Transform your ordinary dishes with these flavorful plants
Published 12:05 am Wednesday, July 15, 2015
They’re not necessarily the stars of the garden. Basic in color and wild in growth, herbs usually take a backseat to creamy magnolias and stately live oaks.
But once you pop a sprig of mint in your sweet tea or sauté fish with some fresh lemon thyme, local gardener Beth Dudley said herbs take ordinary meals to five-star restaurant quality dishes.
“I just love cooking with fresh herbs,” said Dudley, who lives on the old Kaiser Dairy Farm just a few stone throws away from U.S. 61 North.
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Dudley, 65, began gardening when her father, Charlie Carlton, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Gone from Natchez for 20 years and living in Chicago, Dudley took early retirement and moved back into the old farmhouse so she could care for her father.
“Daddy called it his pondering nook,” Dudley said of the gardens she planted about the house.
One day, Dudley said she decided she wanted to add herbs to the family property.
It only took her a few hours.
“I read in Southern Living where you could make an herb garden almost instantly,” Dudley said.
Next to the house’s carport, Dudley squared off a small plot of land and laid down a few bags of soil.
Then, she cut openings in the bags and inserted some parsley, thyme, mint and other herbs — layering the bed with rubber mulch as she did so.
“Daddy watched me do the whole thing,” Dudley said with fondness.
Five years later, those same bags of soil still produce fragrant herbs and remind Dudley of a beautiful day she spent with her late father.
“It’s a lot easier than you think,” Dudley said of growing herbs. “You don’t need a green thumb to do this.”
Once the herbs are planted, Dudley said their only requirement is water and some sun.
“The growing comes easy,” she said.
A Mississippi Master Gardener, Dudley said her favorite thing to do with her herbs is to share them with friends through infusing them in recipes — like cream cheese dip with chives, or soup seasoned with fennel.
Dudley’s friend Colleen Wilkins agrees.
“We share a lot of recipes,” said Wilkins, who is also a Master Gardener and boasts an herb garden of her own.
Wilkins recently used fresh basil from her garden as a garnish in a tomato tart.
It was the first dish to go at a party she attended.
“The herbs make it,” Wilkins said of some of her favorite summer dishes.
Wilkins gave Dudley one of her favorite cooking tips — which involves herbs, of course.
To preserve the herb flavoring, Wilkins likes to mix crushed herbs — often parsley or basil — with oils.
Then, she pours the mixture into an ice cube tray for later use.
“It makes cooking so easy, because you just take the cubes out, let them thaw, then pour them on to whatever you’re making,” Wilkins said.
For the best results, Dudley recommends cutting, or “pruning,” herb plants each year so they grow back stronger.
If you don’t prune, Dudley said some herbs become like pesky kudzu.
“The rosemary, it’s just taken up the garden,” Dudley said with a laugh.
But both Dudley and Wilkins said compared to all other plants — herbs are probably the easiest and most delicious garden accent.
“Why buy herbs from the supermarket when you can have them fresh?” Dudley said. “For me, there’s just no other option.”