Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs: 26 Herbs Everyone Should Grow and Enjoy

The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs: 26 Herbs Everyone Should Grow and Enjoy
Publisher: Storey Publishing (2010)
Borage (p. 29) Blossoms
My family is fortunate enough to have a large and varied backyard garden providing us with months of organic produce every year. From heirloom tomatoes, carrots and beets to my stepdad's favourite hot peppers and Romano beans, we run the growing gamut as it were - we even have a vineyard, strawberry patches, and both fig and Meyer lemon trees! When it comes to appreciating this bounty, we try to keep things as simple as possible, but after a while we fall into a rut with our flavour pairings. Sure, salt and freshly ground black pepper on still-warm tomatoes is fantastic, and hot peppers are wonderful on sandwiches and pizza, but fresh herbs have the ability to elevate even the most pedestrian, store bought items to new heights. While we often buy our herbs at the grocery store, they are easy and certainly more economical to grow at home - whether in the garden or in planters on the windowsill. What to choose for your kitchen herb garden, how to grow it and - most importantly - how to use it are the tenets of Charles WG Smith's book The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs: 26 Herbs Everyone Should Grow and Enjoy.

Oregano (p. 107)

Smith's book is small and succinct in that it only contains 26 of the hundreds of culinary herbs available. However, this 143-page manual contains everything a gardener could need to know about those herbs, and the ones chosen for inclusion in Edible Herbs really are some of the most quintessential in classical European and North American cooking. The beautifully photographed images in this book lend assurance to the reader that they are buying the correct item once at the nursery, and I have brought this guide with me on occasion so that the staff could help me find a particular plant. This was incredibly helpful, especially in the case of herbs like calendula (p. 36), borage (p. 29), bee balm (p. 26) and the hyssops (pgs. 11, 80), since these plants are more often grown for their gorgeous blossoms than for their culinary applications. Some readers may even find that a flavour goldmine is sitting in their own backyards!

Catnip (p. 46) Leaves and Blossoms
Once the herbs for this season (at least) are chosen, Smith really begins his strongest work. If the reader is unsure about growing anything at all (I know several "black thumbs" out there), the introduction to Edible Herbs addresses the best places to plant in general, "companion" herbs and vegetables, preventing the common "herb sprawl" (with a clever little piece titled Beware the Garden Huns (p.3)) and general care and tending. There is even a handy "yield guide" (p. 6) to prevent the gung-ho gardener having to give away (or worse, throw out) armfuls of mint or lemon balm halfway through the season. I only wish I had read this book sooner, since with only two catnip plants I've been giving away tons of it, not to mention "doping up" our three cats almost every day! Each herb in the book is given it's own chapter, which is divided into "garden" and "kitchen" sections. The "In the Garden" sector covers seeding, final planting and harvesting techniques, as well as providing a simple-to-read chart of ideal soil and  light for that particular plant, as well as whether it is considered an annual or perennial.
Dried Calendula (p. 36) Petals

Once the bounty of herbs is harvested, the "In the Kitchen" component of each of Edible Herbs' chapters comes through, providing ideas as to just what to do with each part of the plant that is considered edible, flavour pairings to try, and general tips on usage. These tips are along the lines of when to add an herb to a dish for best flavour (beginning, midway through or as a finishing touch), if the herbs should be cooked with the other ingredients or only used raw, and whether it's best to choose a fresh or dried version in a recipe. After reading that calendula (p. 36) was considered a saffron substitute, I immediately bought three plants for my own herb garden with grand plans for paella. Unfortunately, the combination of unseasonably warm weather and our hungry backyard wildlife meant I only managed two harvests before they all perished or were eaten, but what I could save I dried, now I can't wait for my first batch of rice pilaf with "Canadian saffron".

Drying Calendula (p.36)

The thing I find confusing with this book is that the recipes and culinary guides are not always cohesive with the herb chapter they appear in. For instance, Making Herbal Vinegars (p.101) is nestled between Marjoram and Mint, yet neither of the two recipes offered contain either of those herbs. Also, while I don't expect complete innovation in terms of recipe suggestions, I did hope for something slightly more than a pizza (p. 110) for oregano and pickles for dill (p. 65). That said, the recipes themselves are good, solid formulae, and once our vegetables catch up I'm looking forward to enjoying the spicy-sweet Red Onion, Mango and Chile Salsa (p. 60) and bowls of the hearty Beta Soup (p. 25) well into the fall and winter.

A "Lemon" Variety of Thyme (p. 137)
For so few herbs included in the pages of Edible Herbs, the level of inspiration available to the reader is astounding. From budding gardeners to old pros in the dirt, kitchen newbies to seasoned gourmands, one of the twenty-six is likely to find a niche in your household. Some herbs may be completely foreign to your eye and palate, while others will be old favourites, but Charles W.G. Smith brings them all together in an accessible, approachable guidebook. With The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs: 26 Herbs Everyone Should Grow and Enjoy, there is no excuse for not going green in your diet and your yard.  

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