Herbs – whether fresh or dried – can add a real flavour boost to an otherwise bland dish. But many people simply know them from Sage & Onion stuffing (which is off the menu as a lot of us react to sage), or a ground-up-to-dust pot of supermarket mixed herbs, and don’t know where to start when faced with a real, growing plant.
Most garden centres stock a wide variety of herbs and herb seeds. Plants can be purchased throughout the spring, summer, and early autumn but most seeds benefit from being sown in spring.
When you start out, consider what you want to use herbs for, and pick your varieties accordingly. All a herb is, technically, is a plant that has a use. This means, of course, that not all herbs are edible. And of the edible herbs, not all of them will be safe for someone who is benzoate intolerant.
The way to check whether a particular herb is safe for you is to locate the Latin name (usually on the plant label or seed packet), and then use Google to look up a chemical analysis, and then wade through said document to see if you can find reference to ‘benzoates’. Or, you could just try a bit and see what happens – it depends how bad your flare ups are and if you’re willing to risk it.
I use a combination of these methods and regularly enjoy the following:
For salads –
Salad Burnet, Red Veined Sorrel, Marigold (calendula) flowers, Borage flowers, Beetroot leaves.
For cooked dishes and flavourings –
Bay, Oregano, Marjoram, Thyme, Summer Savory, Winter Savory, Rosemary, Parsley, Celery leaf, basil.
For teas/infusions –
Peppermint, Moroccan Mint.
I am growing several others but since either the plants are too small or an opportunity to use them hasn’t presented itself, I wouldn’t recommend them on here as of yet. The above named plants are all ones I am safe to eat and that I enjoy.
In the summer, herbs can be eaten fresh from the garden but it is wise to dry some for use over the winter, especially if you have particular productive plants. (Obvious warning – don’t dry salad herbs.) To dry herbs, pick small sprigs on a dry day, tie string around the stems, and suspend somewhere dry. This can be outside, e.g. a covered porch, or inside, e.g. an airing cupboard or utility room. Don’t leave them anywhere damp and avoid hanging them in the kitchen as cooking smells will impair their flavour. When they feel thoroughly dry and slightly crisp, crumple the leaves up into a small jar or tub, and discard the stems. If you wish to preserve parsley it is better chopped and frozen in an ice cube tray rather than dried as it tends to lose a lot of flavour in the drying process.
A good home-made replacement for commercial mixed herbs contains equal amounts of oregano, marjoram, basil, thyme, together with a small amount of one of the two savorys. This can be used in my bolognaise or chilli con carne or fajita wrap recipes in place of the recommended herbs, or in any recipe of your own that asks for mixed herbs or Italian herbs to be added. Rosemary imparts a wonderful flavour to stuffing for poultry and chicken or turkey can be cooked with rosemary sprigs. Bay leaves add a depth of flavour to many stews and soups and are a key ingredient if you enjoy bread sauce. And peppermint is fantastic mixed with some vinegar and sugar to make mint sauce to go with lamb.
To make teas or infusions, you can either dry your herbs of choice and store in jars (in which case you will need a teapot and a strainer to use them), or you can pick them fresh and pop straight into a pot or mug. Mints are evergreen in all but the coldest places, but don’t grow much over the winter so you will either need a very large patch or plenty of dried if you plan on using your own all year round. Most mints are easily grown from seed and will spread rapidly if placed in a border, so either grow them in their own dedicated patch away from everything else, or use pots.
If any readers have had bad reactions to the herbs I’ve named above I’d like to hear it – please let me know so that I can advise others. And if anyone enjoys any other herbs and would like to recommend them I’d like to hear about them too.