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Herbs from a kitchen garden help good cooks 'dress up' bland foods

The sharp rise in food prices has caused many a cook to settle for lesser cuts of meat and given a big push to herbs.

Every good cook enjoys having a few favorite herbs growing on the windowsill or outdoors beneath the kitchen window.Fresh herbs lend a special personal touch to cooking. Good cooks, in fact, use three times as much fresh herbs as they would use of the dried product.

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Herbs do well in good garden soil and require a sunny, well-drained location. Grown indoors, they are accessible all year round. When grown outdoors the cook does well to dry or freeze a few for winter use, harvesting before the bloom robs the plant of its aromatic oils.

The addition of herb seasonings can enhance the taste of bland food substantially.

Seeds for herbs are available at most seed houses and through seed catalogs. Started herb plants can be purchased at garden centers and greenhouses usually in the spring when bedding plants are available. Punch-and-grow containers and ornate potted herbs are often available at garden centers and in variety stores.

Most herbs grow 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall. However, you may limit the growth by clipping the foliage to use, dry, or freeze, keeping the plant fuller and of any size you wish.

Here are a few herbs that I find most useful as well as ornamental:

Sweet basil comes in a dark-purple foliage that is highly ornamental. It enhances Italian dishes and adds real spark when chopped over fresh tomatoes. Basil is one herb that is better frozen than dried. Simply harvest it before any flowers appear. Layer the herb on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer.

When frozen, transfer it to freezer bags where you can snip off as much as you want and then reclose the bag.

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If you've ever received a Christmas pepper plant or grown one, you will have a grand array of red, cream, green, and purple peppers. These fiery hot little fellows belong in Mexican dishes as they are as torrid as fiery Tabasco sauce.

This is one plant that you will allow to blossom so the fruits form. These can be dropped into a plastic bag, sealed, and frozen for winter use.

Parsley has long been a favorite potted herb. The moss-curled varieties are the prettiest on the window sill. Chopped with a pair of scissors over buttered vegetables, soups, or casseroles, parsley adds subtle flavor as well as color.

Chives makes itself at home in the flower garden with its lavender pompom flowers. Chives seed germinates so slowly you will do better to buy a small pot and transplant it in the garden or foundation planting, or keep it on the window sill.

Cut chives back occasionally to encourage dense growth. Also, keep the flowers constantly picked off or this onionlike herb will grow tough and lose flavor. Chives will freeze well but loses much in the process of drying.

Rosemary, an all-time favorite herb, gives you the best flavor if it is tossed onto the barbecue coals instead of on the meat. Added to a marinade seems less harsh than adding the herb to the food as it cooks.

Keep rosemary slightly rootbound for best results.

Thyme grows short and bushy, 8 to 12 inches in height. Nevertheless, it should be cut back often to keep tender fresh leaves growing. French or English thyme are the most desirable kinds, used in moderation to blend flavors of a variety of foods together. The purplish-green leaves of this herb do not freeze well. It is one herb that dries better and retains its classic pungency in the dried state.

Tarragon seldom sets seed. Root divisions can be bought. Russian tarragon, sometimes available as seeds, has a bitter, unpleasant flavor and is undesirable. Tarragon has sprawling tendencies, requiring a hanging planter or space outdoors. It should be given two feet of space on all sides and the stems may reach three feet. This herb grows well in sun or shade in a fairly light soil.

Tarragon must be used sparingly and added at the last moment in preparing gourmet chicken and seafood dishes. If overcooked tarragon becomes bitter. It is often used to make herb vinegars which are used in cooking special dishes. This herb does not freeze well. Dry it or use it fresh.

Lovage lends a celerylike flavor when used raw in salads or soup. Finely chopped into chicken soup or on egg dishes, lovage is unforgettable. Unlike most herbs, lovage gives the best flavor if it is allowed to simmer. This herb requires fully as much room as tarragon but it can be grown from seeds usually grown from an herb supplier.

Sweet marjoram quickly converts plain cooks to gourmet cookery. It lends a sweet perfume and light flavor to casseroles of all kinds and is especially tasty with pork.

Sweet marjoram suffers from weed competition when grown outdoors. Its compact habit makes it a desirable potted plant easily grown from seeds.

A peppery-flavored herb, summer savory cuts down on cooking odors and dilutes the flavors of turnips, cabbage, and rutabagas when a sprig is dropped into the cooking pot. Savory grows a bit top heavy and may require a stake to hold it upright. It is best used fresh but may be dried. Summer savory seeds are available at most seed houses.

Herbs are virtually insect-free. Since most herbs will grow in most garden soils, some gardeners have the mistaken idea that herbs prefer poor soil. Quite the contrary, herbs do better in rich soil or potted in well-drained potting soil.

Outside the back door, along the foundation wall of the house, you'll find an ideal location for outdoor herbs, since the terrain usually provides drainage away from the house.

Perennials and biennials are less likely to be disturbed in an area that is not cultivated and the herbs are handy to the cook if they are near the kitchen.

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