July 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tips for harvesting, using herbs to liven dishes

This is the best time of year for people who love food, because fresh corn, tomatoes, green beans, squash, blueberries, watermelon and cantaloupe are plentiful.

Theyre delicious by themselves, but they can taste even better with a sprinkle or two of fresh herbs.

Like vegetables and fruits, herbs are available at the farm stand or supermarket, but theyre best when snipped from a pot in your backyard and used immediately.

Its a little late to start herbs from seeds for a nice harvest, but the plants are available at garden centers.

Basil, thyme and rosemary can still be planted for good results, herbalist Melinda Boyer said.

In pots on the deck or patio, you can grow basil to make pesto; cilantro for salsa; sage to dry for Thanksgiving stuffing; rosemary to enhance grilled chicken breasts; and thyme for Cajun and Creole dishes. Plus, growing your own herbs can provide a significant cost savings from buying them in the store.

Herbs like basil, thyme and rosemary make great container herbs for the urban dweller, Boyer said. You can crowd them together in containers for better growth. Remember to prune and shape them to keep them producing foliage.

Boyer, owner of New Day Herb and Native Plant Farm, teaches herb classes for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Kentucky and has two Facebook pages devoted to herbs, The Country Herb Woman and Herb Lovers.

Boyer shares these tips for harvesting fresh herbs:

■It is best to harvest all herbs in the afternoon on a dry sunny day prior to blooming. This is when the plants have the most flavor and aroma. Herbal blooms are edible and can be used in cooking and food. Sprinkle them on salads, and summer soups, or use as garnishes.

■Cutting and pruning herbs is what keeps them healthy. If one doesnt prune herbs they become spindly and die. Boyer suggests topping herbs like basil and rosemary. Never cut them to the ground. They have shallow root systems and will not survive. Prune the top buds of basil often, about a third of the way down to keep it bushy.

■Rosemary is a woody herb of slow growth, so it needs to be lightly pruned, also at the tips of the plant buds. Cutting these herbs from the sides does not promote bushy growth, so always cut the tops.

■Thyme is also a low growing woody herb, but can be pruned halfway down the plant. Never cut all the way back.

■Cilantro can be pruned hard to the ground, and it will return with lush growth. Prune cilantro often. Sometimes if its left to go to seed, it will return the next year.

Storing the harvested herbs is the most fun part, Boyer said. There are many creative ways to do this depending on whether the herbs are fresh or dried. Fresh herbs can be cut and placed in plastic baggies and put in the refrigerator, except for basil. Basil is cold sensitive and turns dark and blotchy if stored in cold. So its best, for fresh use, to cut the amount you intend to use and place in a vase of water, much like a flower bouquet. They will keep about a week this way. Herbs will keep about two weeks in the refrigerator.

Another trick with fresh herbs is to cut them finely alone or in blends, like rosemary, basil, thyme and add a teaspoon of herbs to ice trays. Pour water in the trays on top of the herbs and freeze. After the cubes are solid, put them in freezer bags or containers and use for soups, stews and casseroles during the winter.

If herbs are dried by hanging bunches from a ceiling or laid in baskets, then the whole leaves can be placed in glass jars and stored in dark cabinets.

Sunlight destroys the flavor of herbs, so Boyer suggests drying them away from direct sunlight in a dark, airy place and storing them in the same manner. Save old mayonnaise and pimento jars to use as containers.

I detest plastic containers and never store my herbs in them for they tend to take flavor and aroma away from herbs, and plastic has toxins not wanted in foods, Boyer said. I store all my herbs whole leaf. That means I strip the leaves off the stem and place them in the jars without crushing or grinding them up. The reason being that once they are ground the essential oils that contain the flavor and aroma dispense quickly into the air and not your food.

When you are ready to use these whole leaf herbs, just take them from the jars and grind them up with the palm of your hand or with a rolling pin on parchment paper. I also have a new coffee grinder that has never been used for coffee and it works great for powdering herbs as well, she said.

5 easy-to-grow herbs and uses

Heres a look at five easy-to-grow herbs and their uses from Cooking Light magazine:

Basil is one of the most important culinary herbs. Sweet basil, the most common type, is redolent of licorice and cloves. Basil is used in the south of France to make pistou; its Italian cousin, pesto, is made just over the border. Used in sauces, sandwiches, soups, and salads, basil is in top form when married to tomatoes, as in the famous salad from the island of Capri insalata Caprese, made with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil and fruity olive oil.

Rosemary in Latin means dew of the sea appropriate since it is indigenous to the Mediterranean. Rosemary is one of the most aromatic and pungent of all the herbs. Its needle-like leaves have pronounced lemon-pine flavor that pairs well with roasted lamb, garlic and olive oil. Rosemary is also a nice addition to focaccia, tomato sauce, pizza and pork, but because its flavor is strong, use a light hand.

Thyme comes in dozens of varieties; however, most cooks use French thyme. Undoubtedly thyme is one of the most important herbs of the European kitchen. This congenial herb pairs well with many other herbs especially rosemary, parsley, sage, savory and oregano. Its earthiness is welcome with pork, lamb, duck or goose, and its much beloved in Cajun and Creole cooking. Because the leaves are so small, they often dont require chopping.

Cilantro is sometimes called coriander, or even Chinese parsley. Whatever you call it, chances are you either love it or hate it. This native of southern Europe and the Middle East has a pungent flavor, with a faint undertone of anise. The leaves are often mistaken for flat-leaf parsley, so read the tag. One of the most versatile herbs, cilantro adds distinctive flavor to salsas, soups, stews, curries, salads, vegetables, fish and chicken dishes.

Sage is native to the northern Mediterranean coast, where its used frequently in cooking. Sages long, narrow leaves have a distinctively fuzzy texture and musty flavor redolent of eucalyptus, cedar, lemon and mint. Italians love it with veal, while the French add it to stuffings, cured meats, sausages and pork dishes. Americans, of course, associate it with turkey and dressing.

Use it with discretion; it can overwhelm a dish.