Seed catalogs help bring flavors of the East to the West
Is it spring yet? As I write it is the coldest it has been in the past two years and there is a pathetic snow with flakes that just look bored with their job.
This is the kind of winter for which I have little admiration. Like most, I feel if it is going to be winter I would prefer more picturesque vistas. Of course spring is a ways off and there is still plenty of time for generous snowfall and vivid winter skies.
This time of year also represents another kind of longing that all gardeners (or those who tolerate us) know: seed catalogs. While much of retail has done away with catalogs, they are still very much alive in the gardening world. If the first hard frost in October or November is the end of the season, the first seed catalog in the January mail is the beginning. The possibilities seem endless, there are thousands of choices all oh-so-reasonably priced at around $2 an envelope. It seems every page of every catalog is dog-eared for something I think I might grow. Just like going to the grocery store, having a list before you open the catalog helps control the chaos.
This year on my list are Asian herbs. I should have been more specific. As you can imagine with such a blanket term, I had a lot to choose from.
This winter I have become very interested in Asian cooking. Until recently I could not have really defined the true differences between Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese cuisine. And while I have only hit the tip of the iceberg, I am excited to expand my cooking by growing herbs popular in different Asian cultures. While the list could still grow, the Asian herbs I will definitely be growing this year are:
• Anise Basil, Thai Basil, Lemon Basil (Ocimum basilicum): Although all under the same name, these three varieties of basil actually have distinct characteristics that define them apart from one another. Often these three names are used interchangeably (even by some seed companies). Unsurprisingly, anise basil has a strong anise flavor. All basil carries an anise flavor, but the flavor of anise basil even stands up to very high heat, which traditional Genovese basil does not. Anise basil is a very fast growing and attractive herb with leaves lightly blushed with purple. Which is where it can become easily confused with Thai basil; because they look almost identical. Thai basil is prone to have darker purple on the stems and leaves, and have more of a peppery taste and aroma than the strong licorice flavor of anise basil. Thai basil also maintains its qualities beautifully at very high heat where other herbal flavors often are lost or become bitter. Generally lemon basil has purple stems and green leaves with a prominent aroma of lemon. I would imagine these three were originally the same and over time developed unique flavors in different regions, much like wine grapes. Also, these three spread much more like mint so it is advisable to plant in containers. Like other basil, these grow best in full sun with rich soil. Another quality these varieties share with mint is how they thrive in moist soil.
• East-Indian Lemon Grass (Cymbopogon flexuosus): Although there are several varieties, this is the most suited for cooking. Lemon grass is widely used in many Asian and Indian cuisines, loved for its light and fresh lemon flavor it flavors rice beautifully and will not overwhelm delicate fish. Lemon grass is also an excellent addition to the garden because the smell repels many insects while attracting honeybees. Lemon grass grows best in full sun and is very easy to care for. If purchasing seedlings at the nursery in the spring, be sure you have lemon grass and not citronella grass. They are closely related, but citronella grass is grown for its’ extract which repels insects, and is not suited for cooking.
• Shiso (Perilla frutescens): Shiso is a very versatile herb used throughout Asian cuisine but is perhaps most commonly used in Japanese fare. Shiso can be used raw in salads, sauteed, or stir-fried. It is comparable to spinach with a peppery bite to it. Shiso can be a dark purple or green and while the flavor is much the same, often green shiso is used raw, and purple or red shiso is cooked. Purple shiso can be used as a natural red food coloring, many pickled or preserved dishes include shiso just for the exquisite ruby color it lends when it reacts with vinegar. Shiso can be grown in partial shade to full sun and prefers moist, rich soil.
While it’s not spring yet, it is getting closer every day. Planning for your summer garden is an excellent way to pass the time waiting. Growing your own herbs and vegetables is a great way to broaden the horizons of your cooking while indulging your hobby as a gardener. Just like the grocery store, try and stick to the list!
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.