Three of my favorite herbs for the summer
July 14, 2006
The rain has given every plant in the valley except those smothered by rivers of mud a big boost, including the top three on my list of indispensable herbs. Interestingly, while it has delayed the process of going to seed on the dill, it has spurred the growth of chamomile and summer savory. All three are annuals, growing each year anew from seed. Dill, Anethum graveolens, self-sows abundantly and springs up in ferny blue-green tufts all over the vegetable garden in early spring, and, if conditions are right and I’m lucky, in the border among the perennials, bulbs and in over-wintering containers, too. Its feathery foliage, disparagingly called dillweed, is the best part to eat. I like to harvest it at its most fragrant and delicate, no more than a foot or even just a few inches tall, because the texture toughens as the plant grows, even before it bolts.Dill traditionally flavors vinegar and pickles, but I add the aromatic leaves to salads, freeze them for winter seasoning and dry them for gifts and garnishes. A thick layer of fresh dill on a slice of good whole-grain bread spread with mustard or mayo, topped with a thin layer of aged cheddar and ripe sliced tomatoes, is delicious. I’ve never seen it on a menu, but if I ever open a restaurant, I shall feature it. Was serving dill on sandwiches like lettuce or sprouts one of my mother’s idiosyncrasies or a cultural thing from the old countries?To make dill vinegar, stuff a gallon jar or two full of dill, pour white vinegar over it to the brim and let it steep on a pantry shelf. Timing is not critical, but give it at least a few weeks to infuse the vinegar with scent and flavor. We use this for any recipe calling for vinegar, including our salad dressings.I have been picking the flowers – only the flowers – of German chamomile, Matricaria recutita, every day, to dry for tea. I squat on my heels and snip the small, daisy flowers one at a time, a labor-intensive job not recommended for the impatient but a relaxing ritual for me. The summer savory, Satureja hortenis, is about ready for its first cutting. It will regrow and be cut several times. Ideally, the herbs are harvested in the morning while garden and gardener are still cool. For drying, I spread the leaves or flowers one layer deep in shallow baskets of varying size, out of the sun.The threadlike light green foliage of chamomile grows wispily on upright-but-lax stems, contrasting with the dark green linear leaves of the bushy, uniform savory. Both summer savory and chamomile prosper best if sown directly in the vegetable garden where they are to grow, like lettuce or peas, while dill is more free-spirited. Tall, airy dill is especially pretty in the flower border and is terrific in bouquets when it blooms.When I first learned to cook, I wondered why cookbooks bothered to list herbs as ingredients at all since I couldn’t taste or smell them. Compared to my Mother’s generous handfuls, a pinch here and a quarter-teaspoon there seemed ridiculously stingy, not to mention bland. She primarily uses dill, parsley and summer savory, and grows a plentiful supply from seed. There is scarcely a dish that isn’t enhanced by the liberal addition of one of them. A cup of chopped dill is not too much for a standard batch of potato salad, for instance, while the stems and leaves of one whole dried savory plant are just about right for a pot of beans, cooked together, then removed like bouquet garni. When I was a kid, my Mother made chamomile tea when I was sick. It may be a noxious weed to her now, to be rooted out on sight, but it will always be a comfort drink to me. It is almost exactly three months since I first gathered bits of new herbs for a much-anticipated spring tonic salad. As I steep a few chamomile flowers for tea, or strip dill fronds and savory leaves from their stems, I feel not just the satisfaction of hoarding food against the winter, but the serenity that comes from being still and occupied with small tasks. Sort of like knitting! Besides, potato salad is unthinkable without dill, and bean soup or borscht without summer savory would be like spaghetti sauce without oregano.Anna gardens in Basalt with her husband, Gerry, and dog, Maggie, and grows many wonderful herbs, too numerous to mention. She welcomes your comments. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and write “Anna’s Garden” in the e-mail subject line.
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