Fresh herbs

It’s August in Colorado and that means the garden is finally, finally overflowing. We’ve had more than a few cool, rainy days recently; that leaves everything looking (falsely) lush and green, although it certainly doesn’t help the tomatoes ripen. This is when cooking is the easiest it will be all year: just go outside and harvest.

Herb Assortment

Especially in summer, when they’re cheap and abundant, fresh herbs are by far my favorite way to elevate simple home cooking. I get rather resentful about buying expensive plastic clamshells of herbs well past their prime for nine months of the year, but in the summer I can add them to everything with abandon.

If you want to grow herbs at home, the most important thing to know is your zone: in the U.S., we classify the entire country into growing zones based on climate. Most herbs will grow well on a sunny patio or deck; some may be perennials, which means they’ll come back year after year, while others might be annuals, so they’ll only last for one season. Find a good local garden center or a proficient gardener friend to serve as a resource.


Genovese, Thai purple and Greek ‘Yevani’ basil.

Basil is one of summer’s most versatile herbs; it shines with tomatoes and in pesto, of course, but is also underutilized with summer stone fruits and in cocktails. Make pesto in large batches and freeze in ice cube trays; once the cubes are frozen, empty into plastic zip-top bags and use with pastas and soups throughout the winter.


Chives and chive flower.

Thank goodness for chives; they’re a perennial in the Denver area and typically the first sight of green after a bleak winter. I use chives almost more than any other herb; they offer bright, fresh onion flavor without being too aggressive. Perfect for eggs; use the flowers as a garnish on salads.


Love-it-or-hate it cilantro.

Cilantro appears most often in Mexican and Asian cuisines. It’s a bit tricky to grow in Denver, as it tends to bolt quickly in our intense heat, but it’s worth trying in a cool, shady container. The aversion to cilantro that makes it taste like soap to some people is thought to be genetic.


Dill, gone to seed.

Growing up, dill was always labeled “dill weed.” This is accurate in other parts of the country, but it doesn’t tend to overrun Colorado gardens. Annoyingly, my dill is always ready long before my pickling cucumbers. Delicate dill is a perfect partner for fish, potatoes and pickles of any variety.


Epazote, popular in Mexican cooking.

A friend started epazote for my herb cooking class earlier this year (thanks, Jim!), so this is the first season I’ve had it. It’s most commonly used when cooking dried beans, as it moderates the “negative effects”. Use sparingly; a little goes a long way.

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Garlic chives, recognizable by their flat rather than tubular appearance.

As with chives, garlic chives are a frequent guest in my kitchen. Ideal with eggs and perfect as a last-minute garnish over just about anything. They have a light garlicky bite but aren’t too strong.

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Lemon balm is often considered an invasive weed.

Years ago, when we first moved in to our house, I planted lemon balm. I wasn’t much of a gardener then and had no idea how aggressive it can be; it’s a member of the mint family, however, so really I should have known better. Now we have lemon balm everywhere, but the bees love it and it’s rare to find plants that grow well in Denver’s harsh climate, so I leave it alone. Perfect for making teas and tinctures.


Lovage leaves.

Lovage is another bee-friendly plant that I mostly leave alone, but this year I made lovage simple syrup for flavoring sparkling water and elevating gin and tonics. It has a pungent, celery-like flavor and can be used as a garnish for soups and stews, but as with other strongly flavored herbs, a little goes a long way.


Delicate, underused marjoram.

Marjoram is criminally underused in American cooking; it can go pretty much anywhere oregano might. It’s perfect in meat mixtures, such as meatballs or sausages, and adds lovely flavor to sauces, too. Any stuffed vegetable topped with tomato sauce is a great place to show off marjoram. Easy to grow in pots, but not a perennial in Denver.


Oregano in flower.

Oregano pairs beautifully with tomatoes, especially in slow-simmered sauces. I also use it in herbed breads, typically mixed with thyme and sage. It’s a perennial where we live, so my plants come back every year. It’s one of the easiest herbs to dry for winter storage. Mexican and Greek oregano are the two most common varieties for home gardens.


Flat-leaf parsley.

For so long, parsley has been relegated to a wilted garnish (with a sad orange slice, of course) on the side of the plate at cheap breakfast joints everywhere. With the interest in Mediterranean cooking, however, parsley is coming into its own. It’s an excellent source of vitamins C and K, and its bright, snappy flavor livens up just about anything. I use it in grain salads (like tabbouleh) for crunch and texture, and also add the leaves to salad greens. I prefer flat-leaf to curly, but both should be used more than they are.


Velvety sage leaves.

Sage is most often used with poultry, specifically Thanksgiving turkey. As with oregano, I use it frequently in herbed breads as well as sausages. It’s also a perennial and a bee favorite, plus the leaves dry really well and don’t lose too much flavor. And the plant grows into huge bushes here, which is rare in this climate.


Soft, floppy shiso, a Japanese favorite.

Shiso is a recent discovery for me, and I’m really learning to love it. It is common in Japanese cuisine, along with many other herbs unfamiliar to American palates. The flavor is difficult to describe, but it’s herbaceous, with a little mintiness. It’s perfect thinly julienned in citrus or green salads, and it has a real affinity for fish. It’s also lovely in Vietnamese summer rolls, which typically contain an array of bright, fresh herbs. Surprisingly easy to grow (mine are in pots) once the seeds have started successfully.


Kentucky spearmint, one of the many members of the mint family.

There are hundreds of varieties of culinary mints; I prefer Kentucky spearmint. It grows well (some might say too well) and is useful in classic mint juleps, mojitos, fruit salads and every kind of summer vegetables. I add a little mint to salad greens, blend it into chocolate shakes and throw it on most grain salads. Again, an herb that I think everyone has but no one uses enough.


English thyme, delicate and pretty.

Thyme has a soft flavor and pairs wonderfully with stone fruits like peaches and plums. It goes with summer vegetables, like eggplant and tomatoes, and is one of my culinary workhorses for focaccia and other breads. Great in desserts, too. To remove the tiny leaves, place one end of the stem through a hole in a sieve and pull gently. The leaves should remain inside the sieve, saving you a lot of time and trouble!

The Farm Series: Colorado Aromatics

Simply put, we are killing it over here at Finding Quiet Farm! In addition to our new FAQ Series (which already has not one but TWO posts, on salt and cooking fats), we’re launching yet another new programming line-up. This series is focused on farms, because we’re focused on farms. Also, we think sometimes our audience might need just the tiniest break from the constant lecturing on food politics blah blah blah and know your ingredients blah blah blah. Behold: pretty pictures from The Farm Series!

Garden Flags

It’s not much of a secret – our blog title might actually give it away – that N and I plan to buy a farm. We want to find a piece of agricultural property between fifty and one hundred acres, but we only plan on farming the tiniest portion of that land. The remainder we want to turn into a nature reserve of sorts, a place where farm guests can walk for miles and hopefully see native birds, plant life and more. We want our farm to fit comfortably into an existing place; we don’t want to bulldoze acres of wetland or turn a previously wild space into a bare, sterile monoculture.


Longs and Meeker Peak, looking west from Colorado Aromatics.

Great; those are all lofty goals. But how do we do this? How do we go about the process of 1. finding a farm and 2. determining if that farm is the right place for us? Our answer: we visit as many farms as we possibly can, in Japan and England and in the U.S. And we talk to farmers and we volunteer on farms and we just make every effort possible to get as much experience as we can before we jump in with both feet. It might not be the right answer, but it’s our answer.

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A couple of weeks ago, we visited Colorado Aromatics, north of us in Longmont; we are always appreciative of any farmer who opens up their property to visitors. Colorado Aromatics offers “farm-to-skin” products made from plants grown on their nine-acre property. They are certified naturally grown, which allows smaller market growers to achieve recognizable certification without jumping through the (somewhat absurd) hoops required by national organic certification programs.

Tour Group

Colorado Aromatics’ primary crop is lavender, which grows beautifully in much of Colorado’s high-plains desert climate. But they also grow a wide variety of other medicinal herbs, plus they keep chickens and goats who provide valuable manure for the farm’s plants. Any good farmer knows that well-raised animals (and their waste) are an essential aspect of a healthy farm.


Everyone needs backyard chickens!


Angora goats are most often raised for their lovely wool rather than their meat or milk.

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Lavender in the field.


Bees love comfrey!


Calendula in flower.

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Black peppermint.

Bulgarian Roses

Bulgarian roses, grown for their intense scent (and oils) rather than their appearance.


Fennel in bloom.


The distillate operation.

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Red clover drying.

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Here lemon balm is an actual cash crop rather than an invasive weed, as most of us in Colorado perceive it.

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The drying room.


One of the many varieties of lavender grown here.

Thank you for hosting us, Colorado Aromatics!



The FAQ Series: Oils + Fats

We kicked off our new FAQ Series with a post on salt; for our second installment, we’ll discuss cooking oils and fats. One of the most common questions I hear in my classes is “What sort of oil (or fat) should I cook with?” The short answer: it depends.

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As per usual, raiding my pantry yielded a surprising number of oils.

The most important things to know about any specific cooking oil or fat, beyond its potential health benefits, are its flavor profile and its smoke point. Certain oils, like sesame and unrefined coconut, will have a pronounced flavor and may not be applicable in all situations. A fat’s smoke point is the temperature at which it starts to break down; this can be a bit vague as it happens over a range of degrees rather than at a precise moment. When the fat starts to break down, it indicates a loss of flavor and nutrients, and possibly an imminent fire.

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Taste your olive oil straight…but maybe not out of a martini glass.

Oils are crushed, pressed or centrifuged out of nuts, seeds and fruits. Refined oils may have been subjected to additional filtration, bleaching, heat, chemicals and other treatments; they’re typically usable at higher temperatures than unrefined. They also generally have a neutral flavor and a longer shelf life. With true unrefined, or raw, oils, there is very little or no heat used to produce the oil. This is where the term cold-press comes in; the highest-quality olive oils are made without any heat which might compromise the delicate flavor nuances of the oil.


Please don’t try this at home.

All oils can catch fire when heat is applied, so it’s important to know what temperatures you’ll be cooking at. An oil’s flash point refers to the temperature at which it could conceivably catch fire. Don’t ever leave cooking oils or fats unattended while heating; if for any reason oil does catch fire, turn the heat source off immediately and cover the pan with a metal lid to remove the oxygen source. Don’t ever use water on a grease fire, and don’t try to move the pot, as you could burn yourself or others. Baking soda or flour can also be used to douse the flames, but you’ll need a lot. In other words, prevention is a much better and safer option.

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Definitely the most-used oil in my kitchen.

Thanks to the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has gotten a lot of attention recently. It’s certainly versatile, and without question the oil I use most in my kitchen. But like so many other food items, it can be confusing; most of our olive oil comes from other countries, and the FDA doesn’t regulate imported olive oils. As with honey, there have been many, many instances of adulterated olive oils sold in the U.S.; a 2010 study indicated that close to 70% of imported olive oil was incorrectly labeled. Some states, like California, have passed stringent labeling laws, but be aware that it’s pretty easy to slap just about anything on a bottle of oil and not get called out for it.

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So trendy that even Crisco got in on it.

Never cook with fancy, expensive olive oils; these oils are best for drizzling over salads or vegetables, or dipping with bread. There is no point in spending $30 a bottle (or more) for an oil that you’re going to subject to high heat; you’re just wasting your money. Always smell your oils; like any fat, oils can turn rancid. Keep them in a cool, dark, dry place, out of direct sunlight, and buy in small amounts. Expensive, delicate oils, like nut oils, are often sold in opaque containers rather than glass so they aren’t subject to as much degradation. Still, many consumers actually prefer rancid olive oil; this is probably attributable to the low-quality olive oil we grew up on – we think it’s supposed to taste like that.


Both pretty and useful!

As with most foods, what matters most is your own palate. Before you spend hundreds on fancy olive oils, buy a few small bottles and taste the oil straight. Even better, go to a store that sells different oils and also offers a tasting bar. Some will taste sharp, or grassy, or bitter, depending on age and harvest and other factors. Don’t be swayed by celebrity chef brand names or pretty labels; price isn’t necessarily your best guide here. Figure out what you like, then buy it.

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Thank the sweet Lord we’re allowed to love butter again.

When it comes to butter, quality definitely matters. In America, butter must be at least 80% butterfat to be labeled as butter; in Europe, it’s 82%. We’re starting to see more butterfat quantities on labels here (note Vermont Creamery products in photo above at 86%) and it does provide richer mouthfeel and certainly more flakiness in pastries. I use unsalted butter exclusively in baking and cooking so I can control the final salt content, but for spreading on good bread nothing compares to fresh, cultured, salted butter. Want to make your own? Try this recipe.

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This little piggy became lard…

Remember when your grandmother kept the old metal coffee can filled with bacon drippings next to the stove? Like butter, lard, tallow and drippings are back in fashion; we can probably thank Team Paleo for that. It’s real fat, rather than fake fat, and it’s delicious. Use sparingly but with great enjoyment, and just like any animal product, buy from a reputable source. How the animals were raised matters.

Hazelnut Walnut Oil

Nut oils are delicious, expensive and prone to rancidity; use judiciously.

A simple (and by no means definitive) guide to cooking fats and oils:

Butter: literally nothing compares for flavor, plus exemplary flakiness in baked goods, but it has a low smoke point and burns easily. Use when the flavor will shine: in simple eggs, on top of pancakes or waffles, in pie crusts and pastries. Or make brown butter into an elegant sauce for fish or pasta. Try compound butters with herbs, garlic or other add-ins; it’s easy to make your own or buy from these lovely folks.

Canola oil: useful in baking when a neutral oil is desired; also good for sautéing and frying. This oil is a tricky one: it comes from the rapeseed plant and was developed using traditional plant breeding methods before the advent of GMOs. It was renamed for the sensitive U.S. market; the word canola is a hodgepodge of “Canada” and “oil,” since most of our rapeseed comes from Canada. There exists a misconception that all canola is GMO; although that isn’t true, rapeseed is one of the most common GMO crops, so if you’re avoiding GMOs, watch your labels.

Coconut oil: currently very trendy along with everything else coconut. Solid at cool room temperature so it behaves like shortening or butter in baking and is therefore very popular with vegans. Previously a nutritional villain, and now a hero (see also: butter, eggs, coffee, salt, red wine…)

Ghee: butter that has been clarified to remove the milk solids so that its smoke point is higher. Common in Indian cuisine.

Grapeseed oil: a byproduct of the winemaking industry, it’s neutral in flavor and best for baking, sautéing, and salad dressings when you don’t want a pronounced olive flavor.

Lard: rendered hog fat; it is neutral in flavor (unlike bacon drippings, which are smoky and bacon-y) and produces amazing pie crusts, especially when combined with butter. Obviously not suitable for vegetarians. Moderately high smoke point.

Margarine or other “fake butters”: never. Not even ever. Totally lab-created; typically hydrogenated oils often with mysterious additives. Stay away; there is literally nothing of value in these products. No, they absolutely do not reduce your cholesterol. I don’t care what the package says.

Olive oil: the most versatile and a favorite of Mediterranean diet proponents. Use olive oil for moderately high temperature sautéing, tossing with cooked pasta and drizzling over roasted vegetables. Expensive, flavorful olive oils should be reserved for salad dressings and as an accompaniment to good bread and should never be heated.

Nut oil, such as hazelnut or walnut: expensive, flavorful and great for salad dressings, especially when the same toasted nut is used in the dish. Try this simple beauty from the great Ottolenghi!

Peanut oil: high smoke point and good for frying; popular in Asian cuisine. Pronounced flavor and possible allergen issues. Great for deep-frying.

Sesame: see peanut oil, above, except that it’s way too expensive and strongly flavored for deep-frying. Dark sesame oil will have a stronger flavor.

Safflower oil: related to sunflowers, this is a neutral oil fine for frying and baking.

Sunflower oil: high in Vitamin E plus a high smoke point; neutral flavor. Use for baking and frying.

Vegetable shortening: Crisco introduced vegetable shortening in 1911 as a lard alternative. It’s solid at cool room temperature and therefore behaves similarly to butter or lard in baked goods. It’s also partially hydrogenated and not an ideal choice for health, although now the label claims “zero trans fats.” I’ll confess that it works beautifully in pie crusts and it is a vegan option.

Vegetable oil: most products labeled “vegetable oil” are typically soy, yet another primarily GMO crop. Soybean oil is one of the most common ingredients in heavily processed foods and has virtually no benefits whatsoever. If you’re looking for a neutral baking oil, choose non-GMO canola.

What should we discuss next? Let us know!