Posted On: 03/01/2011
When farmer Walker Claridge walks into a chef’s kitchen with freshly cut hoophouse- and greenhouse-grown herbs in the middle of a Missouri winter, chefs can’t wait to buy.
“It’s winter. The chefs are trying to get a hold of anything fresh, and here I’ve got these great pungent, strong, locally grown herbs,” Claridge explained. Hoophouses and greenhouses extend the growing season into the coldest months, and fresh herbs bring needed revenue and provide quality customer contacts for local farmers.
Still, like all farming, even hoophouse production can be a gamble. This December and January, sunlight was scarce and temperatures glacial, both of which stressed the plants. “I hope we have a tale of two winters,” Claridge said, hoping for a thaw with strong sunshine and moderate cold to carry him through to March. He’s planning to sell his cut herbs, including rosemary, thyme, oregano, tarragon, winter savory and both Italian flat leaf and curly parsley, at the March markets.
Because Claridge is the owner of the Broadway Brewery and Restaurant in Columbia, Mo., he understands the wow factor herbs bring to the table. “We’re seeing a move towards more flavorful ingredients, and herbs are part of that picture.” Claridge amped up his house salad with a take-notice fresh tarragon dressing, and he uses plenty of fresh rosemary, thyme and winter savory in his roasted root vegetables. “We roast whatever fresh, local root vegetables we have – potatoes, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, celery root, Japanese turnips, even Daikon radishes – with a little oil, lots of herbs. Our customers nearly rioted last spring when we took the dish off the menu. We promised to bring it back in the winter.”
Using fresh herbs takes practice, but the complex flavors coaxed from fresh can’t be beat. Chop and toss parsleys, mints, basils and tarragon right into green salads. Layer fresh-cut basil leaves, sorrel or snipped chives on a favorite sandwich. Throw a handful of parsley into a chicken salad. Top spaghetti and meatballs with fresh cilantro and shaved Romano for a new take on an old standby.
When you cook with fresh herbs, you’ll notice a fresher, purer taste. A simple starting point is to substitute fresh for dried in favorite recipes – a handy ratio for recipe conversion is 3-to-1, fresh chopped to dried chopped, or about one tablespoon of fresh herbs per one teaspoon dried. Bay leaves are an exception; use fresh the same as you would use dried.
More fresh herbs are available locally thanks to Gardell Strites of Wholesome Gardens Produce in Bluford, Ill. Strites has been a fixture at farmers’ markets, but next year he’ll sell herbs exclusively through retail outlets.
Fresh herbs have been gaining significant popularity with Dierbergs’ customers over the past five years, according to Steve Duello, director of produce operations for all 23 Dierbergs stores. “The potted herbs we get from Wholesome Gardens do really well,” he noted, “especially around the holidays.”
Strites started his family business growing herbs hydroponically, selling the plants – with roots intact – encased in a plastic sleeve. “I couldn’t get the shelf life I wanted with hydroponics, so I started experimenting and came up with the potted herbs,” he explained. They sell nearly year-round, with a short lull in January and February.
Customers take home a strapping healthy herb and cut as needed. Strites suggested transplanting the plant to a bigger clay pot immediately to keep it producing through the fall and winter, then transplanting it outdoors in the spring.
“This winter, I experimented with selling cut herbs, mostly basil, to restaurants,” he said. The experiment went well. “We are definitely pursuing cut herbs.” Another milestone came when Strites gained organic certification this year.
Look for his high-quality herbs in early March in the produce sections of all Dierbergs stores, Whole Foods, Straubs and select Schnucks stores. You’ll find top-sellers basil, cilantro and rosemary, but don’t overlook chives, dill, sage, oregano, thyme, mints and parsleys. Pick up a pot and chop happy. Come May, plant them in your yard for a more flavorful summer.
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