The 20th annual San Antonio Herb Market drew hundreds of people to the Pearl Brewery on Saturday, where vendors offered a savory variety of plants and products made with herbs. Free lectures, demonstrations and food samples filled out the massive event, which was so successful one herb grower had sold out before 11 a.m.
Each year, the market, sponsored by the San Antonio Herb Market Association, focuses its attention on a single herb while attempting to show the public what a difference fresh herbs can make in food. This year, horseradish joined the likes of fennel, dill and oregano on the list of honored herbs. The leafy green plant could be found for sale amid the parsley, sage and mint plants that were also available.
It could also be found at chef John Brand’s cooking demonstration, which was part of the neighboring Pearl Farmers Market. The chef from Las Canarias and Ostra made a goat cheese-horseradish panna cotta with a salad on top made of smoked trout, golden beets, frisée and parsley in a dill-Champagne vinaigrette. And, yes, it was as good as it sounds.
Noted herbalist and writer Susan Belsinger led a lively discussion on how to grow and use herbs properly. She packed the Pearl’s meeting room with people eager to hear how to make their basil more bountiful or how to use bay leaves in more than stews.
She even managed to coax a few gasps from marketgoers when she held up a tall, beautiful basil plant and proceeded to cut it back to just above the leaf that was second from the bottom.
“Yes, it looks like you are massacring the plant,” she said. But it’s actually good for the plant. You should do that once a month or so, she said, and the plant will grow back — as long as the weather is warm. If the basil stems get too tall, of course, they begin to put out seeds, which is not good because it takes too much energy away from the leaves. Cutting back the plant forces it to focus on growth and producing new leaves.
When Belsinger started doing this in her own herb garden, she went from harvesting a single cup of basil leaves a season from one plant to anywhere from 20 to 24 cups from one plant, she said. The difference is that dramatic. (To watch Belsinger in a video on how to freeze all that extra basil and other herbs, click here for a clip posted on VegetableGardener.com. Or you could take the cuttings and stick them in water until they produce roots, she added.)
Though her talk was meant to be about Mediterranean herbs, Belsinger included basil, which originated elsewhere but has come to find a home along the great sea. After all, when you think of tomatoes and mozzarella, fresh basil is also part of the equation.
But basil is an annual, where the rest of the Mediterranean herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and oregano, are perennials, she said. And basil lets you know it, too, because it begins “to pout” as soon as the temperatures drop into the 60s, she added.
Many people know bay leaves only as those dried (and dried-out) brown fossils sold in overpriced jars in the grocery. If you’re buying those, “you’re generally not getting quality,” Belsinger said.
Fresh bay is filled with vibrant flavors of balsam, citrus and spice. That’s why “bay is one of my very most favorite herbs to use in desserts,” she said. “But you have to have fresh bay.”
Belsinger likes bay with chocolate, including truffles, as well as beans. “It’s really good in a piña colada with rum,” she said. “It adds a really wonderful dimension.”
Bay also repels moths in the kitchen, so you can lay a bay leaf in flour or corn meal to keep those critters away, she said.
Marjoram and oregano are related, and yet the differences are marked, Belsinger said. Marjoram has a sweeter quality to it, while oregano is hot. That means you can substitute one for the other, but you have to remember the differences. if you’re using oregano for marjoram, use less because it is so much stronger.
But the key to each of these herbs and other leafy greens is to use them and learn how to tailor their strengths to your tastes. Fall is perfect for planting parsley, arugula and lettuces, and plants can be had at many farmers markets or supermarkets.