There’s no doubt about it—winter is coming. After a bountiful summer filled with fresh vegetables and sunshine, it might seem daunting to consider the cold months ahead. One thing you don’t have to give up on, however, are fresh herbs.
For my first few years post-college, I honestly don’t think I owned any herbs. I didn’t have a clue how to use them. Over time, my spice rack grew. I took pride in arranging the little plastic bottles with their labels facing out. It seemed like a sign of adulthood, a declaration that Yes, I had moved on from ramen packets and knew how to Spice Real Food. A couple years later, I was reaching for the plastic clam-shells you can find at any big box grocery store—each holding a few sad, wilted sprigs of mint, cilantro, or basil. It wasn’t until I started frequenting Lemon Street Market that I realized the power of truly fresh herbs. After that, there was no turning back.
Why choose fresh? Let me count the ways:
While some big box grocery stores have started offering clam-shells of organic herbs in the produce department, it’s very difficult to find locally-grown herbs of any variety. You can typically check the packaging to see where these “fresh” herbs are coming from—sometimes as far away as Mexico. How fresh can those be? One of the main reasons to use fresh herbs is their ability to flavor-boost a dish (see #2) but as soon as they’re cut herbs start losing those amazing flavors. Purchasing herbs grown nearby supports local agriculture and gets you the most pungent, aromatic herbs possible.
Boost of flavor
Fresh herbs pack a powerful punch. They are best used at the end of cooking (or even raw) in order to retain the fresh taste they’re so well known for. And because they are calorie and fat free, fresh herbs are the perfect way to flavor a dish, dressing, sauce, or salad without sacrificing healthiness. Herbs can be added to bread crumbs, soy-based “meat” products, cooked pasta, dough, and more—just about any food can benefit from their kick of flavor.
Show that little extra effort
Okay maybe this one’s a gimme, but a meal just looks fancier if you’ve thrown some fresh herbs into the mix. If you’re trying to impress your mom, dad, dog, coworkers, partner, or date, showing that you a) know that fresh herbs exist and b) know how to use them can make quite a difference. And wait until they get a load of the taste.
Lots of options
When you start with fresh herbs, you can take them in any direction. Herbs are fragile so if you’re not planning on using them within a week, you need to find a way to save them and maximize their flavors. You could use half of the herbs in a meal and then dry or freeze the remaining herbs based on your preference. Another method of preserving herbs is to make herbal butters, vinegars, or oils. The main point is that if you start with fresh, you can expand your herb options, whereas if you start with a bottle of dried herbs, you’re limited in what you can do with them.
Keep them growing
You can keep living herbs in your kitchen and continue harvesting them for weeks or months at a time! By using a stem cutting from your own garden or from a bunch of locally-purchased herbs and placing it in a jar of water, you can root herbs like basil, mint, oregano, sage, thyme, and lemon balm. Once you see roots starting to form, you’ll see new growth on the shoots and can harvest individual leaves and pieces which will regrow. You can eventually plant the herb in potting soil and continue growing it in a sunny window all winter long.
Throughout the winter, Lemon Street Market gets most of their fresh herbs from Brogue Hydroponics, a Brogue, PA-based family owned business that has been growing quality lettuces, herbs, garnishes and produce for over 30 years. On any given day this winter, you should be able to walk into the store and pick up bundles of fresh herbs like parsley (light, fresh flavor), rosemary (piney flavor), thyme, sage, basil, oregano (aromatic & zesty), chives (mild onion flavor), dill, marjoram, chemical-free tarragon, lemongrass, and local kaffir lime leaves. If you’re planning on substituting fresh herbs for a recipe that calls for dried herbs (which I highly recommend at least trying), a good rule of thumb is to use three times the quantity of fresh. If a recipe were to call for 1 tbsp. of dried oregano, for example, use in 3 tbsp. of fresh.
The winter months tend to be long and dreary but they definitely don’t have to be bland. Using fresh herbs is just one way to liven up your meals and remind your brain that warmer days are coming soon.