Home cooks are getting fresh.
Perishable and often perceived as pricey, fresh herbs were once the province of cooks lucky enough to have a sunny patch for a kitchen garden. And it wasn't long ago that only the basic standards — parsley and perhaps cilantro and basil — could be found under the grocery store sprinklers.
But with an increasing focus on whole foods comes a revival in fresh-herb interest among the buying public. And the rules of supply and demand increasingly ensure that a variety of herbs is accessible and affordable, even if you have nary an inch of dirt to call your own.
Adding a whole new realm of flavors, fresh herbs like thyme or rosemary can
add depth to ordinary roasts. Basil leaves can help salads and pastas pop. A
sprig of lavender added to a pitcher of lemonade can enliven it with a
flash of herbaceous flavor.
Healthier Eating Habits Drive Growth
“(Herbs offer) quick and easy ways to flavor foods without adding fats and salts,” says Sarah Yoder, director of marketing for Shenandoah Growers, a Virginia-based producer of fresh herbs. Founded in 1989 with a customer base of two, the company currently distributes to more than 5,000 grocery stores throughout the U.S.
The movement toward healthier eating has helped drive the company's growth, Yoder says. So too have chefs on Food Network and glossy food magazines.
“As soon as the thought leaders in the food industry started using fresh herbs, that's when we really started seeing it take off,” she says. “But, I think more recently, the everyday home cook is becoming more educated on the fact that you don't have to be a chef or have gone to culinary school to be able to use herbs.”
The most dramatic growth in the company's sales, says Yoder, took place six years ago when the company decided to address the problem of the perishability of herbs. Using technology new to the U.S., the company grew and shipped living herbs to grocery stores, rooted in small recyclable pots in plastic sleeves.
“The plants are grown to be ready to use for the consumer so, as soon as they take them home, they can start pinching off the leaves and keep the plants in their kitchens,” Yoder says. “That way they have fresh herbs that are alive every day.”
Though the herbs regenerate some, the ultimate selling point is simply the fact that they're living, in contrast to the cut herbs in the produce section. "Those leaves have essentially started to die from the moment they were cut off the plant,” Yoder explained.
When It Comes to Herbs, Fresh Means Flavor
That's why Lynn Alley, author of Cooking with Herbs: Simple Recipes for Fresh Flavor, recommends fresh herbs over dried.
"As you dry herbs, the volatile oils that give them their flavor and aroma evaporate in all but the most sturdy,” she said. “In general, the fresh herbs are going to have a more complex flavor than you will get from the dried herbs.”
Oregano is one herb sturdy enough to
survive the drying process without losing all of its flavor, says Alley.
But dried basil, she says, isn't worth the money or the effort. “It's
nearly a shadow of what it can be when it's dried."
But what if your grocer stocks only dried herbs? Alley thinks growing your own is easier than many imagine.
“Most of our culinary herbs are Mediterranean in origin," she says. "They're not really demanding of water and they tend to be pretty easy to grow.”
And, even if you don't have lots of land, cultivating herbs is still perfectly possible. Alley lives in a Southern California condo and grows basil next to her dryer vents during the winter (which admittedly isn't terribly cold where she lives).
“But if I didn't have any land, I would be doing this in pots, for sure,” she says. “But there are some things you need to pay attention to if you're going to grow herbs in containers.”
Most notably, it's
important to regularly fertilize potted herbs. “The nutrients get
leached out of a pot really, really quickly,” says Alley. Also, it's
important to note the sun and space requirements of herbs, too. Vigorous
growers will crowd out other plants, while sun-loving herbs will remain
stunted in the shade.
With all of the particulars, why even bother? It's simple, says Alley. People have been plucking herbs for the stew pot for thousands of years.
“That's just the way it was,” she says. “Why would we continue to do that today? Because it's really good.”
Alley's favorite fresh-herb preparation is pesto, which she makes with her own fresh basil.
so easy," she says. "If you have people come over for dinner
unexpectedly, you can pull out the good pasta, which I always have on
hand, boil it up, then go pick a whole bunch of basil. If you have
Parmesan on hand, a little garlic and oil, you've got dinner.”