Reading in the Garden: Jekka's Herb Cookbook

Jekka’s Herb Cookbook
Jekka McVicar
With illustrations by Hannah McVicar
Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books, 2011
(U.S. edition)

I found copies of this book stacked in a clearance section last fall and couldn’t believe my luck. Often, the herbal guides that end up on the discount shelves at bookstores are thinly disguised reboots that revisit the same old information in the same old way, but Jekka’s Herb Cookbook did not fit that description at all. Paging through this beautifully illustrated guide to gardening and cooking with herbs, I could see it had much more going for it than stylish design. The author's depth of knowledge gained through experience was evident, and the book included a few hundred personal recipes using homegrown herbs.

Maybe the reason this book wasn’t flying off the shelf here in Las Vegas had to do with its perceived irrelevance. Jekka's Herb Cookbook has deep roots in England. It tells of a foreign climate, a foreign gardening lifestyle, and a foreign culinary tradition. It might not seem very relatable. But for anyone wanting to take full advantage of a garden during the transition from spring to summer in Southern Nevada, this guide to growing and cooking with herbs is spilling over with usefulness.

Illustration of lavendar and calendula, shown side-by-side with the same herbs growing in a Las Vegas garden.

Mid to late spring is a good time to turn to books like this one-- or any modern herbals you can find-- because many herbs are thriving this time of year in our region. If you love and value herbs, you may be bringing in generous harvests now. Many home gardeners don’t take advantage of their herbal crops as much as they could, however. After all, there’s only so much you can do with sage leaves and thyme sprigs, right?

No -- In fact, herbs harvested and preserved now, during this window of ideal weather, can serve you very well for the remainder of the year. With summer vacation approaching, this is a great time to throw out the rule book, pick up the herbal book instead, and indulge in the direct experience of smelling, tasting, and choosing what you like. When you harvet herbs, you are harvesting flavor and aroma. Having a storehouse of these ingredients can help you kick addictions to salt and sugar, while bringing even the simplest meals to the next level. Now is the moment to explore your tastes and rewrite your personal menu for the months to come. It's a chance to treat a garden like a laboratory, artist’s studio, and test kitchen. You can experiment with mixing and matching flavor combinations to find what truly makes your mouth water.

Think of all the spice mixes, sauce packets, and tea blends you can make now and use all year. Herbs can also help you maximize your other crops' potential. For example, if a certain fruit or vegetable performs exceptionally well in your garden, and you harvest bucket-loads for an extended period, then your enthusiasm for this crop might diminish before the yield does. At times like these, fresh and dried herbs are great creative tools to have on hand. Using them will allow the basic flavor of a vegetable to branch out in all directions, bringing out its hidden complexities. This can make one vegetable seem like several. Carrots with dill taste entirely different than carrots with oregano, and so on. Experimenting with herb-vegetable combinations will help ensure you use your entire harvest, thus reducing food waste.

It is equally true that if you have a fruit or vegetable that hasn’t performed well this season, and yield is low, then herbs can help you make the most of what you do have. Without herbs and spices, your options for preparing foods can seem limited. With them, choices open up, requiring minimal extra effort or expense.

With all of these possibilities before you, books like Jekka’s Herb Cookbook can help you start to define your own path from the herb garden to the home spice rack. Learning to understand flavor connections between plants is such an enjoyable layer of gardening, one that engages the senses and helps keep a kitchen garden relevant during the gap between the cool season and warm season vegetable harvests. It shouldn’t be missed.

--Farmer Sarah at Garden Farms

Vanessa Portillo