While some herbs overwinter in sunny windows or greenhouses, and others dry well for later, there’s a handful of culinary herbs that– to my mind– are best grown only during summer and enjoyed when fresh. Though they can be preserved one way or another, there’s no substitute for their fresh presence in summer’s signature dishes.
Basil Yes, there’s pesto, which can be frozen, but would you really argue that frozen pesto is equal to a freshly made batch on warm pasta in July? Summer is when just-harvested leaves from ‘Profumo di Genova,’ or a nice purple-leafed variety can be combined with garden-fresh greens with or without tomatoes. Fresh basil is essential for batches of fresh tomato sauce simmering on the stove. (I’ll admit I freeze a lot of this—still the sauce is best if, like the tomatoes, the basil is fresh to begin with.) Plant basil outdoors once weather is reliably warm—with as much sun as you can supply. Basil can be dried, but its flavor changes completely.
Summer Savory is a summer herb, pure and simple. We have endured years without it– but when this easy-to-grow herb is planted in the garden– salads in particular, are more memorable. Add to green beans plain or vinaigrette, ratatouille, summer vegetable soup, potato and shell bean salads, all with delicious results. I’ve never attempted to preserve its distinctive summer flavor.
Cilantro defies preservation. Indispensable in the cuisines of India, China, Thailand, Mexico and Vietnam, it adds a delicious zing to burritos, and many Asian-inspired dishes. When you have an abundance, there’s cilantro chutney, a sandwich filling (on soft white bread) popular for Indian high tea. It combines finely chopped cilantro with lime juice, cumin, and coconut or peanuts to create a highly addictive condiment. Give cilantro plenty of water and harvest before flowering occurs.
Mint is dried for tea, but only fresh leaves are appropriate for many wonderful dishes from the Middle East. Spearmint, not Peppermint is the plant to grow, and it’s one of the few herbs that thrives in some shade. Most Tabbouleh recipes call for a full cup of chopped mint leaves, so having a plant in the garden can be handy. Be careful where you plant it; containers are best if you can’t otherwise restrict mint’s root run—this herb has a well-earned reputation for taking over.
Tarragon, with its tangy anise flavor, is best during summer when its fresh. Combine with chicken or fish, especially in fresh salads. Tarragon can be dried, but its flavor really changes. Tarragon vinegar is a better, and easy way to preserve it. True French tarragon doesn’t grow from seed, and is a long-lived perennial.
Other herbs may fill the spice rack, and make fine greenhouse candidates, but these are my favorite kitchen companions for the summer—give them heat and the summer sun, and they’ll make memorable contributions to your summer meals.