“One of the pleasantest of the sweet-herbs, and sooner or later to be tried by every gardener.” That’s how Henry Beston sums up summer savory in his classic Herbs and the Earth.
Savory is an under-appreciated herb that doesn’t make many American top ten herb lists. This is your year to change that, as savory has been designated 2015’s Herb of the Year.
Savory stars at Herb Garden Weekend, July 25 & 26, 2015, at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden—it’s our July plant giveaway! (One per family while supplies last.)
While there are 30 savory species, two are especially welcome additions to Chicago’s USDA Zone 5 herb gardens: Satureja hortensis, or summer savory, is grown as an annual, and considered more refined than Satureja montana, the winter savory crucial to the cuisine of Provençal.
Both take their genus name, Satureja, from the half-human/half-immortal satyrs who were said to favor the herbs. And both have a well known affinity for beans, Winter savory is sometimes called the “bean herb”—typically cooked with all kinds of beans, even from a can. It turns out that savory helps humans to digest beans more easily, too.
The stronger of the two herbs, winter savory has been known to world cuisines for at least 2,000 years. Peppery and spicy, it’s strong enough to replace garlic or pepper. A semi-evergreen plant, winter savory is a fine addition to flower/herb beds, and sometimes overwinters here. Gardeners with poor soil will be happy to know that it actually prefers those conditions.
Plant summer savory in a raised bed so it gets the good drainage it needs. Plant two: one for you, and one to go to flower for the bees!
Summer savory wants light, well-fertilized soil. With a taste similar to oregano, it’s great with both meat and bean dishes (think fresh green beans + savory + chunky salt). Sow it from seed, but buy new seed every year (it doesn’t stay viable for long). Harvest regularly, then cut the whole plant and dry it for winter use. Drying lots of herbs? You’ll want summer savory as one of the key ingredients for bouquet garni and herbes de Provence mixes.
Speaking of infusions, “herb mixologist” Kasey Bersett Eaves opened our eyes to the world of herb-infused beverages.
From Garden to Glass
Just about any herb you’d grow in your yard can be used to flavor drinks. Herbs + fresh fruit = a yummy base for all sorts of hot and cold beverages. Grab what’s in season in the yard and experiment. A few fresh ideas:
Here’s the first rule of muddling: Don’t overmuddle. Muddling is the process of gently—repeat, gently—bruising the leaves of herbs. As Kasey said, “If you hear the leaves tear, you’re overmuddling.” The goal is to release the fresh, green taste and aroma of the leaves, not to break or pulverize them (think Cary Grant, not Iron Man).
Here’s the second rule of muddling: always hold your arm at a 90-degree angle, pressing straight down from the elbow through the wrist through the muddler. (What’s a muddler? Read on.) Press down once, release, and rotate the jar a quarter turn. Repeat five more times. Six presses are about right for a single drink—more if you’re making a pitcher’s worth.
Here’s the third rule of muddling: muddlers are very cool. Essentially a press that reaches to the bottom of a glass or pitcher, muddlers can be found at most kitchenware stores, both in hardwood (walnut, maple) and stainless steel versions. Yes, a wooden spoon works, too. Vintage aficionados: look for stainless steel bar sets from the ’50s and ’60s. That big bump at the end of the long swizzle stick is a muddler.
Herbal infusions are a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that idea that’s easy, healthy, and really tasty (hot on the restaurant scene, too). Kasey shared her recipe:
Herbal Water Infusion
Fresh herbs (see list above)
Fresh fruit (any but bananas; see list)
2-quart jar or pitcher
Muddler or wooden spoon
Wash fruit and rinse herbs thoroughly. Place enough herbs inside the jar to cover the bottom. Add about a cup of fruit. (Amounts of both will vary according to taste—feel free to experiment!) Bruise fruit and herb leaves with muddler to release some of the juices and flavor. Do not pulverize! Fill jar with ice and water. Cover and refrigerate for two hours. Strain water into glasses. Refrigerated infusions will keep in the refrigerator up to five days.
Icy & Sweet: Herbal Tea
In summer, iced tea is the beverage du jour. Love sweet tea, but don’t like its sugar? Kasey’s tea recipe uses fresh stevia—an herb that’s 30 times sweeter than sugar—plus other herbs from your garden for a greener version of sweet. Just add ice and a tall glass.
Backyard Herb and Stevia Iced Tea Concentrate
¼ cup stevia leaves
2 cups water
1½ cups fresh herb leaves (mint or lemon verbena taste best, but feel free to experiment!)
For concentrate: Rinse and drain herbs. Add all ingredients above to a small, nonreactive pot and bring to a boil on the stove. Let boil for one minute; remove from heat. Allow mixture to steep and cool six hours or overnight. Strain cooled liquid into a glass jar. Store in the refrigerator up to one week, or freeze for later use.
To use: Mix 1 cup of concentrate to 3 cups water, or to taste.
Simple Syrups Rock
“Simple syrups” are called that for a reason: they’re truly easy to concoct. Added in place of sugar to your favorite lemonade, soda, sweet tea, or cocktail recipe, simple syrup is the secret to a full-flavored summer drink.
Easy Herbal Simple Syrup
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
½ cup herb of your choice (whole leaves or lightly chopped, packed into measuring cup)
Rinse and drain herbs. In a small, nonreactive pot, stir water and sugar together over heat until sugar dissolves, bringing the mixture just to a boil. Add herbs in, stir gently for 30 seconds, then remove from heat. Let the mixture cool (approximately 30 minutes). Strain.
Store the syrup in an airtight container in the refrigerator for use within a week to 10 days, or freeze in ice cube trays for convenient later use.
Simple syrups make memorable cocktails. Add a splash of herbal simple syrup to a champagne flute before topping off with Prosecco or dry white wine for a cheers-worthy toast. Or enjoy your herbs on ice—freeze the syrup in ice cube trays (top off each cube divider with a small herb leaf for garnish before freezing) and use as a sweetener for iced tea or cocktails. Imagine a glass of bourbon that slowly becomes a mint julep because you added minty simple syrup ice cubes!
Interested in dabbling in the cocktail arts yourself? Kasey recommends The Home Distiller’s Handbook as a good starter guide. Find drink enhancers and more at the Garden Shop, including elderflower and rose elixirs, and the mysterious Owl’s Brew tea concentrate—best with bourbons and whiskeys. Cheers!
In case you missed it, the International Herb Association has named tarragon the herb of the year. “What?” you might be thinking. “What about basil?”
Sure, tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) has silvery leaves and an anise-like flavor, but basil is the king of herbs, beloved by all. It’s such a crowd-pleaser that we’re giving away Napoletano Bolloso basil seedlings during Herb Garden Weekend, July 26 and 27, and the rest of the month as well.
Perhaps it’s time to rethink tarragon and the diverse palette of herbs available to modern cooks. The late author and farmer Noël Richardson once wrote, “If we could take only one herb to grow on a desert island, it would be difficult to choose between basil and tarragon.”
How about you? What (culinary) herb would you choose? We put the desert island question to staff at the Chicago Botanic Garden and received colorful, informed, and surprising answers.
“Wilson! I’m sorry!”
Basil, it turns out, not only tastes delicious, but might also help deal with the many stresses of island life. Gabriela Rocha Alvarez, plant labeling technician, notes that basil repels insects, has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and could help her keep calm while she’s waiting to be rescued. She would pick the varieties Ocimum basilicum and O. tenuiflorum. “These types of basil need warmth and full sun, and self-seed.”
Sophia Shaw, president and CEO of the Garden, says, “Hands down, basil.” She uses dried and whole fresh leaf basil, and pesto. “I hope my island also has tomatoes and garlic!”
Survivor: Desert Island
Inspired by the practices of many coastal societies, Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation, would choose dill (Anethum graveolens). Besides going well with all types of fish and seafood, it’s also a good source of vitamins C and A, and the minerals manganese, iron, and calcium, he says, and the monoterpenes and flavonoids—antioxidants and chemoprotectors—help neutralize the carcinogens found in smoke. “I do love smoked fish,” says Tankersley. “Please let there be driftwood available!”
Dill is also known to help soothe upset stomachs and relieve insomnia. “Although the sound of waves on a sandy beach normally puts me to sleep—I might be a bit stressed if marooned. And dill’s volatile oils have antibacterial properties that could come in handy,” says Tankersley, “if I get injured and need to dress a wound.”
The savory herb also wins a vote from Lisa Hilgenberg, horticulturist at the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden, who likes dill for both its flavor and growing habits. “It’s my favorite tasting herb, especially with fish, which I suppose would be a staple of my diet,” she says. “It is a self-sowing annual so I could save seed and grow it again the following year if I hadn’t been rescued.”
It will get stuck in your teeth!
Parsley is the choice of horticulturist Ayse Pogue, who says it reminds her of growing up in Istanbul. “We have many dishes where we mix parsley and feta cheese—pastries, breads, and salads. We also sprinkle it on cold dishes cooked with olive oil and served with parsley and lemon juice.” One such favorite is barbunya.
Pogue appears to have chosen wisely. Parsley is also packed with nutrition—and is used as a natural breath freshener.
I’d Have the Thyme
Versatility—and a pleasing bloom—makes thyme the herb of choice for Celeste Vandermey, supervisor of plant records. “Thyme adds flavor and aroma to any soup or stew. It is easy to grow and creeps along the ground, producing beautiful little spikes of pink or white flowers,” she says.
Mojitos, Mint Juleps, and More
Many refreshing drinks—think iced tea, mojitos, and mint juleps—get some of their cool from mint, the herb of choice of Laura Erickson, coordinator of market sales for our Windy City Harvest Youth Program. “Hopefully, I could bring a hammock and a few good books along, too.”
Herbes de Provence
What about cilantro, chives, rosemary, and sage? What about herbes de Provence, a mixture favored by the French? If you’re interested in learning more about these and other flavorful, nutritious, and potentially beneficial herbs, come to our Herb Garden Weekend, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, July 26 and 27, in the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden.
The Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden is the place to explore small-space gardening.
There, basil is king. (Of course it is—the word basil is rooted in the Greek basilikos, meaning royalty.) The bed is planted with seven very different basil varieties, laid out in a pinwheel design, and all grown from seed. It’s enough to make a gardener’s—or a foodie’s—head spin with plans for dinner…and for your own herb garden. Discover these varieties of Ocimum basilicum:
‘Dwarf Fine Bush’ – The neat round globes that divide the pinwheel pack a big punch in those tiny leaves. This basil is highly aromatic, rich with cinnamon/anise/clove flavors. Although the leaves are too little to pluck for pesto, sprinkle them on hors d’oeuvres, or use them as a garnish on any dish. Really nice for nibbling, too.
‘Crimson King’ – It’s a Genovese-style basil, with big, curvy leaves, colored purple instead of green—the better to stand out in vegetable dishes, layered in a sandwich, or as a revelation with rice.
‘Serata’ – As the name says, this is basil with serrated edges. Big, ruffly, bright green leaves make ‘Serata’ pretty enough for the front of the flower bed. But it’s truly tasty, too, with real basil flavor, so it’s a great choice for pesto.
‘Ararat’ – Showstopping in a pot on a sunny porch or patio, bicolor ‘Ararat’ is green wherever it’s not purple. Its licorice taste immediately challenges your inner foodie: Salads? Tomato dishes? Ice cream?
‘Genovese Compact Improved’ – A relative of the classic Genovese, this is more compact in overall size. With the same big leaves and concentrated, sweet flavor—though more noticeably less anise in taste—this is the perfect basil for pesto.
‘Purple Ruffles’ – The name tells you what you need to know: it’s a beautiful basil, with a more complex cinnamon/spice/mint/anise flavor. Steep it in white wine vinegar for fresh vinaigrettes all summer and fall.
‘Purple Osmin’ – Fruity and sweet, this is one of the darkest of all basils, and delicious in Italian and Thai recipes.
Check out the kitchen garden bed just outside of our demonstration kitchen window.
‘Sweet Thai’ – The distinctive spicy flavor of anise and clove make this the basil for red and green Thai curries and pho. Its purple flowers mix nicely in container or window box plantings.
‘Mrs. Burns’ Lemon’ – Pluck the lemony leaves for iced teas and lemonades, and use them generously when grilling.
That’s nine basil varieties to add to your summer repertoire. Need a kickstarter recipe? Paul Choi, who served as Garden Café executive chef, shares his lemony pesto recipe below.
Five Tips for Harvesting Basil
Use scissors to clip individual basil leaves from the plant rather than tearing them off—much neater!
Harvest basil branches with a clean cut across the stem, then stand them in cool water ‘til you’re ready to use.
Harvest a whole plant by cutting straight across the main stem, leaving at least one leaf node with two shoots—the plant will rebranch from there.
Start a new batch of seed every month from February (indoors) through September (bring plants in if nighttime temperatures dip below 50° Fahrenheit) for a continuous, fresh supply.
Picked too much basil (is that possible)? Chop extra leaves, layer them into ice cube trays, fill with water or olive oil, and freeze. The individual cubes are great for cooking.
8 ounces fresh basil leaves
1-2 lemons, juiced and zested*
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup pine nuts (optional)
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 cup Parmesan, grated
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
*Chef Choi prefers two for a zingier taste.
Place the pine nuts, garlic, and basil in a food processor. Process for about 30 seconds or until everything is chopped. With the processor running, slowly add the oil until the pesto is thoroughly puréed. Add the rest of your ingredients and purée until all are incorporated.
Store the pesto in the refrigerator for up to three days. The pesto must be stored with plastic wrap or another cover to keep air out. Or freeze in ice cube trays—just add a cube to any dish for extra flavor.