Enough sugar to sprinkle over leaves
White wine vinegar
Muddle sugar and mint until well combined. Transfer to a storage container and stir in equal parts of each vinegar, a little at a time until you get a pourable sauce. Let sauce rest for a few minutes, then taste and adjust sweetness. Serve chilled.
Sorrel Salad Dressing
This dressing will add a lemony zing to simple salad greens.
1 large handful fresh sorrel leaves
2 tablespoons sour cream or yogurt
1 fresh garlic clove, peeled
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Combine first six ingredients in a food processor, then add oil and blend until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper, and refrigerate for half an hour before serving.