Herbs are like icing on a cake, they take food from ordinary to extraordinary by adding flavour, colour, texture, aroma and even nutrients and antioxidants.
With their variety of shapes, blossoms and foliage, they also add interest and colour to gardens. And, when planted strategically, they’re effective at attracting beneficial insects such as bees, butterflies and pollinators while repelling pests such as mosquitoes, rabbits and deer.
With so many things in their favour, it’s not surprising that most Manitobans have at least some herbs in their garden or on their patio. But while growing herbs is becoming increasingly popular, many people are still unsure how to best prune, use and preserve herbs. If that’s you, here are a few tips and recipes to try this summer.
To get bushy, tasty herbs prune early and prune often. It may seem scary to cut the growing tip of your herb plant, but doing so encourages branching which leads to a fuller more luscious plant.
For basil, mint, lemon balm, hyssop, marjoram, oregano, catnip and the evergreen herbs (bay, rosemary, thyme, lavender, lemon verbena, sage) prune from the top down on each stem. Follow the stem until you reach a set of growing leaves. Cut just above these leaves with sharp scissors for a clean cut. Within days, you’ll see two new shoots growing out of the stem near your cut.
Herbs like parsley, sorrel, lovage, lemon grass, cilantro and chives don’t need to be pruned. They can be harvested throughout the season by picking the outer stems first, cutting near the bottom of the stem.
Woody stems, like on old growth of rosemary, thyme, lemon verbena, lavender and oregano, will not regrow new stems. Unless you want to completely remove a section of the plant, do not cut into the woody stems.
Herbs will lose flavour and will not grow as much once they have flowered. Removing blossoms on herbs like basil, dill and cilantro will extend the harvest and make them bushier.
To ensure continued good growth, never take more than one-third of the plant at a time. At the end of the season, harvest all your annuals and let your perennials overwinter with two-thirds of the plant still intact.
Fresh herbs are very aromatic, but when added to recipes, you need to add three to four times as much compared to their dried counterparts. And, you’ll need to add them at the end of the cooking process to retain their colour and flavour unlike dried herbs which should be added earlier in the cooking process.
Dry or freeze herbs for use all year.
Herbs can be preserved by drying or freezing. While both techniques will work with any herb, flavour and colour loss will occur more quickly in some than in others. The following shows which method is most ideal for which herb.
- Lemon verbena
- Lemon grass
- Lemon balm*
* Most susceptible to mould or colour loss
- Lemon balm
To dry herbs, gather small bundles and hang in a dry, dark, well-ventilated space. The larger and moister the leaf, the more susceptible to mould or colour loss, therefore it is best to dry these herbs quickly using a dehydrator or microwave.
When freezing herbs, the general rule of thumb is that the less surface area exposed to air, the longer the herbs last in the freezer. For that reason, you’ll find many recommendations for freezing herbs in oil or water. You can purée 2 cups of herbs with 1/4 cup of oil or simply place herbs in an ice cube tray and cover with oil or water.
This works well for herbs used in soups, stews or sauces. For sprinkling herbs on salads or other dishes, herbs can also be frozen chopped or whole without anything else. By drying herbs well and laying them in a single layer to freeze before packing in a freezer container, chopped frozen herbs can be easily accessed any time. This is my preferred method of freezing herbs.
Following these tips will help you freeze and dry herbs for use throughout the winter. The recipes below will help you enjoy them while they’re fresh.
Parsley and Barley Salad
Move parsley from garnish to main attraction with this barley salad that works equally well on the tractor or a fancy dinner party. A great make-ahead salad. Makes 4 cups.
- 1/2 cup raw hulled barley
- 1-1/2 cups water
- 1 bunch chopped parsley
- 2 medium tomatoes chopped
- 2 green onions, chopped
- 2 tbsp. fresh mint, chopped (2 tsp. dried)
- 1/4 cup canola oil
- 2 tbsp. fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/8 tsp. ground pepper
In large pot with tight-fitting lid, add barley and cover with water. Bring to boil and simmer until liquid is absorbed, about 55 to 60 minutes. Rinse with cold water, drain and cool.
In large bowl, toss together barley, parsley, tomatoes, green onions and mint.
In small jar with tight-fitting lid, combine canola oil, lemon juice, salt and ground pepper. Secure lid and shake well to blend thoroughly.
Pour dressing over salad and mix well.
Rest for one hour before serving to allow flavours to blend and parsley to soften somewhat.
A quick and easy way to use fresh herbs and add incredible flavour to bread, pasta, veggies or meat. Use single herbs or your favourite herb combination.
- 1/4 cup softened butter
- 1 tbsp. finely chopped herbs (chives, garlic chives, basil, oregano, thyme, parsley, dill, etc.)
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/8 tsp. fresh ground pepper
In a small bowl or jar, mix all ingredients using a small spatula or butter knife.
Mix until well combined.
Use right away, keep in fridge for 7 days or freeze for several months.
To freeze, place butter on a large piece of parchment or wax paper or plastic wrap. Roll and shape into a log shape. Secure ends, place in freezer bag and freeze.
To use, allow butter log to soften in fridge overnight or on counter for 1 hour. Slice rounds from roll as desired. Refreeze any remaining butter.
Classic Basil Pesto
When the basil is plentiful, make pesto to go with pasta, pizza or any dish involving tomatoes.
- 5 cups packed fresh basil leaves
- 2/3 cup pine nuts (or walnuts or hazelnuts)
- 5 cloves fresh garlic
- 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 cup canola oil
Wash and gently dry basil leaves. Set aside.
In food processor, coarsely chop pine nuts and garlic.
Add basil leaves, Parmesan cheese and salt and process until well blended.
Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Do you prefer more salt, garlic or cheese?
With processor running pour oil into basil mix to create a paste.
Fill ice cube tray and freeze.
Once frozen, transfer cubes into a freezer bag and seal well.
Keep for 3 to 6 months in freezer.