One afternoon when I was 13, I came home from school to find that the juniper bush outside the kitchen window had been replaced by a large planter box. My parents stood in front of it, gesturing at the loamy earth as they planned the layout of our first herb garden. At the time, I didn't know why they were taking the trouble to create a separate plot just for herbs—we did, after all, already have a thriving vegetable patch. But over the next four years, my mother converted me into an herb aficionado by sending me out to that box nearly every day to clip fresh seasonings for everything from pasta primavera to grilled potatoes. All year long, I learned to appreciate how much fresh herbs add to otherwise simple foods. In spring I'd cut nasturtiums to brighten a salad; in summer I'd trim thyme for a tomato tart; in fall I'd tear sage leaves for butternut squash risotto; and in the winter I'd cut rosemary for a vegetable potpie.
Some people think of fresh herbs as belonging to the realm of elaborate cooking, an extra step they don't have time for, maybe because using fresh herbs to dress up otherwise pedestrian disheséis something professional chefs do. Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café in San Francisco, for example, sizzles fresh sage leaves in olive oil and adds them to a grilled cheese sandwich—a great example of a whole that's so much greater than the sum of its parts. But to me, fresh herbs, especially ones you grow yourself, are one of the easiest, homiest ways to add flavor and character to a dish. And they're more than just garnish: It turns out that most garden herbs contain high concentrations of essential vitamins. Add a cup of parsley to the basil, olive oil, and pine nuts the next time you make pesto, and you'll be adding the amount of vitamin C in an orange, four times the iron in a cup of raw spinach, and more vitamin A than a cup of chopped red bell pepper can boast. Because they're naturally low in sodium but packed with flavor, fresh herbs are a big bonus if you're trying to cook with less salt. In mashed potatoes, for example, you won't miss some of the salt if you add a handful of freshly minced chives to brighten the flavor.
Today, in my own small garden, I tend a variety of herbs that usually includes basil, dill, rosemary, thyme, nasturtium, parsley, and sage. How I use them depends on what inspires me as I glance out my kitchen window while chopping vegetables or boiling pasta, which turns out to be not so different from what the pros do.
"I always just go out and smell the herbs and start thinking about what the smell and taste would work with," says Jerry Traunfeld, author of The Herbfarm Cookbook and The Herbal Kitchen. Traunfeld is the former chef of Seattle's Herbfarm restaurant, which began as an herb nursery and evolved into an award-winning restaurant with the trademark style of incorporating fresh herbs into every dish. He has a way with herbs that mirrors what I intuited from my mother: Adding a single pungent herb can completely change a dish. Think chervil sprinkled over warm gnocchi, or shredded zucchini baked with nothing but crunchy bread crumbs, a little Parmesan, and strips of fresh basil.
Now the chef-owner of Poppy restaurant in Seattle, Traunfeld can regularly be found in the small garden behind it, snipping sprigs of caraway thyme, orange thyme, shiso, lovage, and rose geranium, among others. "That's really the fun," he says. "You get to play around with all of these things you never see in supermarkets, or even farmers' markets."
Traunfeld points out something else my early herb garden experiences confirm: The flavors of plants that come into season at the same time often have an affinity for one another—tomatoes and basil, for instance, or stone fruits and anise hyssop, which Traunfeld uses in summer desserts with peaches or apricots. And for the more esoteric herb growers among us, he adds, "Cinnamon basil turns out to be the perfect herb for blueberries!"
Though today most of us think of herbs primarily as ingredients that brighten up our food, this hasn't always been the case. "These are magical plants in human history," says Michael Castleman, author of The New Healing Herbs. "Our modern culture has stripped the meaning from culinary herbs and relegated them to the kitchen, but in the ancient world they had uses that extended far beyond that." For millennia, says Castleman, herbs such as rosemary, bay laurel, and dill were used as perfumes, preservatives, and components of religious ceremonies and rituals. The aromatic plants were valued not only for their flavor and nutritional benefit, but also for their antimicrobial and medicinal properties. "The ancients viewed herbs somewhat the way we view iPhones—as little things that can do so much," says Castleman. "They were used for so many purposes that they were considered gifts from the gods."
Responsible for all of these powers are the plants' essential oils, volatile compounds that give the herbs their flavor and aroma as well as their medicinal properties. Drying, cooking, and even refrigerating herbs lessens the potency of these oils, which is a good reason to use fresh (and preferably just-picked) herbs. "A few herbs do have specific culinary uses when dried, like dried oregano, which is used in Italian and Greek cooking for its particular flavor," says Traunfeld, who also uses dried lavender in desserts like pound cake and butter cookies. "But otherwise, it's just not worth using dried herbs."
Your Roots are Showing
If you don't have room for an outdoor herb garden, you can still enjoy the pleasures of cooking with fresh herbs. With the right attention to light and humidity, indoor herb gardens can thrive. You might even be able to harvest herbs in the wild spaces of your community if you know where to look. And through the act of observing what's around you and tuning in to your place in nature, you might come to think of herb gardening and harvesting as a practice in awareness. "Being aware of our environment and what nourishing things are all around us is a wonderful experience," says Kelly Larson, a permaculture advocate and the director of the Center for the Study of Yoga and Health.
While living outside Boulder, Colorado, Larson was introduced to "wildcrafting," the practice of foraging for herbs and other foods growing in the wild. "I would go walking in the hills and gather my own herbs—sage, mullein, and rosehips—and then figure out how to use them in cooking and teas," she says. "I felt like there was a sacred exchange happening." Now living in Boston, Larson says that growing herbs inside is another opportunity to grow your awareness. She uses potting soil that drains well, and chooses plants that are suited to life indoors, like basil, chives, and oregano.
For me, the sacred exchange takes place as I cook with the herbs I've grown and tended. The marjoram bush that last spring was just a seedling now inspires a favorite summer meal: risotto with freshly shelled peas, marjoram, and Asiago cheese. If I'm quick, I can dart outside and snip the marjoram while the rice cooks to just the right consistency. The risotto rests as I coarsely chop the leaves just before stirring them in. Eating on my patio, I taste the sweet marjoram that was growing in my garden just minutes ago. It's the flavor that transforms the dish.
Erin Geary is a writer, gardener, and mother living in Marin County, California.