Grow these — a great green thumb isn’t 
required — to punch up your favorite foods



Basil: The prom queen of herbs is just about everyone’s favorite. It’s most known for pesto and its value to pizza and marinara sauces, but basil pairs with numerous other ingredients. Some of its favorites are bell peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, eggplant, citrus fruits, cheese, garlic, chicken, lamb, seafood and cured meats. Our family favorites are grilled summer veggies tossed with olive oil and basil, caprese salad, simple bruschetta, and tossed into fresh salads.

Chives: I just love the little pom pom purple flowers they produce each spring. Chives pair well with cheese, eggs, seafood, meats, potatoes, cooked vegetables, salads, creamy dishes, sauces, and dips and marry nicely with other herbs. Chives are a favorite garnish on hard boiled eggs, potato salads, tossed into vinaigrettes, salads, and marinades for a subtle onion flavor. Trim a small handful and use scissors to snip them right into your dish for last-minute fresh color and taste.

Sage: Mostly known for its presence in stuffing at Thanksgiving, sage is a wonderful herb to experiment with. It’s best when cooked, and a little goes a long way. Sage pairs nicely with cooked vegetables, beans, richer meats, cheeses, mushrooms, pasta dishes, potatoes, cured meats, shellfish, roasted squash soups and stews. My favorite is simple browned butter with a few sage leaves drizzled over chicken or pasta. Or a mild cheese melted on a slice of crisp bread with prosciutto and sliced browned sage leaves. 

Tarragon: Not as popular as other herbs but one of my favorites. Tarragon has a subtle anise or licorice flavor that is refreshing and unique and blends well with other herbs. It pairs well with citrus foods, cheeses, eggs, fish, chicken, carrots, beets, apples and creamy sauces, and parallels fennel well. I love it finely sprinkled on sautéed vegetables with a little oil or butter and as a garnish with grilled or baked fish. 

Mint: Surprisingly not just used for summer mojitos! Mint is refreshing and cooling. There are many types of mint that are interesting to play with. I prefer to stick to simple spearmint. Mint pairs well with other herbs as well as beans, berries, carrots, light cheeses, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, ginger, lamb, lemon, melons, peas, potatoes, salads, and yogurt. During the summer, I crave a sprig of mint in my sparkling lemon water and toss it in cool grain or pasta salads and with fresh garden vegetables.

Rosemary: I use my rosemary year-round. In the winter, I just shake off the snow and proceed. Rosemary is a strong herb and more flavorful in the summer. It works well with beans, bell peppers, cabbage, egg dishes, eggplant, fish, garlic, lemons, grilled or roasted meats and vegetables and wild game and is a fun addition minced up in savory baked goods like focaccia or breads. Minced up with some fresh garlic, salt and pepper, it makes for a great rub on grilled steak.

Thyme: What would I do without thyme? I also use thyme year-round. Thyme is such a foundational herb I could not imagine not using it. It’s the backbone of my homemade chicken stock. It’s hard to think of what would not work well with thyme, but my favorite combinations include corn, anything with lemons, mushrooms, meats (especially chicken), onion, garlic, all other herbs, potatoes, tomatoes, roasted vegetables, dried fruits, jams, cured meats, and creamy cheeses. But don’t limit yourself — thyme is surprisingly universal. My favorite is fresh sautéed porcini mushrooms with thyme and a little fresh garlic, and grilled pork with thyme and applesauce. 

Parsley: Every home cook should get familiar with parsley and not because it’s commonly used as a sprig garnish. I find parley to be the white zinfandel of herbs. If you can get comfortable using parsley, you will be more likely to become more adventurous with other herbs. It visually brightens any dish and ups the nutritional level. It would be simpler to say what it doesn’t pair well with.

Oregano: I like to use oregano as a back-seat participant. A little can go a long way and I find I prefer to use it subtly. Oregano supports other fresh herbs well and adds its own profile to any dish. It is commonly known for its role in pizza sauce or Italian dishes but should not be overlooked when cooking with other foods. It pairs well with meats, peppers, tomatoes, egg dishes, seafood, garlic, onions, lemons, mushrooms, olives, potatoes, soups, fresh salads and vinaigrettes.

I have been accused of having numerous talents. Sadly, gardening is not one of them. Oh, yes, I have planted many gardens in my life, having ample opportunity, time and space, but then my dedication wore off, weeds conquered and my interest dwindled. And there is a downtown farmers market where you can shop for gorgeous fruit and vegetables in pretty baskets and mingle with friends, all the while not having to tackle weeds to get what you want.

My mom, and back in the day even my dad, had green thumbs. Regrettably I did not inherit this trait. Absent a green thumb, it is difficult to be a successful gardener. I am trying not to take it personally, but even my mint did not come back this year, a clear sign it may have been lacking a desirable home.

Growing up, my parents maintained an enormous garden, roughly 50 feet by 70 feet, that was the envy of all the neighbors in the valley. You name it, they grew it. It was a kid’s playground, minus the zucchini. The neighbor kids and I would play for hours among the corn rows all the while nibbling on crisp lemon cucumbers, popping peas out of the pods and eating warm, ripe cherry tomatoes. 

An old tin salt shaker hung on the wooden garden gate. Dad would pick fresh produce early in the morning, giving his garden breakfast a little dusting of salt before heading on his way to work. My sister and I were paid a penny a piece for smashing the “green lady bugs” that nibbled on the plants. Much of our lives evolved around that garden. 

Looking back, I am envious of their commitment to that garden and to feeding us well. I, too, want that for my kids, but in today’s busy world I have to be honest with myself and focus on what I am good at. 

What I do know, aside from me killing mint (who can kill mint?), is that I can and do grow most common herbs successfully each year. If I can do it, anybody can. My motivation is partly budget-related and due to convenience. I use an abundance of herbs in my cooking and cringe each time I have to buy them at the market. For less than $4 you can purchase herbs at the nursery and, with little maintenance, keep them happy and healthy for years to come. (Excluding my grumpy mint.)

For the past six years or so I have successfully maintained a beautiful herb garden in a long brick planter directly outside my kitchen window. The herbs are within reach and I can happily see them as I am cooking in the kitchen. Usually mint, rosemary, oregano, tarragon, thyme, sage, chives and occasionally the parsley come back successfully year after year.

I trim them (mostly by using them), water them every few days when I remember or when Mom comes over, pick out the occasional elm tree sprout (ugh!) and that’s about it. In spring, I plant annuals like basil in between the perennials and, if I remember, mix in some new soil. It’s minimal effort with huge payoffs. Whenever I cook a meal, I look out the window and wonder what herb(s) will not only make my final dish look appealing but taste better. 

We eat with our eyes first, and one of the ways to brighten up any dish visually and nutritionally is by incorporating fresh herbs. When they are within reach, using fresh grown herbs on a regular basis is a snap.

Suzanne Hanzl is a personal chef, culinary instructor and owner of Tourné Cooking School, Email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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