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Fresh herbs offer the wow factor

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If you do not already plant herbs, you may enjoy trying some in a container or in a garden close to your kitchen door. The difference between fresh herbs and dried store bought herbs is unbelievable. You can grow several herbs in small container gardens or mix them with your flowers near your house. It is key to have them close to your kitchen door, so you can use them for the food and drink you prepare. They grow quickly and seem to thrive on being clipped daily. Once you try fresh herbs, it will be very hard to go back to the dried, store-bought variety.

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Experiment with fresh herbs by adding them to vegetables, salads, beverages, meat, fish and poultry. Try them in pasta, dumplings, bread dough, or mash them up and add them to cream cheese, sour cream, yogurt and butter. They can be used in jams and jellies, or cooked in dishes such as soup, stew and sauces.

Herbs and spices are two different things. Herbs have fragrant leaves and may be annual or perennial. They do not have woody stems. When you use herbs you are usually cutting off the leaves, soft stems or blossoms. Spices are pungent or aromatic seasonings obtained from bark, fruit, seeds or stems of various plants and trees. Spices were prized long before recorded history. Though they have always been used to flavor food and drink, they have also been used in ceremonies to crown emperors, make medicines and perfumes, and in religious and burial ceremonies for the wealthy.

Choose herbs which you and your family like, because it is important that herbs are trimmed often. The best flavor is in the young leaves. When a plant begins to bloom, some herbs' leaves begin to lose some of their flavor. Fresh herbs add new and delicate flavors to foods, and are a good way to reduce or replace the amount of salt you use. You may like to try some of the following herbs:

Arugula which has very spicy leaves like lettuce and is excellent in salads.

Basil comes in light green and dark purple leaves, and is wonderful in meats, soups and sauces. It is a main ingredient in pesto. If used in pesto, it should be blanched to keep its bright green color.

Cilantro is mainly associated with Mexican cooking. It is the leaf of the coriander plant and it's pungent, earthy flavor is quite different from the aromatic, citrus flavor of its ground seed. They can not be substituted for one another. When cilantro goes to seed, let it dry in the garden and harvest the seeds to grind into coriander.

Chives give a mild onion flavor and complement almost any dish. Chives, along with chervil, parsley and tarragon make up the classic French "fine herbs." Chives lose flavor when dried.

Dill isn't just for pickles. Both the seeds and the feathery leaves of this herb are used with vegetable, especially carrots and beans, eggs, cheese, salads, soups, meat, fish (especially salmon) and fowl.

Lavender comes in many varieties and their blooms can be dried and used in tea, ice cream, syrup, cookies and cakes and often in potpourri and sachets.

Marjoram and oregano can be used interchangeably. Sweet marjoram is an annual often used with thyme and is sweet and spicy. Marjoram is usually used with beef, game and poultry.

Mint is a spreading plant with dark green leaves on reddish stems. Best cut just as flowering begins. Mint makes excellent tea, especially the variety known as the chocolate mint plant.

Oregano is a sprawling plant with leaves much coarser than sweet marjoram. Another plant with an oregano flavor is Spanish thyme. Oregano is excellent on meats and in tomato sauces.

Parsley comes in ruffle leaf or flat leaf variety. The flat leaf variety has the stronger flavor of the two varieties. Parsley is one of the most popular and well known herbs.

Sage has a strong, musty flavor and is traditionally used in dressing for poultry. It has an affinity for fatty food such as sausages, pork, and cheese.

Thyme is one of the most aromatic herbs and grows well along side lavender. It is good in stuffing for turkey rather than sage. It also enhances soups, stews and many vegetables. The best time to dry thyme is just before it blooms. The taste and aroma of thyme is much more penetrating when dried.

If you question if you should choose a herb for your garden, go to a greenhouse or gardening center, take off a leaf and taste it. Also look up recipes for the herbs and try they in several different ways. You do not have to like all herbs, and your family will also have opinions. But fresh herbs can add a whole new dimension to your foods and also help to reduce the amount of salt you use.

Kyle Schulz is a Wadena County Master Gardener from Sebeka, and the regular gardening columnist for the Wadena Pioneer Journal.

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