As spring rolls in and the weather warms, it's time to move away from heavy winter foods in favor of lighter, fresher fare. Herbs are an easy way to give cooking flavor and fragrance, from picking a sprig of mint for an afternoon cocktail to finishing a pasta dish with a few basil leaves.
Local chefs and herb enthusiasts agree that herbs will brighten the flavor of any dish and can be cultivated by everyone, even those without a green thumb.
"Food tastes so much better when you've got fresh tastes," Trudie Johnson said as she walked among rows of thyme, sage and lemongrass at The Greenery on Hilton Head Island. Johnson has been growing herbs and vegetables in the Lowcountry for 35 years and describes herself as an "old-fashioned, dirt-under-the-fingernails gardener." She works part-time at The Greenery and is enthusiastic about helping people pick out plants.
"You can't go wrong with rosemary," Johnson said, adding that it is the most reliable herb. She pointed out Chef's Choice rosemary, which, as the name implies, is especially good for cooking.
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"If you cook with rosemary, the needles are chewy, but these are soft so they mince down better and have a much more intense flavor," Johnson said.
For spring recipes, Johnson suggested using lemongrass and thyme in homemade ice cream for a refreshing, lemony flavor, or reducing pineapple sage to a simple syrup for a healthy sweet tea substitute.
At Catch 22 Seafood Restaurant and Steakhouse on Hilton Head, restaurant-owner Bryan Bobinchuck uses herbs in seasonal martinis. He'll take watermelon from his garden, puree it and garnish with mint for a fresh, fruity cocktail. Bobinchuck also cultivates thyme, oregano and parsley for an herb-encrusted fish dish.
Herbs "brighten the flavors in the dish, and they jump out at you. It says, 'This just came from a garden,' and it really makes quite a difference," he said.
Adding herbs at the end of hot dishes allows the freshness to stand out, while adding them earlier gives a more subtle, muted flavor, he said.
When using fresh herbs, always use more than you would with jarred herbs, which can be very strong, advised Sue Webber, president of the Herb Society of Hilton Head.
For 40 years, the Herb Society has been a way for enthusiasts to come together and discuss herb planting and cooking. The organization recently had its annual spring sale, where members sold everything from plants to ginger jellies to rosemary roasted pecans.
Picking up a few potted herbs is a great way to get started, suggested longtime Herb Society member Mary Lou Anton.
Anton has 26 different herbs growing in pots on her deck. When cooking, "I just step outside and pick whatever I want," she said.
Anton uses herbs in appetizers, entrees and desserts. A favorite appetizer involves frying sage leaves with a little bit of oil. She also cuts up herbs and puts them in butters, cream cheeses and dips, or on top of cooked meats. Lavender cookies are a go-to dessert.
Herbs are great multiuse plants, she said.
"They're pretty. They taste good. They smell good. All of the above. It's an easy way to have something green outside your door."
Follow Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.
FRIED SAGE LEAVES
1 bunch fresh sage
1/4 cup olive oil
Pinch off leaves from sage plant. Heat oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Fry 6-8 leaves at a time until crisp, 2-3 seconds. Transfer with a fork to paper towels and sprinkle generously with coarse salt.