New column — Sara Stirs: Brighten up your summer with palate-pleasing herbs

Editor’s note: This month, we are debuting a new monthly cooking and gardening column written by Buckhannon native Sara Jeran. Follow her on Instagram at @sarajstirs.

While enduring pandemic life, I found myself waiting until absolutely necessary to make a trip to the grocery store. My pantry is typically stocked, and my spice cabinet covers the globe, but it was too early for my garden vegetables.

Fresh produce is what I longed for, but slowly, my herb bed started to come alive with rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley and tarragon all to my welcomed rescue. I consider herbs Mother Nature’s seasoning: They add the brightness and freshness that culinary dishes crave.

Packed full of vitamins and flavor, herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow. Many are perennials and require very little maintenance. Garden nuisances such as deer and rabbits have no interest in herbs; therefore, they leave them alone.

The majority of bugs find herbs offensive, so planting various varieties in a vegetable garden is a safe form of pest control. For this, dill, rosemary and tarragon seem to be excellent deterrents. Freshly cut herbs placed in a vase act as both fragrance for the home and aromatherapy. There are many methods of preservation depending on the variety, such as freezing or drying. Infusing oils and vinegars is another way to enjoy the fresh taste throughout the year.

Having these new spring tastes during quarantine made the absence of grocery store produce far more tolerable. With the mild winter, I was able to enjoy rosemary, thyme and lemon thyme all year. The first spring siting I had was chives. Chives are the starting herb I encourage people to plant. It is a perennial, it requires practically zero maintenance, it produces beautiful edible flowers, and the stems have a sweet onion taste.

They make a fantastic garnish, and are delicious added to salad greens and are, in general, extremely useful. Proteins, grains and vegetables all benefit from the addition of these marvelous plants. For instance, if you only have buttered pasta, any single or combination version of parsley, oregano and basil will take your noodles to the next level.

Herbs are forgiving and often shine when combined with one another. My summer diet consists of a hefty amount of salads and grilling. With an abundance of beautiful herbs, I make sauces, pestos, dressings and marinades on repeat. These all are ways to have fresh flavors shine, with very little effort.

Once you begin cooking with fresh herbs it is hard to turn back, and with their ease of growing, this could be your year to start. I am including two recipes that make ample use of herbs – a dressing that does not have to be isolated to salad, and an herb oil that enhances any grilled protein or cooked grain.

Happy gardening and cooking. Peace.

Creamy Feta Peppercorn Dressing

Ingredients:
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed peppercorns
1 garlic clove grated
1 tablespoon fresh dill chopped*
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley*
1 tablespoon fresh chopped chives*
1 tablespoon fresh chopped basil*
4 oz crumbled feta**
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt to taste

Directions:
Combine all ingredients. Start out with a little salt and add more to taste; the feta is very salty. The dressing tastes better after a few hours of refrigeration and even better overnight.
*Any combination of herbs may be used.
**The feta may be swapped for blue cheese or omit.

Spicy Summer Herb Drizzling Sauce

Combine the following ingredients:
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of 2 lemons
1/4 cup chopped herbs**
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2 Serrano chilies sliced thin (or 1 jalapeño)
Salt

** Some combinations I enjoy are parsley and mint; mint, dill and oregano; basil and parsley; oregano and dill; rosemary alone; thyme, oregano and parsley
Anything works; use whatever is your favorite.
The chilies may be omitted for a milder version.

Sara Jeran is a culinary enthusiast, gardener, beekeeper and Buckhannon native. Follow her on Instagram at @sarajstirs.

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