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Parsley-mild to rosemary-robust, fresh herbs all winter.

Parsley-mild to rosemary-robust, fresh herbs all winter

In the mild-winter West, you can enjoy the fresh taste of just-harvested herbs all year. The four woody-stemmed herbs shown at right above are rugged enough to produce all winter in low-elevation portions of California and the desert. The more tender-leafed ones on the left produce through winter in mild areas. Inland, or if hit by a cold snap, they may die back briefly, then leaf out again in early spring.

A little nibble tells a lot about an herb. If the flavor is mild and pleasant straight from the plant, you can use substantial quantities. But if it tastes as though you've bitten into a mouthful of pine needles, use it with discretion.

While plants are small, limit harvests to a few leaves at a time.

Mild and tender

Most of the herbs thrive in rich soil with ample moisture. Plant them in either full sun or partial shade--except in desert climates, where some shade is required. They grow in decorative clumps 6 to 10 inches tall. Use 6 to 12 plants of each kind. You can mince them raw into salad or butter or wilt lightly at the last minute in soup.

Burnet has a cool, cucumber-like taste. Some gardeners have harvested it even beneath snow, but don't expect it to survive conditions that rugged the first year. It prefers not-too-rich soil, and it self-sows profusely.

Young tender leaves, like the smallest ones above left, taste best. Blue-green, fully opened leaves, like those on the other two stalks, are often tough but make a handsome garnish. Sprinkle leaves over soup, salad, cheese, or deviled eggs; or soak in vinegar to extract flavor for salad dressing, then remove before serving.

Sorrel adds a welcome tang and texture to hot or cold soups, green salads, or fish sauces. Once plants mature, you can slice off a fistful to leaves near the base all at once. Cut off thickened seed stalks regularly. New leaves grow back in two weeks in summer. When plants get tough and sparse despite regular cutting back, divide roots or let plants self-sow.

Parsley is a familiar favorite you're likely to use more freely if you have a garden supply always crisp and close. Its fresh, grassy flavor complements almost any food; sautee in butter with mushrooms or vegetables, mince into salads, wilt lightly in soup, or combine with onions and tomatoes to stuff fish. The dark green, tightly curled leaves of French parsley are an especially good-looking garnish. For stronger flavor and a smoother texture, use the flat-leafed Italian variety.

To harvest most efficiently, grab a fistful and slice it off near the base; but to keep garden beds looking their best, snip selectively, cutting only a few stems from each plant. On young plants, cut off thickened stalks to keep plants from forming seeds. When leaves become tough and sparse, let plants self-sow or replace them yourself.

These are more robust

Somewhat rugged conditions bring out the best flavor in the woody-stemmed herbs. Plant in bright sun. Fertilize rarely, if at all. Water sparingly; too much makes them leggy and short-lived. One plant of each kind is ample for most cooks; three plants supply enough to use with abandon as a garnish, at the barbecue, or to share with friends.

You don't have to dry these herbs before you use them; it's much easier to use them fresh. On young seedlings, use the tender tips. On mature plants, cut sprigs up to 6 inches long.

Strip off the leaves, mince finely, and sprinkle lightly over foods for the last several minutes of cooking. Or add whole stems; remove before serving.

Oregano is the pizza herb, also used in many other Italian tomato dishes. Bushes usually stay about a foot tall; unpruned, they can reach 2 feet.

For plants that stay green all winter, choose common oregano (Origanum vulgare) or Greek oregano (O. heracleoticum and O. vulgare prismaticum). A confusing look-alike is its close cousin sweet marjoram (O. majorana, often labeled as oregano). Many cooks prefer marjoram's milder flavor, but it dies back in winter.

Sage gives the traditional aroma and flavor associated with Thanksgiving stuffing. It's also traditionally combined with pork. For the classic flavor, use garden sage (Salvia officinalis), or dwarf sage (S. officinalis "Minima'). More decorative to some eyes are the golden ("Icterina') and green, white, and purple "Tricolor' varieties. All of these grow into dense bushes roughly 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall.

Thyme adds a mild tang to poultry, pork, fish, or vegetables. Classic English thyme is 18 inches tall; prettier but less cold resistant are similar-tasting foot-tall silver thyme and lemon thyme.

Rosemary's resinous flavor is a traditional complement to lamb. Because plants are long-lived and widely used in landscaping, you can buy them in 1- and 5-gallon cans as well as in 3-inch pots. Flowers are densest in winter and early spring. Up-right "Tuscan Blue' has especially bright blue ones on branches 4 to 6 feet tall. Others stay low, at about 2 feet, but can trail 4 to 8 feet. Of these, "Collingwood Ingram' or "Benenden Blue' has the darkest blue flowers; "Lockwood de Forest' is lighter, and "Prostratus' is pale blue.

Photo: Seven herbs for winter harvest: three leafy greens at left are tender and mild; woody-stemmed ones at right are potent--a pinch goes a long way

Photo: Give roots room: plant three of the small woody herbs or six of the tender leafy ones to an 18-inch pot

Photo: Big pots let you keep herbs near where you cook. He's snipping sprigs of rosemary and oregano to use at the barbecue
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Oct 1, 1986
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