These 7 easy-to-grow herbs will transform your cooking–and your landscape!
Food without spice is like a sunset without color. With easy-to-grow herbs on hand in pots on your back porch, you can turn any dish from drab to spectacular in moments. Some of the recipes suggested below for trying are mentioned either in my article on 12 Budget-Friendly Meals or Lactose-Free Freezer Meals.
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Garlic is an incredibly versatile herb and oh-so-easy to grow! When that bulb of garlic you bought the other day at the grocery store starts to sprout, all you have to do is stick it in some dirt to grow your own plants. Break the cloves apart (there will be a green sprout at the top and a little bit of root at the bottom of each clove). Leave just the tip of the sprout above ground and pack the dirt around. No garden? Plant your clove in a Mason jar, old tin can, or even an washed-out sour cream plastic container.
What to Try Cooking with Fresh Garlic:
-baked or grilled fish
-broiled asparagus (here’s my new favorite easy/healthy-ish recipe for asparagus)
-penne in a garlic-olive oil sauce
The first time I tried growing parsley, I grew the beautiful moss curled parsley that makes such lovely little garnishes. The problem was, we didn’t usually make appetizers or dishes that had lovely little garnishes. 🙂 So we ended up not using the parsley, since we couldn’t even taste it in the soups we tried it in. Now, I use parsley (the flat Italian variety) all the time. However, in the past few years, I’ve learned a couple of things about growing and cooking it.
** Only try planting it from seed if you have a lot of patience and time.
Parsley takes a very long time to come up and get big enough to harvest. (Especially if you’ve got a purple thumb like mine instead of a green thumb.) I have some out in my garden now, but I’m getting more from the potted plant I bought at Walmart.
** Use parsley generously in your cooking.
Something with a robust flavor like sauce for spaghetti and meatballs will suck up a large handful of parsley easily. Because parsley has a lighter flavor, you can often use it with a heavy hand. Want to make the little you have count? Don’t add it to your dish until the very last minute so it only cooks a little and still has the stronger flavor of fresh, raw parsley.
What to Try Cooking with Fresh Parsley:
-Italian rice stuffing (2 c. cooked rice, 1 lb. cooked ground sausage, an egg, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and chopped parsley–press into casserole pan and cook at 350 degrees F. for 30 minutes.)
-pan-fried fish (in butter, without batter)
-light, creamy sauces for pasta
Basil is a happy plant, friend to even a novice gardener. The easiest option is to just buy a plant and repot it, keeping it close to the kitchen. It takes time to grow it from seed and get it large enough to harvest. However, it’s worth doing so if you plan to use large amounts of basil. For example, today I made nearly a pint of pesto out of basil from our vegetable and herb garden. I planted it months ago, but only in the last couple of weeks have I had enough from all those plants to feel comfortable using over 2 cups of fresh leaves on one dish. Basil looks better with regular watering, but it is forgiving if you forget about it for a couple of days, as long as it’s not completely dry and in full sun on pavement. (Don’t ask.)
What to Try Cooking with Fresh Basil:
-penne in a garlic-olive oil sauce (basil makes this dish so wonderful!)
-tomato basil salad
-Caprese salad (I would love to try this recipe from Pioneer Woman!)
Cilantro (don’t plant next to parsley)
Cilantro and flat Italian parsley look very much alike. But you will regret replacing your cilantro with parsley in pico de gallo, or your parsley with cilantro in marinara sauce. Keep them separated and labeled if you can’t keep them far enough apart. Can they cross-pollinate? I’m not sure, but I do know one year my cilantro (planted from saved, dried coriander seeds from the year before) tasted decidedly flat, and I blamed it on the parsley. 🙂 Cilantro is, however, much easier to grow from seed than parsley–and their seeds look absolutely nothing alike! Cilantro/Coriander seeds are much larger.
Cilantro is not for everyone (some people say it tastes like soap)! But for some of us, cilantro is the crowning herb of all. I could eat cilantro every day, and I would truly say that it has transformed my cooking, particularly of Mexican or Central American or Thai cuisine!
A couple of things to remember about growing this Latina queen of the cocina:
** Cilantro grows very tall. Leave room for a giant bush!
** Cilantro will reseed itself and come up near the same place you planted it last spring! Plan around it.
**Once cilantro has started flowering, the taste goes into the flower and surrounding spiky leaves.
The bottom leaves are now almost flavorless. If you’re smart (unlike me this spring!), you will have planned ahead with successive plantings. (e.g. plant a few seeds in early March, more a couple weeks later, another handful in May, etc.)
What to Try Cooking with Fresh Cilantro:
Once rosemary gets started, it is a hardy bush that becomes very large and withstands dry conditions. Can it go forever without water? Of course not. However, once it is established it is remarkably durable. It’s also a lovely feature for your landscaping, reacting well to trimming and shaping and releasing a pungent fragrance when you brush against it.
What to Try Cooking with Fresh Rosemary:
-herb breads (I love to plait my normal bread dough, shake garlic on top of the braid, and weave in sprigs of fresh rosemary.)
-baked fish (One of the best smells ever is the rosemary and slices of lemon crisping and steaming in the oven.)
-stews and soups (Use it like a bay leaf–drop in a whole sprig and fish it out before serving.)
-roast chicken (Include it in your stuffing ingredients of citrus fruits and onion.)
Oregano will quickly take over, so keep it well-contained in containers or concrete-edged beds unless you want to battle it constantly. It makes a beautiful container plant with trailing leaves on thin branches.
Remember, not all oreganos are created equally. Don’t expect Mexican oregano to pack the same punch that Greek oregano does! 🙂
What to Try Cooking with Fresh Oregano:
-marinara sauce (once again! Tomatoes can handle a lot of herbs.)
-vinaigrettes for salads
-chicken or fish marinades (very light on the oregano with fish, especially milder fish!)
Not everyone has time to grow thyme from seed! (Sorry; I couldn’t help myself!) Thyme is another plant probably worth just buying at your local nursery rather than waiting around for the seeds to grow. It isn’t quite as hardy as rosemary, but can usually be kept alive for a couple of years (it’s supposed to be a perennial). If you have a green thumb, I’m sure your thyme will be happy for years to come!
There are several different varieties of thyme. Your local nursery probably sells ones that do best in your zone, but check before you buy.
Thyme doesn’t give a sharp or bright taste like rosemary or cilantro, but it does give a richness to any dish to which you add it.
What to Try Cooking with Fresh Thyme:
-pan-fried fish (in butter, batterless, paired with lemon)
-some Italian sauces
Other easy-to-grow herbs for your kitchen are:
fennel (that yummy licorice tasting seed in Italian sausage or some pizzas)
mint peppermint, spearmint, even chocolate mint! My favorite is peppermint for mint tea! (keep it in a pot so it doesn’t take over your whole yard! Spearmint, especially, is easy to grow but almost impossible to control.)
lemon balm (grow it with chamomile and have your own tea garden! It makes a lovely lemony tea.)
dill (a must-have if you’re going to make your own dill pickles and so very easy to grow)
chives (honestly, I prefer green onions/scallions, but if you’re in the right zone you may be able to grow chives with beautiful little flowers)
sage (silvery green leaves and hardy)
What about you?
What are some of your favorite easy-to-grow herbs that have transformed your cooking?