SPICY tarragon, lemony sorrel, pungent basil, tart arugula -- these herbs give food a special depth and flavor. Growing herbs, even cooking with herbs, was once a quaint hobby of a small elitist group. Today young chefs are hooked on them. Master chefs wouldn't be without them.
Pots of coriander, tarragon, and thyme on a New England kitchen windowsill -- sent by mail from the Pacific coast -- are not an unusual sight. Many of today's large farms ship plants as well as bunches of freshly cut herbs all over the country. Business is year-round but peaks in the spring.
Herbs bring out the best in foods. That bunch of basil, sprig of mint, touch of tarragon, or leaf of oregano can add a burst of flavor or a subtle charm to otherwise ordinary dishes.
The secret word with herbs is fresh. Dried herbs are only good in certain dishes, and freshness is the word most used in today's cooking. Many home cooks are growing a few chives, thyme, or basil plants in pots on the kitchen windowsill, but even more convenient for busy cooks are the small plastic packages of fresh herbs now available in most supermarkets.
In large cities ethnic markets are a good source for coriander, savory, lovage, rosemary, and other herbs that are a must for ethnic dishes such as Chinese stir-fry foods and popular pasta recipes. Bunches of fresh herbs will be more easily available than ever in spring and summer.
Paralleling the boom in herb popularity is the growth of small cottage industries that supply dried and freshly cut herbs for gourmet cooking.
One herb grower in the Bronx area of New York City -- located in one of the country's most depressed communities -- supplies fresh, hard-to-find culinary herbs to the fancy chefs of some of New York's classiest restaurants.
Glie Farms was started in 1981 by Gary Waldron, a financial planner for IBM in Brooklyn, who took a year's leave of absence to help develop a youth program with a $100,000 federal grant. Starting with a kit greenhouse and secondhand materials, he set unemployed people to work growing mushrooms and vegetables and later a few cooking herbs. The name GLIE stands for Group Line-In Experience, a shelter network for Bronx youths that is now out of business. The program's first two years were experimental,with help from workers funded by CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act).
Now an independent company, Glie Farms is a thriving success with hydroponic greenhouses and acreage in Puerto Rico supplying fresh herbs all over the country and all year round.
Glie Farms may have been a unique kind of business start-up, but there are plenty of herb farms sprouting all over the country; so many, in fact, that a Virginia company called ``The Business of Herbs'' provides a newsletter to serve as a network for herb problem solving and sharing.
Many people growing herbs in their own backyards rely on the books of herbalist Adelma Grenier Simmons, owner of 50 acres of herb gardens in North Coventry, Conn. Mrs. Simmons gives lectures, has written more than two dozen herb books, and is known affectionately as the guru of herbal lore in the eastern United States.
There are dozens of herbs to choose from for use in cooking, but fresh basil, oregano, chives, and garlic are some of the popular ones used generously in all kinds of pasta combinations.
Replacing spicy seasonings (salt and pepper) is one of the most popular uses for herbs today. Thyme and marjoram are good replacements for salt. Sweet herbs such as cicely, angelica, lemon balm, and lemon thyme will reduce the amount of sugar in fruit tarts or rhubarb sauce.
The following three recipes are from ``New Southern Cooking'' by Nathalie Dupree (Irena Chalmers Cookbooks, Denton, N.C.). Pot Roast with Lemon-Lime Tomato Sauce 1 3-pound chuck roast 2 cloves garlic, chopped 2 lemons, juiced, zested 3 limes, juiced, zested 4 tablespoons drippings or butter and oil mixed 12 ounces beef broth 1 16-ounce can tomatoes, chopped 2 tablespoons wheat flour, optional 1 tablespoon dried or fresh rosemary 1 tablespoon chopped lemon balm, lemon grass or lemon thyme (optional)
Place roast in pan with garlic and juices. Marinate several hours or overnight in refrigerator. Remove and pat dry, reserving marinade.
Heat drippings in large casserole and brown meat on all sides. Pour broth on meat, add marinade, and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer, cover and cook 1 1/2 hours. When tender, remove to platter and keep warm. Skim fat from liquid, add tomatoes and boil until thick, about 15 minutes. Add flour to thicken, if necessary. Slice meat and add to sauce with herbs. Heat through. Serve hot, topped with reserved lemon and lime zests. Celery and Carrots with Ginger Sauce 6 tablespoons butter 8 stalks celery 8 large carrots or more small ones, cut on diagonal 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger root 1/3 cup, or more, small fresh mint leaves
Heat butter in heavy pan, add vegetables, cover, and cook over low heat until crisp but tender. Combine sugar and ginger and add. Roll vegetables in sugar mixture slowly and gently until well glazed and slightly browned.
If mint is not small and beautiful, chop coarsely, otherwise, leave whole. Stir in mint and serve immediately. Butter Beans with Fresh Herbs 1 quart shelled fresh butter beans or 2 packages frozen 3 to 4 tablespoons butter Fresh lemon thyme, lemon balm, basil (optional) Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Place beans, butter, and herbs in large pot of boiling water. Boil, uncovered, 20 minutes or until beans are lightly crunchy but cooked. If you like the Old South style, cook 1/2 hour longer. Leave some liquid in pot and add to serving dish with beans. Season before serving. Serves 8. Glie Farms' ArugulaNasturtium Soup 1 small onion, diced 2 to 4 tablespoons butter 2 to 4 ounces arugula 1/4 ounces nasturtium leaves (about 3 inches across) 1/2 head lettuce 1 1/2 cups chicken broth 3/4 cup cream Lemon juice Nasturtium flowers, washed
Saut'e onion in butter until transparent. Add leafy vegetables and saut'e slightly. Add 1/2 of chicken stock and cook a few minutes. Pur'ee in blender.
Add more chicken stock for desired consistency. Reheat, then remove from heat and add cream. Do not heat again. Add lemon juice to taste. Salt to taste.
Garnish with nasturtium flowers.