What can you cook when you have an abundance of herbs growing in your garden? As an urban homesteader, I work hard to grow as much as I can in a limited space. I succession plant annual herbs such as cilantro, basil, and dill in my vegetable garden. I tuck parsley plants around my tomatoes and in my flower beds. As a result, I get rewarded with a continuous supply of beautiful, nutritious greenery in the summer and fall. However, it can be challenging to find ways to cook with fresh herbs when most recipes require just a tablespoon of chopped herbs or suggest a few leaves for garnish.

My success in growing herbs led me to explore ways to cook with them in large quantities. Along the way, I discovered that many dishes use herbs as a main ingredient, which contributes notable nutritional value and lets their flavors shine. How much can you expect to harvest and use in an herb-forward dish? I consider at least a half cup of a chopped, tender-stemmed herb in a recipe to provide a significant amount of certain nutrients, and make a dent in my garden. Generally, this equates to cutting a big handful of stems, which is called a bunch. I will share basic nutritional information sourced from the USDA, and recipes for easily grown herbs including parsley, cilantro, basil, and dill based on this ½ cup amount.

Bunches of Fresh Herbs from the garden for cooking

Cooking with Parsley

Parsley is perhaps the most popular herb grown and consumed throughout the world. Flat-leaf or Italian parsley, and French curly parsley are commonly grown in the United States. Either parsley type can be used in recipes, but the flat-leaf variety has a stronger flavor. It is easy to toss a handful of chopped parsley in a sauce or to sprinkle some on a finished dish to add color and a little freshness.

A ½ cup of chopped parsley from a harvested bunch contains only 11 calories while providing a host of vitamins and minerals. Parsley is especially high in vitamin K, providing 547 percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) in a ½ cup. It also provides 108 percent RDA of vitamin A, 53 percent RDA of vitamin C, and 10 percent RDA of iron.

As soon as the parsley in my garden can be harvested, I start using it in almost everything I cook. Because parsley is a member of the carrot family, it partners well with the vegetable. Parsley Carrot Pilaf is a side dish I like to make because it is colorful and the parsley flavor really comes through.

Parsley Carrot Pilaf

  • 1 cup white rice
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • ¾ pound carrots, diced
  • ½ cup finely chopped parsley leaves

Rinse rice in cold water to remove some of the starch then drain and set aside. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and carrots and sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the rice to the vegetable mixture and stir until the water is cooked off from the rice and the grains are coated in oil. Add stock and cook the rice according to the package directions. After the rice is cooked, stir in parsley, and serve immediately. Serves 4-6.

Parsley Carrot Pilaf

Cooking with Cilantro

Cilantro is the fresh leaf of the coriander plant. This herb is related to parsley and is widely used in Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mexican cuisine. For this reason, cilantro is also called Chinese parsley, Mexican parsley, or fresh coriander leaves. Fresh cilantro smells and tastes wonderfully bright, but it can taste like soap to some people due to the naturally occurring chemical, aldehyde, found in the leaves and used in soap making.

This herb contains many nutrients but must be eaten in a large quantity in order to realize significant benefits. A bunch (½ cup) of chopped leaves and stems has about 2 calories, and contains about 10 percent RDA each of vitamin K and vitamin A, and almost 4 percent RDA of vitamin C.

Cilantro is an excellent herb to use as a topping for tacos, curries, and soups. It also adds flavor and color to salsas. Cilantro does lose flavor when heated, so it is important to use a large quantity in cooked dishes like the Asian-inspired meatballs that I like to make. I adapted this recipe from the one published in the May 2007 issue of Gourmet magazine by adding more cilantro. Do not be afraid to add even more than either recipe calls for as the herby flavor becomes quite mellow. I like to serve these meatballs with rice or cold Asian noodles like soba or udon. A side of quick-pickled sliced cucumbers tossed with a little vinegar and even more fresh chopped cilantro pairs well with this dish.

Asian Meatballs with Sesame Lime Dipping Sauce

  • ¼ cup milk
  • ¼ dry bread crumbs
  • 1 ½ pounds ground pork
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 8 ounces can water chestnuts, drained, and finely chopped
  • ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

Sesame Lime Dipping Sauce

  • 4 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 2 teaspoons sugar

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large bowl, pour milk and sprinkle over the bread crumbs. Add the ground pork, egg, chopped water chestnuts, cilantro, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Mix with your hands until the ingredients are well combined. Form meatballs the size of golf balls and place them on a large baking dish with enough space between so they do not touch. The mixture should make 16 to 20 meatballs. Bake for 15 minutes until cooked through. While the meatballs are baking make the dipping sauce by combining all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Spoon sauce over meatballs as desired or serve on the side as a dip. Serves 4.

Cooking with Basil

Basil is a widely grown herb that comes in numerous varieties. Sweet basil and Genovese basil are perhaps the most popular variety used in cooking as they flavor many Italian dishes. Thai basil and holy basil are often used in Asian cooking. Other basil varieties like cinnamon basil, clove basil, lemon basil, and lime basil taste a lot like their names suggest. These basils are often used in soups, stews, teas, and even desserts.

Basil is especially high in vitamin K, having about 115 percent RDA in ½ cup of chopped herb. Basil also contains about 15 percent RDA of vitamin C, and 8 percent each RDA of iron, calcium, and magnesium in the same half cup.

A popular way to use up a lot of fresh basil is to make pesto. The sauce has its roots in ancient Rome where a paste was made with herbs, nuts, cheese, olive oil, and salt using a mortar and pestle. The pesto we know today originated in Genoa, Italy around the 16th century where sweet or Genovese basil became the primary herb used to make this sauce. It is thought that Italian ocean sailors would bring barrels of pesto on their long journeys because it did not require refrigeration, and it prevented diseases like scurvy with its high vitamin content.

While pesto can be made the traditional way with a mortar and pestle, it can also be made quickly using a food processor or blender. The sauce can be stored in a jar at room temperature if a layer of oil is placed on top so the herb does not oxidize and turn brown. Pesto can also be refrigerated or frozen. I like to make big batches in the summer when my basil is plentiful then freeze it in cubes or ½ cup sizes to use throughout the year.

Pesto is commonly used as a pasta sauce, but it is also a wonderful topping for Italian-inspired soups, pizza, and roasted vegetables. Pesto also works great as a quick rub for grilled chicken and fish. This pesto recipe is quite forgiving, so it can be adapted to use whatever ingredients that are available, and to suit personal tastes. Other tender stemmed herbs like parsley and cilantro can even be used with, or in place of, basil. Because basil is a member of the mint family, a mixed herb pesto of basil and mint is quite delicious too.

Basil Pesto

  • 3 – 4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 – 4 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves
  • ½ cup olive oil or more to make a thick paste
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, optional
  • ¼ cup pine nuts or walnuts, optional
  • Kosher or sea salt

Food processor method: puree the garlic and a pinch of salt in a food processor. Add the basil and process into a fine mixture. Add the olive oil and puree until it forms a thick sauce. Add the cheese and nuts if using, and season with more salt to taste. Process until all ingredients are incorporated. Place in a jar and layer with olive oil, or place in serving-size containers and freeze. Makes about 1 ½ cups of sauce.

Mortar and pestle method: crush the garlic and a pinch of salt in a mortar with a pestle until it forms a paste, about 1 minute. Roughly tear some of the basil leaves into the mortar and crush until the leaves are pounded down. Continue adding and crushing the leaves until they form a fine paste, about 10 minutes. Add and pound in the nuts if using. Add and pound in the cheese if using. Drizzle in the oil, pounding it into the mixture until a thick sauce forms. Season with more salt to taste. Place in a jar and layer with olive oil, or place in serving-size containers and freeze. Makes about 1 ½ cups of sauce.

Cooking with Dill

Dill is an herb that some people consider a weed as it grows everywhere if allowed to bolt. I cook with this herb so much that what I plant does not get much of a chance to reseed itself. I add the feathery leaves to scrambled eggs, tuna, and homemade pickles and salad dressings to impart a cool freshness that reminds me of spring. Dill is especially popular in Eastern Europe where it can be found in soups, sauces, breads, and dumplings. It is also used in the Mediterranean and Middle East where it is often used in rice or chopped vegetables salads.

Like other fresh herbs, dill is packed with micronutrients but needs to be eaten in large quantities in order to derive much benefit. A half cup of dill sprigs contains about 20 calories and has about 70 percent RDA of vitamin C, 18 percent RDA of iron, and 10 percent RDA of calcium. A piping hot bowl of this Polish-inspired potato dill soup that I make uses a half cup of fresh dill, which makes for a healthy and flavorful dish.

Potato Dill Soup

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 2 carrots, grated or finely diced
  • 1-pound potatoes, peeled and cut in small cubes
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetables stock
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • ½ cup fresh dill, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper

Melt butter in a small soup pot on medium heat. Add the diced onion and a pinch of salt then cook until the onion becomes soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the carrots and potatoes, and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a low simmer and partially cover the pot with a lid. Cook until the potatoes are cooked through, about 20 minutes. Pour one cup of hot soup into a bowl and stir in the sour cream while slightly mashing the potatoes. Return the sour cream mixture to the rest of the soup and stir to combine. Add dill and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Makes about 6 cups.

Potato dill soup

While the vegetable yields in my garden vary each year, I can count on a consistently abundant supply of fresh herbs. Finding ways to use all these herbs helped me come to appreciate their refreshing flavors. I also learned that fresh herbs are highly nutritious when eaten in large enough quantities. Taking full advantage of what I can grow by making flavorful, good-for-you food is a cornerstone of my urban homesteading lifestyle.

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