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IT'S ABOUT THYME: HERBS FOR THE NOVICE GARDENER

There's an old wives' tale that goes something like this: "Drag a speckled toad by its hind leg around the herb garden and your herbs will grow abundantly."

We were unable to verify exactly which old wife said such a thing, but we suspect her husband's name was Herb.Not to worry . . . if you're without a toad, an herb garden will do just fine with plenty of sunshine and good soil.

An herb garden may seem less visually appealing than a rose garden, but it gives every bit as much pleasure to dedicated cooks (and eaters).

Planted as close to the kitchen door as the sun will allow, herbs will be ready to snip at the crucial culinary moment - pushing your"good" food into the category of "great."

In the arsenal of herbs, most belong to the carrot or the mint families. Included among the 3,000 species of carrots are anise, coriander, dill, fennel, and parsley. The mint family has 3,200 relatives, and some of its cousins are basil, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme.

There's nothing mysterious about using fresh herbs in your everyday cooking. The Food Police won't burst into your kitchen and slap you with a fine if you throw a little oregano into your eggs.

You call the shots . . . it's your cuisine scene.

Here's a list of easy-to-grow, herbs that are guaranteed to add a fresh new taste to your meal routine.

The 10 top choices for home herb gardeners are:

BASIL: One of the easiest annuals to grow; one of the most important in the kitchen. Although there are many basils, the small-leaf varieties have a more delicate aroma, while the large-leafed ones are more resistant to the elements (with the exception of woodchucks).

Culinary uses: Basil leaves work well in fresh salads, sauces, pastas, soups, stews and fish dishes. Be sure to add them at the last minute to cooked dishes. Large, tough leaves can be used to flavor oils and vinegars.

Garden tips: Basils grow best in rich soil and warm temperatures, adequate moisture and full sun to partial shade. Pinch off tips when plants are 6 inches tall to encourage fullness; pinch off flower buds to prolong the season.

CHIVES: A member of the onion family, this perennial is also an attractive plant with large blue bulbs from June through August.

Culinary uses: For the best flavor, harvest the thinnest spears early in the season. Use chives spears and flowers in salads, salad dressings, egg dishes, vegetables; add chives to cooked dishes at the last minute.

Garden tips: Chives can tolerate full sun and partial shade; snip out entire spears to promote tender, new growth.

CILANTRO (Coriander): Extremely popular with cooks who use it in leaf form to flavor Mexican and Asian dishes. Its sweet, grassy taste is at its best when the leaves are small and delicate.

The roots are prized in Thai cooking. The seeds (coriander) are one of the ingredients in curry powders and are often combined with cumin and other Middle Eastern spices.

Culinary uses: Add fresh leaves to dishes at the last minute. Lightly toast the seeds before using whole or ground. Great with pork, fruit, beef, sauces.

Garden tips: As an annual, it grows quickly in cool weather but also bolts (goes to seed) quickly as well. Sow a few seeds every few weeks for a continuous supply.

DILL: One of the oldest herbs, dill is one of the most versatile. The annual plant yields tender leaves and aromatic seeds in attractive, lacy flowers. The blossoms containing the seeds should be dried in a warm, ventilated place when they turn brown in the fall.

Culinary uses: Use the chopped leaves or fronds in salads, soups, with fish, cheese and cucumbers. Use seeds in cooking and in pickling.

Garden tips: Plant in full sun with a fertile, moist soil. Reseed once or twice to ensure a supply all summer or leave a few flowers on the plant; very often dill will reseed.

MINT: With over 600 known varieties, even botanists argue over which mint is which. Most popular are peppermint and spearmint, with lemon mint and apple mint among other flavors.

Culinary uses: Spearmint produces a popular tea; peppermint makes a good garnish. All mints are good additions to salads, fruit dishes, salsas and sauces.

Garden tips: Hardy perennial mints prefer a moist, rich soil and do well in full sun and semi-shade. Known to be a notorious spreader, mint is best planted in big, sunken pots, leaving the rim slightly above the soil's surface, to prevent it from overtaking the garden. Be sure pots have good drainage.

PARSLEY (Italian and curly): Despite its ready availability in the supermarket, growing parsley in the garden remains a must. Parsley is a rich source of vitamins and minerals and adds a uniquely fresh taste whenever used. Flat-leafed (Italian) parsley is usually preferred in cooking while the curly variety is best used for garnish.

Culinary uses: For the best flavor, harvest parsley early when the leaves are small and sweet. Use in tabouli - a Middle Eastern salad - soups, sauces, egg dishes and with pasta.

Garden tips: Parsley prefers full sun and fertile soil. It is a biannual, but the leaves don't taste as good the second year because the plant is using its energy to make flowers. It's best to treat it as an annual and plant it every year.

ROSEMARY: The distinctive aroma of fresh rosemary alone is worth growing this herb. A tender perennial with needle-like leaves and pale blue blossoms will become a full shrub after a couple of years.

Culinary: Paired with fresh pork and lamb, rosemary is splendid. Great in tomato-based sauces, stews, soups and infused vinegars.

Garden tips: Best planted in a protected spot with full sun and a sandy, lightly fertile soil for good drainage.

SAGE: From Mediterranean regions, this tender perennial is available in several varieties, including purple, golden, tricolor, fruit, and pineapple sage.

Culinary uses: Use sage with restraint in cooked dishes and sauces; use with abandon in bread-based dishes such as poultry stuffings and as garnish. Dries well.

Garden tips: Plant sage in full sun; trim back older, larger leaves to encourage new growth. Good container plant. You'll get an attractive mauve flower the second year if you don't trim away all of the older growth the first year.

SAVORY: Another Mediterranean herb, summer savory, with a flavor milder than sage, is an annual. Lemon savory is also available.

Culinary uses: Summer savory's leaves blend well with other herbs in soups, poultry and vegetable dishes.

Garden tips: Grow in full sun with a fertile, loose soil. Summer savory may need two or three sowings over the season.

TARRAGON: This perennial, with a mild anise flavor, is essential to French cooking. Plant French tarragon instead of the tasteless Russian variety.

Culinary uses: Wonderful with chicken and fish. Great in rich sauces such as hollandaise and bearnaise. Excellent agent for flavoring vinegar.

Garden tips: Tarragon needs a moist rich soil; thrives in sun and dappled shade. Keep well-watered in the heat of summer.

THYME: All of the 100 or more varieties of thyme are edible. They are classified into two types: upright, which includes most of the culinary varieties; and creeping, used for ground cover. Best-suited to cooking are French, lemon, caraway, and English thyme.

Culinary uses: Popular in European cooking, thyme is essential to a bouquet garni used in stocks and sauces. Good in slowly cooked dishes and tomato-based sauces.

Garden tips: Thyme needs full sun and fertile soil. Trim back the seed heads to encourage full foilage.

AND IF YOU HAVE ROOM . . .

FENNEL: Fennel, an annual, is a light, airy plant that grows to 4 feet and produces seeds much like dill. (It may need staking to prevent the plant from flopping over). The seeds have a delicate licorice flavor and can be dried or harvested. Florence fennel forms a bulbous base 3 to 5 inches across and is used in Italian cooking.

Culinary uses: Use fennel stalks raw or cooked in place of celery when an anise flavor is desired. The tender leaves can be used in salad dressings, egg, rice and grain dishes.

Garden tips: Plant Florence fennel in early spring - cool weather is preferred. Most plants don't like fennel, so it's best to plant it away from other veggies and herbs, particularly dill.

MARJORAM/OREGANO: These two perennials are so closely related that oregano is often called wild marjoram. Having a supply of fresh oregano on hand means the difference between an ordinary tomato sauce or pizza and a fantastic one.

Culinary uses: Both are widely used in Italian, Mexican and Greek cuisines in soups, meat dishes, sauces and pizzas. Both dry well.

Garden tips: A hardy perennial, oregano favors well-drained, sandy soil and full sun away from the wind. Marjoram is a tender perennial.

*****

Recipes

HERBED MASHED POTATOES

6 1/2 cups cubed peeled baking potatoes (about 23/4 pounds)

2 garlic cloves, halved

1/2 cup 1% low-fat milk

1/2 cup low-fat sour cream

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

2 tablespoons minced fresh oregano

1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme

1 tablespoon margarine

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

Place potato and garlic in a large saucepan; cover with water, and bring to a boil. Cook 20 minutes or until very tender; drain. Return potato mixture to pan. Add milk and remaining ingredients; beat at medium speed of a mixer until smooth. Makes 6 servings.

- Each serving contains 184 calories, 5g fat, 344mg sodium, 8mg cholesterol, 23% calories from fat.

- From The Healthy Living Channel

BOURSIN CHEESE

8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives or scallion

1/4 cup minced fresh herbs (rosemary, summer savory, sage, thyme, dill, basil, marjoram, or oregano)

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and process until well mixed. Serve at room temperature or chilled. Makes 11/4 cups.

- From "Joy of Gardening Cookbook," by Janet Ballantyne

- Each 1/4-cup serving contains 134 calories, 13g fat, 123mg sodium, 42mg cholesterol, 87% of calories from fat.

- NOTE: This is great with crackers or bread or as a stuffing for cherry tomatoes, celery sticks, new potatoes, or baby beets. Thin the Boursin with sour cream, milk, or yogurt for an herb dip with vegetables.

HERB CHEESE SOUP

3 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 cups finely diced onion

1 1/2 cups finely diced green peppers

1 cup finely diced carrots

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives

1 teaspoon fresh marjoram or 1/4 teaspoon dried

2 teaspoons fresh thyme of 3/4 teaspoon dried

2 teaspoons fresh savory or 3/4 teaspoon dried

1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup all-purpose unbleached flour

1 cup chicken broth

3 cups milk

3 cups packed grated cheddar cheese

Salt and pepper

In a large soup pot, melt the butter, and saute the onion, peppers, carrots, parsley, chives, marjoram, thyme, and savory for 5-8 minutes, or until the onion is limp and the peppers and carrots are tender crisp. Add the Worcestershire sauce. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir well. Add the chicken broth, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Add the milk a little at a time, stirring well after each addition to prevent lumps. Add the cheese and heat to melt the cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve the soup hot. Serves 6-8.

- Each serving contains 318 calories, 21g fat, 571mg sodium, 63mg cholesterol, 58% calories from fat.

- From "Joy of Gardening Cookbook" by Janet Ballantyne

PESTO

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil

1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup pine nuts

3 garlic cloves, minced

2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

Combine 1/3 cup olive oil with the remaining ingredients in a food processor and process to make a thick paste. Transfer the Pesto to a container and smooth out the top. Cover with a thin coating of olive oil, approximately 1 tablespoon. Or, freeze by the tablespoon on waxed paper-covered cooking sheets, then transfer to freezer bags. Makes 11/2 cups.

- Each 1/4 cup contains 251 calories, 24g fat, 395mg sodium, 9mg cholesterol, 82% calories from fat.

- From "Joy of Gardening Cookbook" by Janet Ballantyne

- NOTE: Pesto will keep in the fridge for 2 months (replace the coating of olive oil after each use) or in the freezer for 1 year. The best time to harvest basil for quality Pesto is before the plant blossoms.

TABBOULEH

1 1/4 cup bulgur

1 1/2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon whole allspice

2 tomatoes, chopped

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped

Salt

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 small red onion, chopped

1/3 cup chopped green onions with tops

2 cups finely chopped fresh parsley, tightly packed

1/2 cup chopped fresh mint, tightly packed

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed dried red chile pepper (optional)

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1/3 cup best quality olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Romaine lettuce leaves

Rinse the bulgur and place in a bowl covered by 1-inch of water. Allow to soak for about an hour. Meanwhile, on a hot, ungreased skillet, carefully toast the coriander and allspice seeds; grind and set aside. Chop the tomatoes, sprinkle lightly with salt, and allow to drain in a colander. Do the same to the cucumbers. (This step prevents the salad from getting soggy). Set aside for 15-20 minutes. When the bulgur has absorbed the water, drain in a colander, then squeeze out any remaining moisture with your hands to prevent sogginess. Add the chopped garlic, onions, parsley, mint, peppers, and toasted seeds. Toss in the chopped tomatoes and cucumbers. Drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil, tossing well. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Allow to stand at room temperature for 1/2 hour, adjust the seasonings, adding more oil, lemon juice, or herbs if needed, and serve. Serves 6-8.

- Each serving contains 138 calories, 10g fat, 142mg sodium, 0mg cholesterol, 64% of calories from fat.

- From "The Herb Garden Cookbook" by Lucinda Hutson

- NOTE: Traditionally, tabbouleh is scooped up and eaten with romaine lettuce leaves.

CORNISH HENS WITH HERB BUTTER

6 Rock Cornish hens (3/4 to 1 pound each)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3/4 cup (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup snipped fresh chives

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons crumbled dried sage

Rinse the birds and pat dry. Sprinkle the cavity of each bird with salt and pepper. Process to a paste the butter, parsley, chives, rosemary, thyme, and fresh sage in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Carefully separate the skin from the breast of each bird. Spread about 2 tablespoons of the herb butter between the skin and breast of each bird. Smooth the skin into place and truss. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Rub the oil over the birds and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Finally, rub the dried sage evenly over each bird and place in a roasting pan. Roast for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees F. Continue roasting until juices run clear when the thickest part of a thigh is pierced, about 40 more minutes. Baste frequently with the pan juices. Serve immediately. Serves 6.

- Each serving contains 375 calories, 29g fat, 72mg sodium, 74mg cholesterol, 69% calories from fat.

- From "The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook," by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins