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Italian cooking requires fresh herbs, and you can grow them in your kitchen.
Northwest Italy is where you will find the beautiful area of Cinque Terre, which translates as “five lands.” Five villages along the steep coastline are connected, not by car, but by hiking trails and train. This area has a long history of fishing and cultivating olives and grapes, so it is no surprise that it’s known for its fresh, simple, flavourful food. This is genuine seasonal cuisine: the meals are based on what is ready in the garden, what is being fished from the sea, and what herbs are at their peak.
A cooking practice I really enjoy is using only fresh herbs in the kitchen. Rarely do the Italians use dried herbs; for true Italian cooking fresh herbs are a must. In zone 6 and up we can grow many herbs year-round outdoors for fresh harvest; in colder areas a jumbo glass cold frame or indoor grow centre is required. But in all garden zones we can grow Italian herbs outdoors from spring through fall and harvest daily.
Evergreen perennial herbs, such as sage, rosemary, and thyme, are easy to grow, and the initial investment is under $5 each. Nestle them into the garden, blend them into your ornamental borders, or, for classic Mediterranean appeal, tuck them into one-gallon or larger terra-cotta pots; I prefer container planting so that come winter they can be brought close to the house and kitchen entry.
Snip, break or twist off pieces of these herbs and use all parts. Quite often I tie a few sprigs of rosemary alongside a bushy sprig of thyme and a small branch of sage and place the herb wand in my simmering sauce or stew, removing and discarding the herbs before serving. This eliminates the chance of surprising guests with woody stems when you serve the dish.
Flip through any Italian cookbook and you’ll notice fresh mint is a popular ingredient. Mint grows wild in the Italian countryside, which is no wonder as this herb is extremely invasive. Enjoy it only in a container, or you may find it rambling through your countryside. For cooking, peppermint or spearmint works best. For desserts or tea, grow exotic mints, such as chocolate, pineapple or orange; just crush their fresh leaves to release their natural, sugar-free flavour.
Annual herbs such as parsley and fennel can be purchased as small plants or started from seed; both are good economical ways to purchase. Flat-leaf parsley and fennel are staples for summer cooking and these hardy, low-maintenance herbs can be planted out before May.
Think of basil, and pesto, mozzarella, tomato and olive oil pop to mind. Unfortunately, you’ll also think “high maintenance.” There is no doubt that basil is a tough herb to grow. Consider a gardener heading home with a lush basil plant, fresh from the grower’s hothouse. Along the way the basil is in the cold trunk, waiting for its new owner to purchase pasta; at home it’s placed on a cold windowsill or, worse, set outside in the chilly wind. The next morning the basil is wilted and blackened. What happened?
The trick with basil is not to purchase it too early in the season unless you can keep it consistently above 15ºC (60ºF), with eight hours of sunlight and no draft. Basil needs warm, bright conditions and will not tolerate damp or cold. Wait until late May or June to bring basil home, plant lots and harvest often. When you harvest, cut back to a set of leaves using sharp clean scissors; this will encourage the plant to branch out and be bushier and more productive.
All herbs prefer a sunny spot in the garden – a minimum of eight hours is best. They require free-draining soil enriched with a yearly 5-cm (2-in.) top-dressing of compost or mushroom manure. Fertilize with an early-spring application of organic granular fertilizer and repeat in early summer. Annual herbs benefit from a twice-monthly application of liquid organic 4*2*3. As these are edibles, please grow them organically.
Basil ‘Genovese’ (Ocimum basilicum): A pesto staple, this basil is slow to bolt and has large, 8-cm (3-in.) dark-green leaves. Ready in 68 days. Basil ‘Italian Large Leaf’ (Ocimum basilicum): The sweetest basil with high yields of large, 10-cm (4-in.) green leaves. Ideal for pesto. Ready in 78 days. Basil ‘Lime’ (Ocimum americanu): Add a citrus flare to fish, shellfish and salads. A compact plant with 5-cm (2-in.) bright-chartreuse leaves. Ready in 60 days.
Chervil ‘Vertissimo’ (Anthriscus cereifolium): Mild, sweet anise flavour supplied by a slow-bolting chervil with vigorous production. Use the green parsley-type leaves in salads, sauces and stews. Ready in 60 days.
Fennel ‘Di Firenze’ (Foeniculum vulgare): Large, flat, white bulbs to enjoy raw or cooked. Anise-scented, this is an authentic Italian cultivar. Ready in 80 days.
Mint (Mentha): Grow this hardy perennial in a container to prevent it from taking over. Especially popular are peppermint (M. x piperita) and spearmint (M. spicata) Ready in 60 days. Oregano, Greek (Oreganum vulgare): The top oregano for tomato sauces and pizza sauce, the dark-green leaves are loaded with aroma and flavour. This is a hardy perennial.
Parsley ‘Giant of Italy’ (Petroselinum crispum var. neopolitanum): Huge, dark-green, flat leaves are packed with parsley flavour. Leaves are the size of an adult palm! Ready in 75 days.
Rosmary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Upright stems with fragrant leaves and blue blooms. Best purchased as a plant, rather than seed. The entire plant is edible and ornamental. Perennial to zone 7. Sage (Salvia officinalis): For Italian cooking, grow a green/grey-leaved variety, rather than the ornamental ones like ‘Tricolor’ and ‘Purpurascens’. Enjoyed in stuffing, with eggs or poultry and in stews. Easy to grow, this hardy perennial is ready in 90 days from seed.
Thyme, silver (Thymus x citriodorus ‘Argenteus’): An ornamental and edible hardy thyme with a strong flavour. Tiny, evergreen, needle-like leaves add flavour to fish, vegetables and poultry. Ready in 95 days. Hardy to zone 5.
Garlic, Italian hardneck (Allium sativum): In keeping with the practice of using fresh herbs only, this garlic is not good for storing. Large bulbs, easy to peel and packed with flavour, make this a wonderful fresh cooking garlic.