As I sprinkled fresh basil from our garden on the homemade pizza, my hands held the herb’s aroma. Earth, mint, grass and licorice. The same scents wafted into the kitchen as the basil baked over bubbling cheese.
Something I grew was in the oven — Cooking! — and sprigs of mint from the same garden danced in my husband’s mojito. Forgive the palpable self-pride, but my thumb is blacker than midnight. Then I found herbs, which I’ve accepted are about all I can contribute to the whole farm-to-table movement.
Herbs are inexpensive (less fiscal guilt if you kill one or two, and I have), easy to grow (requiring little watering), eat up Houston weather and kick up flavor in dishes — and drinks.
First step: Pick your herbs. Think about what herbs you regularly use, whether fresh or dried. Also, consider herbal cocktails you like or want to try. We love mojitos, so mint was a must. We also cook a lot of Asian food, so I planted Thai basil. We also added: Italian basil, cilantro, chives lavender, sage, rosemary and two types of thyme. (Who needs Scarborough Fair?)
I decided to build a raised-box garden, which is essentially a big flower pot for your yard. We started with four wooden boards. You can make a large or a small box, but remember, you want to reach every inch of the garden for picking. Hammer the boards together, and you have your box.
Choose a location in your yard that receives the most sunlight and is flat so water can drain away from the herbs. Most herbs want dryness and sunlight. Dig up the grass, put down the box and fill with organic soil (expect to buy lots).
Herbs are next. Gently loosen the roots of each herb, plant in box, and water. And leave it.
If it doesn’t rain, water about once a week. Otherwise, don’t sweat it. While traveling, we did lose the chives, cilantro, and eventually, the mint, which we’ll replant soon. But we’re still cooking — and mixing — with fresh herbs.
Here are some recipes you can use to drink your herbs:
Thai Basil Martini
1 part Thai-basil-infused gin*
1 part Bols Genever
Splash of vermouth
Mix ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake. Garnish with a fresh basil leaf.
*To infuse gin, pour eight ounces in a jar and add eight to 10 fresh, washed Thai basil leaves. Cover tightly and let sit for about a week. Strain and use.
Lavender Vodka Tonic
1 tablespoon lavender simple syrup*
2 oz vodka
7 oz tonic water
Combine lavender syrup and vodka in cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into an ice-filled highball glass. Top off with tonic water and stir.
*To make lavender syrup, bring ½ cup sugar, 1 cup water and 1 tablespoon dried lavender blossoms to a boil in a saucepan. Cook until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to simmer a few minutes, cool, strain, and store in glass or ceramic container.