Some gardens are huge, like the size of a small farm. Some are postage stamp size. Most are somewhere in between. My little piece of culinary heaven happens to be just outside our bed and breakfast kitchen growing in two whiskey barrels each surrounded by a very small rectangle of soil. This is the area that makes up my herb garden here in Waynesville, NC and it’s my favorite place to play when it comes to ingredients for our dinner dishes as well as for many of our savory breakfasts. I am an herb nut, just ask my four grandchildren (who may know the difference between Italian and flat parsley, or oregano and marjoram if they were listening closely to their Opa!). To me there is nothing better than picking a bunch of chives, thyme, parsley, marjoram and basil to use in one of our breakfasts for our guests, or in one of our dinners for ourselves. One of Jen’s favorites is a penne pasta concoction I developed over many years of testing different herbal combinations (I’m still testing! It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it!). So, each dish is a little different from the one before. It’s basically julienned yellow onions and bell peppers sautéed in olive oil, with diced tomatoes, kalamata olives (if I have them),salt and pepper, and … wait for it, the herbal blend du jour (i.e., whatever comes in from my herb garden that evening). It’s therapeutic for me to chop the parsley, pull the tiny leaves off the thyme and marjoram stems, trim a handful of chives with a kitchen scissors a few millimeters at a time, and fold and cut the basil until I have a pile of green aromatic herbs on top of my onions, peppers and tomatoes! Can you smell it! I can!! They get mixed into the sautéed veggies with the penne pasta (al dente) with a generous grind of asaigo or parmesan on top. Yummy!
In cooler weather I make several soups and stews which I freeze (if they don’t all get eaten first). Again, I use as many herbs in these dishes as possible. In winter my options are more limited, but I’ve been amazed at how many of my herbs can withstand hard freezes and come back for more here in Western North Carolina. It may be due to the usually balmy days (even in January and February) we enjoy even after a harsh sub-freezing night which allows the herbs to recover a bit. Simon and Garfunkel would be happy to know they include parsley, sage rosemary and thyme! Even my chives usually survive until about Christmas. As some of you know, I’m a vegetarian, so our favorite stew is a veggie root stew of potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips and a product from fermented wheat called seitan (pronounced like the devil, but not as nasty!). I use the aforementioned herbs in a ‘bouquet garni’ which is just a bundle of these herbs rolled in a swatch of cheese cloth like a cigar and tied together at both ends with kitchen string. I toss this into the pot with the rest of the veggies, the seitan cut into pieces that resemble meat chunks, and simmer them in a broth of veggie bullion, diced tomatoes, and onions and garlic that were first sautéed in olive oil along with the seitan covered in flour, salt and pepper. My mother swore this was beef stew because the seitan fooled her into thinking it was beef chunks. She even thought she saw gristle! This stew is good with a loaf of pumpernickel bread which I also make (if I’m not too lazy) in our 15 year old bread maker (thank you sister, Alice!). Alice is also my seitan supplier since I like a certain brand of seitan (you can actually make it yourself, but…) called Ray’s Seitan which is available in PA, but not here. Wow! I almost wish it were winter so I could whip up a batch of stew right now. But, then we’d miss the beautiful views of fall of our Blue Ridge Parkway yet to come before the cold weather sets in.
Finally, as I mentioned I use lots of fresh herbs in our savory breakfasts. They include frittatas, stratas, and soufflé’s among other entrees. I also whip up herb omelets for folks who have dietary restrictions when we are serving a sweet breakfast they can’t have such as French toast or German apple pancakes. I also just re-started my indoor winter ‘gro light’ garden, a Christmas present from Jen's mom (Thanks, Jeannine!), so I can have at least some of my favorite herbs year round. This includes mint for Jen to use as garnish on some of our breakfast plates. All in all I wouldn’t know what to do if I woke up someday without my herb garden. It just wouldn’t be the same cooking without fresh herbs. I guess I would just have to adjust to using dried herbs. Nothing wrong with that…. I guess!