May is here with sunshine and tulips and warm temperatures, and I am left wondering how I can be so overjoyed with its arrival and at the same time so overcome with a feeling of dread.
My annual dose of garden anxiety has taken hold.
What to plant, where to plant it and most importantly, whether to plant it at all, are the questions I face every year about this time.
I recently had dinner with a friend who is a retired teacher. Her garden has expanded into what I’m sure would be classified by the U.S. Census Bureau as a small farm.
She was going on and on about what crops she already has in the ground and her joy was so obvious, but all I could say to contribute to the conversation was: “My sage from last year came back.”
Sometimes I wonder whether I too should wait until retirement before attempting to garden. I’m never satisfied with my garden and I have only myself to blame.
One summer, after trying to grow only organic heirloom varieties, I failed so horribly I swore that from then on I would only plant sturdy hybrids fed with double doses of Miracle Gro. Bugs and weeds take their toll and despite my best intentions, by August work and life typically take priority over the tomato plants.
But then, just as hopelessness was about to set in, the garden fairies conducted one of their magical interventions.
I was presented with a basket of herb plants as a gift — parsley, dill, rosemary, basil and oregano. My garden worries soon melted away and I realized, like I always do, that herbs are the perfect plants for gardeners like me.
Since they are essentially weeds, they are hardy and sturdy and can thrive despite my neglect.
But there’s more to it than that. Plenty of good eating will come from an herb garden.
This point was driven home recently as I sat in my kitchen performing the oh-so-glamorous task of waiting for my oven cleaner to work its magic. I clicked on the television and watched the popular food blogger Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, create an herb-filled ranch salad dressing that had my mouth watering.
I made a mental note to make the dressing this summer when my gift herbs were in the ground flourishing.
I can buy tomatoes, zucchini and sweet corn at farmers markets, and cook up the flavors of summer that come from a carefree herb garden.
Two new cookbooks only helped to drive home that point. “Cooking with Herbs” by Lynn Alley ($16.99, hardcover, Andrews McMeel), and “Flavored Butters” by Lucy Vaserfirer ($12.95, hardcover, Harvard Common Press) both have recipes that show just how herbs can bring a world of fresh flavors to our cooking and turn something as ordinary as a stick of butter or block of cream cheese into something spectacular.
TARRAGON BUTTER/CHERVIL BUTTER
8 tbsp. (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 tbsp. minced fresh tarragon or 2 tbsp. minced fresh chervil
¼ tsp. kosher salt, or to taste
Blend together the butter, tarragon or chervil and salt in a medium-size bowl. Form into a log and refrigerate until firm before slicing and serving.
Makes 8 servings.
Note: Tarragon has an assertive anise-like flavor. Chervil will give the butter a more subtle flavor.
—Adapted from Flavored Butters, Lucy Vaserfirer
2 (8 oz.) packages cream cheese, or a combination of cream cheese and goat cheese
2 cloves garlic, pressed, or more as desired
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp. chopped fresh chives
2 tbsp. coarsely chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp. chopped fresh mixed herbs, such as tarragon, basil, chervil or oregano
Place the cream cheese and garlic in the work bowl of a food processor and blend well. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and blend.
Add the herbs and pulse until the herbs reach your desired consistency.
Pack the cheese into a crock or other serving container, cover, and refrigerate for several hours until the flavors have blended.
Makes about 1 cup.
Note: Use on twice-baked potatoes, as a spread on crackers, or even as a spread in sandwiches.
—Adapted from “Cooking with Herbs,” Lynn Alley
HERBY RANCH DRESSING
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
¼ cup Italian flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
2 tbsp. chopped fresh chives
2 tbsp. chopped fresh oregano
3 tsp. white vinegar
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
Salt and ground pepper
Combine the mayonnaise, buttermilk, sour cream, basil, parsley, chives, oregano, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper to taste in a bowl. Chill for a couple of hours before serving.
Makes about 2 cups, approximately 8 servings.
—Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, www.foodnetwork.com.
Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @akronfoodie or visit my blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/lisa.
©2013 Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): HERBS