There’s a feeling you get when you step out your back door and snip some basil for a fresh Caprese salad. It feels wholesome and earthy. It feels like slowing down. Need onions for dinner? Amble to the herb garden for some chives. Ready for your afternoon tea? Grab a mint leaf from out back.
The only question is which herbs to plant. We turned to Karen Langan, who owns Mulberry Creek Herb Farm in Huron, Ohio, with her husband, Mark. Langan grew up in Ohio but headed west for adventure in her 20s. She took a job at a garden center in Seattle and was inspired by the assortment of about 100 herbs.
Langan moved back home and, in 1994, opened Mulberry Creek. She and Mark now grow more than 350 herbs and offer one of the best selections in the region.
We asked Langan to design a garden for us featuring the 12 most useful herbs for cooking. Grab your shovels — and your cutting boards — because it’s going to be a flavorful summer.
1. Bay Leaf
A good simmering herb. Throw a whole leaf in soups, stews or spaghetti sauces (remove before serving). It’s also good for keeping meal moths out of your pantry. A tender perennial, bay leaf can be brought inside for the winter.
“Think of it as a grilling herb,” says Langan. “Say you have fish, chicken or steak. Grill them a little bit on each side to seal in the juices, grab a handful of thyme, put it on the grill, and flip the meat on top of it.” Thyme can also used to break up a cough. Langan heats water on the stove, throws in a handful of dried thyme, strains the “tea” and puts it in a bath. A hardy perennial, thyme returns every year.
3. Bronze Fennel
“It’s just gorgeous,” Langan says. It’s also good for grilling with fish. Make a foil pocket for the fish, and put “a whole bunch of the fennel” in it. The herb also goes well with potato salad, green beans and sweet corn. Langan suggests melting a stick of butter; adding three tablespoons of chopped fennel, garlic and salt; and then allowing the mixture to solidify. Fennel is a hardy perennial.
Genovese basil is an annual while pesto perpetuo basil is a tender perennial that can be brought indoors for the winter. Genovese is the classic basil used for Caprese salads and other favorite Italian dishes. Pesto perpetuo — no surprise — makes a great pesto. Langan likes to freeze batches of it in an ice cube tray to use over the winter.
Gorizia rosemary has thick stems that, once the leaves are removed, can be used as flavor-adding shish kabob skewers. The best pairing for rosemary, though, is potatoes. Throw whole fresh sprigs on top of roasting potatoes, or chop the leaves and sprinkle on top.
“I love fresh dill,” says Langan. It’s a mild herb that should be used fresh or added in the last five minutes of cooking. Use it in coleslaw, in salad dressings or with tomatoes. An annual that prefers cooler temperatures, dill begins to fade after June. To enjoy it all summer, stagger seed planting so “when the first guys peter out, you have more,” says Langan.
“My favorite way to do sage is to make alternative bacon bits,” says Langan. She heats olive oil, throws in sage leaves and sizzles them for 30 to 60 seconds. She then drains them on a paper towel and crumbles them up. “They’re wonderful over baked potatoes, turkey or squash,” she says.
An annual, cilantro is another herb to use fresh or add late in the cooking process. It’s good with salad, peas, cabbage and pretty much all greens. Langan also likes it on top of crabs, shrimp or scallops.
Mint can take over a garden pretty quickly if it’s not grown in pots. Kentucky colonel spearmint is the classic choice for mint juleps. Either type of mint can be picked, washed off and put in coffee or hot chocolate for a bit of flavor. Mint also makes a nice garnish for many desserts.
“Anything you would use an onion for, you can use an onion chive for,” Langan says. Be sure to snip the plant with sharp scissors, though; it bruises easily. A hardy perennial, your chives will return for years.
11. Sweet Marjoram
An annual, marjoram is a milder alternative to oregano. Langan uses hers on pizza, with any kind of beans, with squash or in deviled eggs. Marjoram should be added later in the cooking process.
“It’s for everything,” Langan says. “We call it the harmonizer. It kind of absorbs other flavors and makes them get along.” It’s great for tabbouleh, in salads and with greens.
Photo credit: Gayle Isabelle Ford
1. Bay leaf (potted)
2. Thyme, provencal, golden lemon, creeping lemon
3. Bronze fennel
4. Basil, Genovese
Basil, peso perpetuo
5. Rosemary, gorizia
6. Dill, fernleaf
7. Sage, berggarten
8. Cilantro (will be gone by summer)
9. Mints, Kentucky colonel spear, chocolate peppermint (potted)
10. Chives, garlic
11. Sweet marjoram
12. Parsley, krausa and Italian flat leaf