The Conscientious Herbalist

   While weeding my ever-stifling home garden today, I had the opportunity to contemplate my position at my current job, as resident chef at Fernbrook Farms. More specifically, I had the time (between mosquito attacks - ran out of bug spray) to - swat! - wonder why, in all -swat! - the jobs I might have landed at as a - swat! - professional cook, a farm was the final destination on this layover-laden trip we call "finding ourselves". A vegetable farm, of all things.
    I had previously been knee-deep in cow sh*t, and rammed by goats, and bitten by parrots even, and was totally at home and OK with it, but veggies? We have a rough history, to say the least. Maybe that's why cooking them is sooo satisfying! See, here's the skinny on my green thumb - there isn't one.
  I am the only, the ONLY, person in the entire world who can't grow zucchini. My bestie from high school, who gets bi-weekly mani-pedis and doesn't have a smedge of dirt on her entire life, SHE grows zucchini (also, she's Italian, and I find that an unfair genetic advantage). My girlfriend on the coast, whom I visited and she was like (in her charming Texas accent), "Oh my GOD! Will you look what grew? I didn't even know they got so big!!" SHE can grow zucchini. My dear mother, who was organic waaay before any Portlandia-hyped twentysometings returned to the land and grew handlebars, she grew them as long as bats and thick as my arm, on purpose (hey, we had a family of seven to feed!); so yes, of course she can grow them too. And I'm sure if I gave my fledgling-farmer-wannabe husband a bag of seeds and a pot of dirt, he, too, would yield great success in this plant, the white t-shirt of the vegetable world, the greet-your-neighbor-with-a-basket-of-them summer staple we all know as...ZUCCHINI.
   But not me. know what I can grow?? Herbs!! (cue snarky laughter at the 'herb' reference...okay, now grow up).
In 2006, the year after we bought our home, one of the first things I planted was chocolate mint, a cutting from my mom. I knew mint was hardy, prolific, and easy, to say the least, and given that this was truly my first real garden, I wanted something with a low risk of failure - I'm pessimistic enough anyway.
   I planted it in a large patio pot, and off it went! Out of the pot, into a neighboring pot, and soon spiraling wildly into a root bound block of angry mint. It wound around inside the rim like a puma circling its zoo enclosure, ten, twenty times over itself. Feeling guilty (was I a cruel person for letting it get so bound?), I divided the leggy mass into two big clumps - one, back in a fresh pot, and the other, into a weirdly triangular patch of corner yard that literally had nothing but weeds, and a crappy old plastic edging so buried I couldn't extract it.
   So, I covered the edging with small boulders that the previous owner had (in an obvious fit of Pollack-esque gardener's delirium) strewn all over the property. ripped out weeds, and dumped the mint in, along with a couple bags of cheap topsoil.
   It did the trick - although not from my (lack of) effort. Mint is a beast unto might say, the zucchini of the herb world??? - and without proper restraint and diligent pruning, it will soon take over any inch you give it, and become a yard.
   Which is what happened.
   In my front yard.
The corner grew, and grew, I moved boulders wider, and then it snuck under that old edging, and snaked menacingly into the actual grass. Fortunately, it was about the same time that I was very much into mojitos, so my 'pruning' had an end game and kept the escapees to a minimum. After a couple years, the mint patch became my favorite part of the yard. It was fragrant, even just brushing past; when he mowed the scent wafted in through the side door, perfuming the house with vivacity and York peppermint patties. The mojitos ran deep, cold, and incredibly refreshing for many a summer thereafter.
   During my Chocolate Mint Period, I also dreamt of large, Tuscan-esque pots of fresh herbs growing by my kitchen door, which happened to lead right onto our side patio. I grew sage, from seed, one of my very most successful things ever. It began green and stringy, toppling over with the slightest of a breeze, but soon the trunk thickened, and it grew. And grew, until it became a veritable shrub, right next to my door! In Year One! I dried tons of sage for Thanksgiving, but didn't need to; it stayed green well into December, and was first to come to life with the tickling rays of warm sunlight in late March.

That beautiful bush lived for five strong years, until I made the error of trying to divide and move it into two outdoor, in-ground spaces. Fortunately, I had a backup growing in a tiny pot of soil, and so he took the reins as my chief herb bush. In late fall/early winter, I prune the whole damn thing down to nubbins, and dry the stems. In spring, the stumps spring forth fresh, tender, practically neon new growth, and in short time are over a foot and a half tall. This was my plant in late April - mind you, he's an old man, going on six now! But the sage is as good as ever.
   Last spring, after falling madly in love with the flavors of southeast Asian cuisine, I chose to grow lemongrass. I chose to place it by our pond, where others ornamental grasses grew well...and thanks to early summer monsoon-like weather, they felt right at home and flourished. I truly believe if not for the Polar Vortex, they'd still be with me...but no worries, I have five babies chugging away in my brand-new herb bed.
   I suppose my point is, we all have our strong suits. Mine happens to be, oh, I don't know, just the most important group of edible plants?! I mean, lets' think about it - herbalism, that ancient practice of healing with herbs...without dummies like me who couldn't grow zucchini, but could tame wild and hairy leafy plants, all you squash bearers wouldn't have survived!
   Herbs are proven, time and again, to contain the highest levels of antioxidants, phytochemicals, bitter but potent oils and healing salves. Where would the tomato be, without the basil? The Argentinian steak, without chimichurri? The mojito, without the mint? (A very sad fizzy daiquiri, is all). Thanksgiving, without the sage??!!
   Purslane, that wild herbaceous weed which farmers bane and plow in, is the best (and only, I believe) land-grown plant that contains both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids in perfect harmony!
   I believe, my point is proven. Thank you!
   So, for all you summer squash-bearing friends of mine, take heed - if you stop at my door, I will surely be sending you off with an armful of oregano, and a cutting of chocolate mint.
P.S. - it doesn't like to be held captive.
Yay...A Recipe!
Three-Grain Herb Pilaf with Charred Onion, Fennel,
and Summer Squash
This recipe was a big hit at our last Fernbrook Family Meal. Use whatever herbs you have on hand, but lovage is a must. If you cannot find it in a neighbor's yard or at the farm, substitute the freshest celery leaves you can find, and double the parsley.

1/2 c. pearled barley
1 tsp. turmeric powder
2 bay leaves
1/2 c. bulghur wheat
1/2 c. quinoa
1 large, or two smaller, white sweet onions, peeled, sliced in half width wise
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 small fennel bulbs, thinly sliced (reserve some fronds for garnish)
1 tsp. sugar
1 medium summer squash, sliced 1/2 inch thick
3 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp. dry mustard
1/4 c. chopped parsley
1/4 c. thinly sliced lovage
1/4 c. chopped chives
1 tbsp. chopped thyme or summer savory
1. Cook the barley: bring barley, 1 c. water, turmeric, 1 bay leaf and 1 tsp. salt to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer 20 minutes. Allow to cool; fluff with a fork. (Do all the grain cookery at the same time.)
2. Cook the bulghur: Bring 1 c. water to a boil; pour over bulghur with 1 tsp. salt in a heatproof bowl. Allow to sit 30 minutes; fluff with fork and cool.
3. Cook the quinoa: Bring quinoa, 1 bay leaf, and 1 c. water to a boil with 1 tsp. salt; cover and simmer 20 minues. Fluff with a fork, cool.
4. Heat a cast iron skillet on high, and coat with 1 tsp. vegetable oil. Immediately add the onions, cut side down; reduce heat to medium high. Allow to char to almost black before flipping and repeating on other side. Remove to cutting board.
5. Add butter to skillet with fennel, sugar, and a sprinkle of salt; drop the heat to low. Stir and cook until the fennel is caramelized and browning, about 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl to cool.
6. Heat a grill pan on high. Toss the squash slices with some vegetable oil, salt and pepper. Grill hard on both sides to get nice grill marks, about 2 minutes a side; remove to cutting board to cool.
7. Make the vinaigrette: In a blender, combine white balsamic, dry mustard, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. With machine running, drizzle in olive oil until a beautiful emulsion forms. Taste for seasoning; reserve.
8. MASS ACCUMULATION! Coarsely chop the onions and squash, and add into a large bowl along with the grains, caramelized fennel, vinaigrette, resreved fennel fronds, and the herbs. Stir well, and taste to adjust seasonings. Serve room temp or cold.


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