Previously posted by Celt M. Schira at transitionwhatcom.ning.com on March 29, 2010 at 1:30pm. For recent posts, check out transitionwhatcom.ning.com
In the back of "The Enchanted Broccoli Forest", Mollie Katzen helpfully included fake sheets for major world cuisines. Let's deconstruct one of them, home style French cooking, and see what we can grow in the garden. Classical French cooking has had a resurgence of interest with the popularity of the movie "Julie and Julia". Thankfully, home cooking in France has always been simpler than the elaborate dishes that Julia Child learned at the Cordon Bleu in Paris after World War II. When your average French housewife wants a boned duck in a pastry shell for a special occasion, she buys it from the shop on the corner.
France has numerous and varied regional cuisines, but following Katzen's lead, let's look at the basic herbs: tarragon, rosemary, marjoram, lavender, thyme, savory, fennel, sage, basil, bay. All can be grown in the Fourth Corner with some fussing. The first consideration is that lavender (gets large) and thyme (spreads but stays small) are perennial and long-lived, sage is a short lived perennial that gets woody and is usually replaced every few years, and fennel is an annual that shoots up five feet when it flowers. Fennel will give you lacy leaves in spring to wrap around some nice firm white fish and give a twist to salads, flowers to feed your pollinators, and seeds for fennel biscotti and herbes de Provence. Put the fennel at the back of the herb bed, or grow it with your vegetables. Florence fennel, grown for its bulbous stem, is a vegetable. Slice the tender stems and bake with a little butter and black pepper. Fennel produces prodigious amounts of seed and numerous volunteers will pop up the following year, so put it someplace where you can enjoy the fact that once grown for seed, it's actually hard to get rid of.
Rosemary (also can get large, likes a big pot) and marjoram (stays small and compact) are tender perennials. They need a warm, sheltered spot. They may need to be grown in pots and brought in to an unheated porch for winter. There are two types of savory, perennial winter savory and annual summer savory. Tarragon is a perennial which is so tender that it is difficult to keep alive outside. French tarragon does not set seed and must be grown from a plant division. I had some success planting tarragon where it was sheltered by the rosemary. It died back in the fall and returned in the spring, until we had a particularly cold winter and it didn't come back. It didn't survive overwintering as a house plant, either. You might try planting it in the herb garden in the spring and digging it up in fall to overwinter in a pot on an unheated enclosed porch.
Basil is a tender annual that benefits from fussing. It is easily grown from seed started in May and put out in June, when the soil has warmed up. Slugs love basil seedlings. I suggest growing basil in a large container with a down turned lip (many plastic planting tubs have this) and sprinkling some Sluggo among the seedlings for the first couple of weeks, until they get established. Sluggo is a non-toxic slug reducer made from cornmeal and iron phosphate. The iron phosphate breaks down into fertilizer. Or, look up the saucers of beer routine for slug reduction. You can also go out with a flashlight and pick slugs after dark (a cheap date, eh?)
Bay is a tree which can be kept dwarfed in a container. It is tender and has to come inside as a houseplant for the winter. It has become popular to have a bonsai bay tree as a pet. Or, a year's supply of bay leaves is not expensive and will fit in a envelope the size of your electric bill.
Herbs are traditionally grown in a raised bed with a rock border. The rocks (natural stone, cottage stone, brick) warm up in the daytime and release heat at night. If you can pull this one off, be sure and make your beds small enough to reach into the middle easily. You will have to weed around the perennials. Put the lavender and rosemary toward the north and remember that the four inch starts are going to grow into goodly shrubs. Your sage, winter savory and tarragon go in next, on the south side of the rosemary and lavender, and then the marjoram and thyme. The fennel goes someplace else. Lavender and rosemary grow slowly, so you can grow annual herbs around them the first couple of years: chamomile, garlic, violets, etc. Save some space in your herb bed for summer savory and other annuals.
It is worth obtaining some of Lynden's famed sandy loam soil for your herb bed. Our usual clay muck doesn't drain well enough. Your perennial herb starts can have a little organic fertilizer when they go in. Use potting soil and organic fertilizer for your basil. It's essentially a leaf crop.
Rosemary: Look for Herb Cottage or Tuscan Blue. The prostrate ones are chiefly decorative. ARP is cold hardy as promised, and most uninspiring for culinary use.
Lavender: Hidcote is small and cold hardy. Munstead is larger and more drought tolerant. They are both good in the kitchen garden. There are lavenders primarily grown for essential oil production (Provence, Vera) and multitudes of decorative lavenders (Spanish, French, etc.)
Thyme: The best ones for cooking are English thyme and lemon thyme, which both have round leaves. French thyme has the spikey leaves and is actually better for medicinal purposes, due to its strong flavor. There are also a multitude of fancy and decorative thymes. Most of them are tender in our climate, particularly in pots, and may winter kill.
Basil: Sweet, Genovese, and Toscano (giant) are your best choices for cooking, and if you want to have fun, there are lemon, Greek mini, cinnamon and ornamental basils.
Savory: just the basic choices between the annual and the perennial type (best for drying and saving.)
Tarragon: tarragon is a clone, so whatever you can find is what you get. Don't buy Russian tarragon, it tastes like grass. It is useful if you make your own soap, as a dye and scent.
Sage: Culinary sage is the basic one in the seed rack, easy to grow from seed. The fancy sage varieties sold as starts are medicinal, decorative or dye plants.
Marjoram is a natural hybrid between two varieties of oregano, best bought as a start.
Fish with Fennel Leaves:
Use butter or olive oil to lubricate the bottom of a baking dish.
Collect ferny green fennel shoots from your garden. You want the young, tender ones.
While you are there, collect a few green garlic shoots, green onions and fresh thyme sprigs.
Rinse the green stuff and put the garlic and onion shoots (cut in pieces) and some fennel leaves in the baking dish.
Put some filets of any firm white fish on top the green stuff.
On top the fish, put some pats of butter or a little olive oil.
Pour about a quarter cup of white wine over the fish.
Sprinkle with black pepper and put the thyme and a layer of fennel leaves on top the fish.
Bake at 375 degrees until done, generally 10-20 minutes, longer if you started with frozen fish. Check often and add more wine if it seems like it is drying out.
The top fennel leaves will be quite brown and unappetizing. Discard them and set the fish on fresh fennel leaves for your presentation. Pour the juice over it.
No garlic or onion shoots or fresh thyme? Use sliced onions and garlic from the store and dried thyme.