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Griffin to Go: Tossed In for Extra Flavor


Fresh herbs add extra flavor to your salad.

I have been forcing myself to garden more this spring than I have in the past. And while I wait for the peppers, zucchini, cucumbers and tomatillos to ripen, I have enjoyed the addition of numerous herbs  that have thrived, thanks to recent rains.

They join the few I had planted years ago, herbs that somehow managed to survive both heavy rains and heavy drought. Some are in pots, others in the ground. A few get a little shade, but most are in full sun for most of the day.

There’s an enormous patch of mint, which spread from a single plant that went into the ground about 10 years ago. There is so much now that I have enough to keep vases of it in the house while other leaves are steeped in boiling water for a tea that’s great either hot or iced.

Then there’s rosemary, sorrel and several types of chive as well as an enormous thyme plant that has spread over the edge of its pot down to the ground below. New this year are dill, perhaps my favorite  herb of all, as well as tarragon, two basils, Mexican mint marigold, Cuban oregano with its fuzzy leaves, parsley and purslane. Cilantro came up in about six spots in the yard after a single plant last year fried in the summer heat.

Another volunteer is lambsquarters, a bright  green plant with magenta leaves at the center of small clusters. The leaves are fuzzy to the touch, but the leaves add color and brightness to the mix.

All are doing well, except for a sage plant that the woman I bought it from said wanted things as dry as possible. The exact opposite proved to be the case and it never had a chance to establish itself. (Most of my gardening is done in the morning before that first cup of tea, when the cobwebs in my brain haven’t been swept away yet and I didn’t really see how dry the plant got during the heat of the day.)

Morning is the perfect time to gather snippets from each herb to toss into a salad for lunch. There’s something that feels so alive and refreshing about biting into a piece of sorrel, the flavor of which reminds me of cold mountain water, or the bold tang of tarragon.

Basil is the focus of this year's Herb Market, June 2 at the Pearl Brewery.

I don’t want to mask those flavors with a heavy dressing. Instead, I toss the herbs with a few spring field greens, a pinch of flaked sea salt and the tiniest drizzle of exceptionally fine olive oil. I then shake it all up vigorously, so that a teaspoon or two of oil proves more than enough. A grind or two of black pepper is all that’s needed to finish it off. I could graze through acres of it with just a little cheese or salami on the side.

Of course, the herbs pack a wallop in whatever I’m cooking, but the salads are what I’ve enjoyed the most.

The big surprise this year has come from my two basil plants, one of which had been a table decoration at the inaugural SA Chefs Coalition dinner.  Both are now growing  like weeds, thanks to a tip I learned last fall on how to handle the plant. Susan Belsinger, the guest speaker at the Herb Market last October, shared a tip that works perfectly: Cut the plant back regularly to just above the leaf that is the second from the bottom. It will look as if you are butchering your plant, but the plant actually loves it. This year,  using that method, I’ve harvested three times the amount of basil that I’ve gotten from my plants in the past, and it’s still spring. (Click here for more of Belsinger’s tips.)

One of our Twitter friends, Jessica, from the Bake Me Away blog, has a great idea for a Balsamic Strawberry Basil Pizza. It’s one of several herbal new recipes you can try. The others are for Lemonade Made with Vanilla, Mint and Rosemary, a great thirst quencher over Memorial Day weekend and the rest of the summer, and Chilled Shrimp and Peruvian Corn Salad, which has plenty of cilantro and mint adding flavor.

 

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Eric Nelson Plants a Garden of Flavor at Work


Eric Nelson's herb garden at Zachry.

Eric Nelson knows that the freshest herbs you can cook with are the ones you grow yourself.

Eric Nelson

So, the corporate executive chef for Zachry did what he needed to do to make his job easier: He put in a herb garden in an upraised bed just outside the home office on Logwood.

About two dozen herbs in all were planted, including five types of mint, four types of basil, three oreganos, Provençal lavender, onion chives, two varieties of thyme, two parsleys, two sages, lemon grass, a bay leaf tree, aloe vera and mint marigold.

Now, the herbs are a regular feature at the Crossing Cafe at Zachry, where six food stations offer gourmet treats to employees as well as guests.

The herbs are used as “décor on all catering tables, for buffets, in most all dishes served in the café and catering,” says Nelson. “We have a very wide variety that we can use in any shape or form.”

Nelson's Original Baja Fish Taco

Nelson puts his oregano to good use in his Original Baja Fish Tacos, which he demonstrated recently at the Pearl Farmers Market. The dish originated in California, where the chef grew up before heading to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where he met his wife, Laura.

He found work in restaurants in La Jolla, Calif., Irving, Texas, and Beaver Creek, Colo., before the couple decided to come to Laura’s hometown of San Antonio in 1996. He became the executive sous chef at La Mansión del Rio under Scott Cohen before beginning to work at Zachry.

At the construction firm, Nelson overseas all of the company’s catering needs, whether in-house or at the company’s two off-premise ranches.

Eric and Laura Nelson serve fish tacos at the Pearl Farmers Market.

Nelson offers some advice for home gardeners who want to put in their own herb beds: “Make sure you have the right soil and proper drainage (rock and sand layers). Make sure it is the size you need, a little herbs go a long way.”

His garden at Zachry is “completely organic,” he says. To help keep the plants healthy, “we use mint marigolds to fend off the bugs (bugs do not like their smell) and nematodes, if you get grub worms.”

Planting an herb garden is not new at restaurants. Nelson had one when he worked at La Mansión. But the chef says he had an inspiration that dates back further: “I remember Bruce (Auden) from the old Biga had herbs growing all around the old house that he used in the restaurant. Sometimes when you drove by in the morning, he would be out there drinking his morning coffee, watering all his herbs.”

Now, most mornings you’re likely to find Nelson doing the same as he tends his own garden before the day’s work in the kitchen begins.

(Photographs provided by Eric Nelson.)

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