We would like to let you in on a little secret: adding fresh herbs to a dish, whether as a distinct flavor or a garnish, is one of the easiest ways to immensely improve your food. Maybe you already knew this, but a friendly reminder never hurts!
However, space in NYC is extremely limited. The prospect of growing your own herb garden may seem merely impossible. But we assure you, it isn't. As a matter of fact, growing your own herbs doesn’t take too much space at all, and the easy gardening reaps in benefits.
Good old New York City fire escapes and windowsills offer plenty of unused space on which to grow delicious things! Fire safety rules make it illegal to store things on a fire escape so be sure to get a planter that will hook onto the ledge and hang outwards toward the street. Planters can be found at most hardware stores or sustainable good shops in Manhattan.
Start from seeds or pre-sprouted plants. We prefer to start with already sprouting plants, which can be purchased for a very reasonable price at local greenmarkets. At the beginning of the spring, we purchased two types of basil (regular and Thai), as well as a mint plant to grow outside in a plant box. Almost overnight, bright green leaves started springing out of the stems, and could be picked instantly to add an extra layer of flavor to our summer cooking.
Watering the herbs is the only work they require; we set an alarm to remind us to check on the plants every couple of days. If you make a mistake and neglect them, causing them to dry up, don't panic! Merely take off any dead parts of the plant, water it, and if the environment is sunny enough, the plant will spring back to life in just a matter of days.
To harvest the herbs, make sure to pick the leaves from the top first, as these are the oldest and the bottom leaves will grow up to replenish the stock. Use your hands! Metal kitchen scissors can cause the plants to oxidize and lose flavor. Also, remember to wash the leaves well before using them—this is New York City, after all.
When the plants are full of leaves, be sure to harvest the herbs to make room for new leaves to grow. If you can’t use them all at once, you can freeze them in an ice tray with olive oil for easy cooking. We like to use basil and mint to make simple syrups to add to cocktails and coffee, for a fresh summer flare. Boil one cup water with herb leaves, stir in sugar until it dissolves, and strain out the leaves. The herbal syrup keeps for a month in the refrigerator. The herbs can also be used as a garnish; a quick chiffonade with a sharp knife and a sprinkling of these herbs truly makes any homemade (or takeout!) meal more elegant and flavorful.
Homegrown fresh herbs also make an excellent (not to mention inexpensive) gift for hosts or visitors. You can pick them and store them in a mason jar or tie a bunch with a ribbon. City folk will be impressed that you grew something in the concrete jungle!