Jim Long has written over 20 books on herbs and gardening. You can find more plant information, recipes and views of his garden on his website at longcreekherbs.com.

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Three Tasty, Warm-Season Herbs
by Jim Long       #Edibles   #Herbs

If you drive through any small town across America, you will find either (or both) Mexican or a wide variety of Asian restaurants. Where burgers, pizza or fried chicken and mashed potatoes were once all that was available to choose from for supper, a huge variety of flavors have cropped up. Today, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Guatemalan and a vast array of other ethnic restaurants exist throughout the country.

Each of these ethnic foods has a unique set of flavors. Traditionally, herbs have always been used for seasoning these exotic dishes. In recipes where our grandmother used only a few basic herbs, such as sage, rosemary, thyme and maybe some horseradish, many foods of today rely on a completely new set of flavors.

 

CHANGING HABITS

Many new and exciting plants are being introduced to the marketplace that are of interest to the home gardener as well as the professional chef. Eating habits have changed in the last few decades. As a result, food fashions have changed, and restaurants have begun offering new flavors. Gardeners naturally want to grow these seasoning plants in their own gardens and are developing a taste for interesting, new flavors that include more than just the common European herbs.

 

HERBS TO TRY

Flavorful ethnic foods rely on herbs such as curry leaf, cilantro, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, cumin, cardamom, a vast range of basil, fiery peppers and even species that will grow in a water garden.

As nurseries and garden centers follow trends, many offer the more unusual plants that their customers request. Ten years ago, many garden centers weren't offering herbs at all, and now almost all have a section dedicated to herbs, simply because their customers asked for those plants. Here are three exciting herbal plants that you might like to grow this coming summer season.

 


Green pepper basil (Ocimum selloi) has handsome dark green foliage, small lavender flowers and a distinct, peppery flavor — making it a mouth-watering ingredient in fresh salads.

• Green pepper basil (Ocimum selloi)

This very attractive and unusual herb was first collected a dozen or so years ago by Dr. Dennis Breedlove in Chiapas, Mexico. Records of its use dates back to the Aztecs, who used the plant for medicine and seasoning. Several characteristics make this basil unique. First, it has a robust fragrance, dark green shiny leaves, and it will withstand cooler temperatures than other basil species. It blooms continuously throughout the summer and fall with attractive lavender to purple flower spikes and, unlike other basils, the blooming and seed setting do not stop leaf production. (Most basil requires some pruning to keep desirable leaf production as well as keeping it from going to seed.)

Second, the flavor is a pleasant combination of both sweet bell pepper and spicy basil. It's delicious in a variety of dishes including corn soup and stir-fried dishes. As an added bonus, the plant is an attractive landscape or patio plant and holds up well in hot weather. From my growing experience of green pepper basil, it doesn't easily cross with other basil species. This is an added benefit, because I generally grow about eight varieties together in my herb bed. This is a very good addition for your summer herb garden!

 


Vietnamese cilantro (Polygonum odoratum) loves hot weather and will even grow in a partially submerged pot at the edge of a water garden. Use this herb as you would regular cilantro.

• Vietnamese cilantro (Polygonum odoratum)

Also known as Vietnamese coriander throughout the mainland of the United States, this plant is recognized by its Vietnamese name, rau ram, in Hawaii.

You either love cilantro, or you hate it. Admittedly, it's an acquired taste, but if you enjoy salsa and chips or any number of Asian or Mexican foods, cilantro is often an ingredient. This is an excellent and easy herb to grow.

Standard cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a cool-season herb. Vietnamese cilantro thrives May through September or longer, which is why this herb is so important. It loves Southern summers! The hotter and more humid the weather, the happier this plant becomes. The flavor has a lemon, coriander and curry taste and fragrance. In its native Vietnam, it grows in the marshes. Commercial crops grown for the restaurant trade are produced in low, hot, humid greenhouses.

Vietnamese cilantro requires full sun and lots of moisture. In fact, it will grow in a partially submerged pot at the edge of a water garden or in regular garden soil, if kept consistently damp.

One caution about eating this herb concerns harvest frequency. Keeping the plants trimmed regularly to promote new growth is key, as the youngest leaves and shoots have the best flavor. If you allow the plant to ramble unpruned, the flavor will be quite different and may not be as pleasant. Like most herbs, the more you harvest the plant, the better the flavor.

Use the leaves of this plant in the same way you use any other cilantro. I like to make a salsa of ripe peaches or mangoes, lime juice, a chopped jalapeño pepper, a bit of green onion and two or three leaves of Vietnamese cilantro, chopped. Mixed and served with chips, it's a great afternoon appetizer.

 


Fresh kaffir lime leaves (Citrus hystrix) are incredibly fragrant and used extensively in Thai recipes. They are considered the “bay leaves” of Asian cooking.

• Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix)

Kaffir lime is another interesting plant to grow. If you like to cook Asian cuisine, there is really no substitute for the flavor of this plant. Kaffir lime is a necessary ingredient in tom yum soup (hot and sour soup) and tom kha hai soup (chicken-coconut soup).

Grow this citrus as you would any dwarf orange or lemon. Plants are easily started from seed or cuttings. Be prepared for thorns like other citrus plants have. Easily grown in containers indoors or on the patio in summer, the desirable part of this plant is its shiny, dark green leaves.

In Thai dishes, one or two leaves are simply torn up and dropped into a dish as it cooks. In some recipes, the leaf is rolled up tight and sliced very thin and added to Thai salads. The leaves have a very pleasant lime fragrance and flavor. Give the plant full sun in summer and bring it indoors in winter.

If you are an adventurous cook and like experimenting with new flavors, you will enjoy these herbs. In addition to being excellent members of your garden, these herbs will no doubt become just as useful in the kitchen.

 

(From State-by-State Gardening April 2005. Photos by Jim Long.)

 

 

Posted: 03/28/12   RSS | Print

 

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