Sarah McClellan-Brandt: It’s thyme to start planting spring herbs

🕐 5 min read

They say memories are attached to smells. How many times have you remembered a certain food just because you walked through the herb section at the garden store? Cilantro: salsa memory. Basil: Caprese salad. Rosemary: Well, everything, if you are using it right.

There is almost no better feeling than walking out of my front door and smelling the menagerie of fragrant herbs I’ve planted and remembering, for example, when I used to take my 1-year-old baby daughter outside to help me garden. She turns 8 in April, and still loves to be a part of the gardening process with Mom. Both of my kids now love to help, and I treasure the time they spend in the garden with me.

Gardens are important. Not only for food but for activities and time spent together that no other domestic task can replicate.

Texas weather may have one more freeze on the menu, but it’s time to start thinking about planting herbs. A good herb garden can carry your kitchen through recipes from any cookbook, provide fragrant bouquets (and gifts), and get the kids outside and in the dirt. It also comes in really handy when supply chain issues keep your grocery delivery service of choice from having the little plastic clamshell of oregano (a complete waste of $2.79 in my opinion).

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The beauty of a well-appointed herb garden is that it’s totally customizable to your tastes. It is also incredibly easy to set up. You can plant in-ground or in pots, on a kitchen window sill, or use half your backyard. The options are endless. Once you have it established, you can feed your household (and in some cases, many households with the surpåçlus) herb-infused recipes through November. I still have oregano and thyme that survived the winter freeze and are waiting for me to re-plant all of their less hardy friends.

My favorite herbs to keep handy are basil, oregano, thyme, parsley, rosemary and cilantro. Mint is controversial – not everyone likes it, and it takes over your garden if you plant it in the ground. I like to let it take over and form huge bushes of mint all throughout my beds so I can smell it anywhere I go and use large bunches of it in bouquets around the house. It’s easy to pull up when you’re tired of it. Other less common herbs that make a big impact on recipes are lemongrass, lavender, marjoram, dill, and sage.

Our local restauranteurs know how important herbs are to the finish of a good dish. Chef Angel Fuentes at Guapo Taco on Sylvania goes heavy on the cilantro and it’s always a good decision.

“Cilantro hugs the flavors of a taco,” Fuentes said. “I use it in salsas to give them that fresh flavor, as well as my caldos – like in my chicken pozole. When you cook with cilantro the flavors change. Cilantro is very important in Mexican culinary arts.”

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Fixture on Magnolia puts rosemary in the chicken and waffles. Lemongrass is a regular on the menu at Four Sisters – A Taste of Vietnam and its flavor is a perfect complement to the other bold spices common in Vietnamese fare. You won’t find a good restaurant that doesn’t use herbs in abundance.

One of my absolute favorite ways to use herbs, especially when I have a lot of them, is in this ratatouille recipe. It’s buttery and flavorful and can be the perfect neutral side dish or a vegetable-forward main dish. And it’s gorgeous (and easy) if you need to impress company.

Ratatouille with tons of herbs:

Ingredients

  • 1 32 oz can whole, peeled tomatoes preferably Italian
  • 2 large bell peppers, red, yellow or orange
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 8 cloves garlic or more!
  • 1 large white onion
  • salt to taste
  • 1 large handful of herbs I used basil, oregano, marjoram and thyme
  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 1 large zucchini
  • 1 large yellow crookneck squash
  • 3 Roma tomatoes
  • 1 large onion
  • 3-4 tbsp avocado oil

Instructions

For the sauce

Place the canned tomatoes, butter and white onion (cut in half and placed face down) in a pot. This is a variation on Marcela Hazan’s sauce, so simmer the tomatoes, butter and halved onion together for about 40 minutes, smashing the tomatoes as they soften. Rough chop the bell peppers and add them about five to ten minutes in. Add the garlic about halfway through (minced). Clean and de-stem the herbs, rough chop them and toss them in to simmer another 20 minutes or so, on low. Add salt to taste. Once the sauce tastes like you want it, take it off of the heat to cool slightly. When it is no longer boiling, remove the onion and use an immersion blender to purée all of the herbs and peppers into the sauce. Set aside.

For the casserole

While the sauce simmers, slice all of the veggies except the tomatoes and onions, and place them in a large bowl. Liberally salt them and toss, then allow to sit for ten to 20 minutes. Drain the water out and place them on paper towels to dry. In a skillet, heat up several tablespoons of avocado oil and sauté the veggie rounds lightly, working in batches. Place about a cup of the sauce in the bottom of a heavy casserole dish and start placing the veggies around the bottom of the pan in layers, adding more sauce as needed. Cut the tomatoes and onions into round slices and begin to place them in the pan also.

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Once all of the veggies and sauce are in the pan, bake at 400 for 20 minutes.

Let us know what you like to make with herbs! Tag me on Instagram @ModernHippieKitchen and the Fort Worth Business Press at @FWBusinessPress in your photos!

Sarah McClellan-Brandt
Sarah McClellan-Brandt first wrote for the Business Press in 2003-2006 as her first job out of TCU, and it only took her a decade and a half to figure out that food writing might be her calling. She created the recipe blog Modern Hippie Kitchen in 2020 for the same reason many new food bloggers did – to quell pandemic boredom and share the cooking lessons she’d been teaching herself and learning from poring over dozens of cookbooks.

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