No grocery store can compete with the unparalleled flavor of fresh-picked herbs. And almost every culinary herb has healthful benefits, so in addition to improving palatability, they’ll also aid in digestion and overall wellness!
Most of us reach for familiar herbs when putting together a meal – maybe, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – but why not expand your culinary horizons? Even in the drizzly Maritime Northwest, our gardens can serve as global spice racks. Not only can these spices be just right for that occasional Southeast Asian or Cuban dish, but they can be incorporated into everyday cooking for a livelier and more diverse taste experience. The following herbs are just a few examples:
Shiso is a plant from the Mint family (Lamiaceae) that is native to much of East Asia, and is used popularly in Japan and Korea. The plant grows vigorously and appreciates full sun and slightly acidic soil. In our climate it is an annual, growing 3’x 2’. If allowed to flower, it may reseed. It can be harvested like basil, by cutting stems just above a leaf node. This will encourage the plant to bush outward and create more stems. There are green- and purple-leaved varieties available. Its leaves are rich in calcium and iron, and have a unique vegetal flavor reminiscent of anise, mint, cumin, and spicy cinnamon.
The leaves are typically used fresh, but can also be dried in a shady spot with good ventilation. The purple-leaved shiso is used to flavor and color umeboshi, pickled plums, and is also found in the resulting condiment, ume plum vinegar. The leaves can be wrapped around sushi or cooked meats. Try a chiffonade of the leaves in a soup or stir fry! They are also a great addition to any simple kimchi, or pickled on their own. There are many interesting recipes available online. Its attractive stems and leaves are also useful in floral arrangements.
Tarragon: Artemisia dracunculus, or French tarragon, belongs to the Sunflower family (Asteraceae) and native to Europe and Central Asia. As the name suggests, it is also a member of the genus Artemisia, which humans have long valued as a source of many medicinal, culinary, and ornamental species. It is propagated by cuttings or divisions because its flowers are usually sterile. Tarragon grows best in well-draining soils rich in organic material. It likes sunny conditions but can tolerate some shade as long as the soil isn’t damp and heavy. It is a perennial, and will reach a size of 2’x 2’. You can harvest the fresh leaves a few at a time, or cut stems and hang them in a shady place to dry.
The leaves are the part used, and have a delicious, delicate licorice flavor. Their flavor complements many soups, stews, sauces and vinegars. It is also excellent with fish, meats, and especially eggs. It is the primary flavoring in sauce béarnaise, and is also a prominent ingredient in Georgian cooking – so popular, in fact, that they’ve got a tarragon-flavored soda!
Whether you’re shopping at the nursery or the grocery store, be sure to buy French tarragon – if “French” is not specified, it is likely to be A. dracunculoides, which has similar appetite- and digestion-stimulating properties, but lacks A. dracunculus’ sweet and delicate flavor.
Tulbaghia violacea, or society garlic, is a charming little bloomer from the Onion family (Alliaceae). It grows 1-2’ tall, and up to a foot wide in perennial clumps that are easily divided. The purple-pink flower clusters hover above the silvery gray-green foliage. It thrives with good sun exposure and well-drained soil, and is hardy to Zone 7. With little effort from the gardener, society garlic will bloom from late spring through summer!
The flavors and aromas of Tulbaghia are similar to garlic, but not so pungent. Its name refers to the fact that you could still have a polite conversation with a stranger after eating it. The leaves can be chopped and used like chives, fresh or cooked. The flowers are edible too, and make a great garnish for spring salads.
This plant is just as comfortable in a bulb/perennial border as it is in the herb garden. It’s cold hardy, deer repellent, drought resistant, and blooms beautifully for many months. Plant Tulbaghia for your kitchen, and you just might find a new favorite ornamental!
Persecaria odoratum, or Vietnamese coriander, is a member of the Buckwheat (Polygonaceae) family native to SE Asia. In its tropical home, it is a forest floor perennial, but here, it’s a tender annual that likes some shade, especially in the afternoon. Generous watering and some protection from the sun will keep the leaves delicious and tender. It is a fast- and low-growing sprawler with jointed leaf nodes. The bright green leaves have an attractive purple blotch at their centers.
This delicious herb has flavors of cilantro, citrus, and pepper, with very little pungency. Common in Vietnamese cuisine, it is eaten fresh in salads, spring rolls, soups, fish dishes, and is often found on fresh herb plates. In Laos and Thailand, it’s eaten with raw larb. Laksa soup, a Singapore staple, is topped with handfuls of freshly chopped Persecaria. It relieves indigestion and bloating, and is rumored to repress sexual urges.
With some shade and water, this herb will quickly produce an abundance of tasty leaves. If you enjoy the tastes of SE Asia, this herb is a must. It can be substituted for mint or cilantro in Vietnamese recipes, or add an inspired touch to any stir fry or summer soup.