One sunny afternoon, Karen Langan and I sat around chatting like schoolgirls. For fun, I asked her to pretend she was a finalist in a beauty pageant, and then I hit her with the question that would catapult her to the crown or plummet her into obscurity and car-show appearances: “If you could only grow six herbs in your garden, which ones would you choose, and why?”
She could have just played it safe by answering, “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” and then mentioned something about world peace. But she didn’t.
That’s because Karen owns Mulberry Creek Herb Farm in Huron with her husband, Mark. They grow more than 500 varieties of herbs on less than an acre of fertile, certified organic soil.
In pursuit of the imaginary — but no less coveted — title, Karen announced her choices. Emphasizing character over more superficial qualities, she went for herbs with “big flavor personalities that are more than just pretty to look at.”
I’d call all of them winners, with something to please every cook. Better yet, each can stand up to our local weather, thrive in a range of soils and grow in your own summer garden.
1 Genovese Basil
Common? Perhaps, but with more than 150 varieties of basil out there, this one is like a sensible pair of sequined shoes. “It’s beautiful, versatile and the sweetest-tasting basil,” says Langan. It’s the best choice for pestos, bruschettas and fresh tomato sauces.
2 English Lavender
The English version has a nice, clean taste that’s easy on the palate, unlike French varieties, which are used for perfumes. Steeped in vinegar, Langan uses it to create vinaigrette dressings. She also likes its naturally sweet flavor in cakes and cookies, roasted vegetables, or combined with olive oil, white wine and mixed herbs for a lamb marinade.
3 Italian Oregano
“Gourmets love its full flavor,” observes Langan. “It’s pungent like Greek oregano but balanced by a mild marjoram flavor, which keeps it from tasting too harsh.” It’s one of the few herbs that can taste sweet and savory at the same time and hits its comfort zone in egg dishes and soups.
4 Provençal Thyme
Rich and intensely flavored, this is one of Lanagan’s “all-thyme” favorites. Its well-rounded, pleasing flavor works in most foods, especially Italian and French cuisine, vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, teas and sweets. Once planted in the garden, expect to see a return appearance every season.
5 African Lemon Savory
A little finicky, preferring warm, not hot, weather, Langan finds it worth the extra attention. She strips the leaves to add a strong lemon note to salads and grilled chicken and combines it liberally with fresh dill to season fish.
6 Mable Grey, Scented Geranium
A tender gal, its fresh leaves taste like heavenly lemon meringue. It can be baked into sweets or used to flavor summer beverages. Langan admits to being a lazy prep cook so she appreciates that the big, luscious leaves are easy to harvest.
Mable Grey Refresher
Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 cups packed Mable Grey Scented Geranium leaves
2/3 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice (about 6 lemons)
1 cup sugar
3 cups water
1 cup sparkling mineral water, chilled
Gently crush the stems of the herbs to release their flavor. Place in a quart pitcher. Add lemon juice, water and sugar and refrigerate overnight. Strain, add mineral water and serve with a slice of lemon or fresh herbal sprig.
African Lemon Savory Salsa
Makes about 2 1/2 cups
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
4 ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 small red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, finely minced
Juice of 1 lime
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped
African Lemon Savory
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper,
Combine all the ingredients and chill overnight. Serve with tortilla chips or use as a topping on grilled fish, snow crab claws and chicken.
Roasted Vegetables with Lavender
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 teaspoons fresh English Lavender
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes, quartered
1 pound carrots, cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 pound small white onions, peeled
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 small zucchini, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a small bowl, combine the lavender, salt and pepper. In a large bowl, toss the remaining ingredients with the olive oil and half of the lavender mixture. Spread on a shallow baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining lavender mixture and roast 10 additional minutes or until vegetables are soft.