Joannie Rocchi not only digs into her work every day, she also is able to feast upon it. As the retail perennial manager at The Growing Place, she works with hundreds of plants, but her favorites are herbs, which she both grows and uses in cooking.
“I love bulbs and making terrariums, but my passion is herbs,” she says as she walks through green houses filled with 120 herb varieties.
Rocchi, of Naperville, used to be involved in restaurant management. She first managed the Jefferson Hill Tea Shop for several years before moving onto Maison Gourmet for nine years.
“I needed a change and I like to garden, so working at the Growing Place seemed to be the best place to go,” Rocchi said. “The owners have helped me learn new things by sending me to visit public and private gardens and to attend classes.”
Although she has cared for many different growing things during her 24 years at The Growing Place, her main interest has been herbs.
“Harvest herbs in the morning after the dew is gone but before the heat of the sun is on the plant,” she begins. “If you can eat the plant, you can also eat its flower. Herbs are the leaves, and the spices are the seeds. For example, cilantro is the herb, and if you let it go to seed, the seeds are the spice coriander.”
As she walks through the aisles of herbs, she suggests gently squeezing the plant and then smelling its fragrance on the hand instead of trying to smell the plant directly. Each herb she sees inspires another cooking suggestion.
“This is Salad Burnet. The leaves taste like cucumbers,” she says. “The seeds in cucumbers don’t agree with some people, but you can use this in salad and have cucumber flavor without any issues. And this is lovage, which has the same flavor as celery. The leaves and stalks can be used like celery.”
As she passes through the thyme plants, she explains the many varieties.
“Lemon thyme mixed with butter is great for seafood,” she continues pointing at each variety. “Oregano thyme has the flavor of oregano and is great on sliced tomatoes, pizza and caprese salads. The English thyme is wonderful for meatloaf and meatballs.”
She says the many mint varieties offer plenty of options, too.
“You can grow mint in the shade, and it will hold soil in place as a ground cover,” she says. “You can even mow it. There is spearmint, orange mint, chocolate mint, apple mint.”
She likes to use mint to make flavored ice cubs.
“Boil the water, let it cool and then put the mint leaves in the water into ice cube trays,” she explains. “Then you will have clear ice cubes with mint leaves in them that give off the flavor of the mint into your drink.”
Another interesting variety is mammoth basil, Rocchi says.
“The leaves of this plant grow as big as your hand,” she says, holding out a softly ruffled lime-green leaf of the plant. “It can be used like lettuce on a sandwich or in a salad. There is also dark opal basil or purple ruffle basil, which are look wonderful in a salad mix.”
Scented geraniums can add unique flavors to baked goods, according to Rocchi.
“I like to take the scented geranium rose attar leaves and put them in powdered sugar overnight,” she says. “Then I make a cake. After I grease and flour the cake pan, I lay a few leaves in the pan. Then I pour in the batter. As the cake bakes, the flavor infuses into the cake. Then I peel off the leaves. I take the leaves out of the powdered sugar and make frosting that also has the rose attar infused in it.”
Another tip is to grow chives and favorite herbs near outdoor barbecue grills.
“You can make a brush out of chive leaves or other herbs to brush over corn or other items cooked on the grill,” she says. “Rosemary barbecue is a variety that grows tall with woody stems. If you soak the stems in water, you can use the stems as skewers for shish kabobs.”
Rocchi says she could talk about herbs and their uses for hours.
“There are just so many wonderful varieties,” she says.
The Growing Place offers 19 varieties of basil, 12 varieties of mint, six varieties of oregano and many other options, totaling more than 25,000 plants this year.
Rocchi and other staff members will present a series of classes, titled “From Garden To Table: Cooking Samplers” at both the Naperville and Aurora locations. Rocchi is looking forward to leading the May class on peppers, potatoes and herbs in Aurora.
Here she shares two recipes, featuring fresh herbs in biscuits and a salad.
Cheddar, Bacon and Fresh Chive Biscuits
6 thick-cut bacon slices
3-¾ cups bread flour
1-½ tablespoons baking powder
1-½ teaspoons baking soda
1-¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup chilled, unsalted butter
12 ounces coarsely grated sharp cheddar
1/3 cup chopped fresh chives
1-¾ cup chilled buttermilk
Cook bacon until crisp and brown. Drain on paper towels and chop coarsely. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a food processor. Blend 5 seconds. Cut butter into ½ cubes and add. Blend 30 seconds or until mixture forms coarse crumbs.
Transfer mixture to a bowl. Add cheese, chives and bacon. Toss to blend. Gradually add buttermilk while stirring until batter is sticky and moist.
Lightly flour hands and drop ½ cup batter onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper, spacing each mound about 2 inches apart. Bake at 425 degrees for 18 to 20 minutes or until tester inserted in the middle of biscuit comes out clean. Brush biscuits with lightly melted butter. Cool 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Spring Lettuce Salad
4 heads of young lettuce like Bibb
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons minced chives
¼ cup Italian parsley leaves
¼ cup tarragon leaves
¼ cup chervil leaves
1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice
¼ cup Dijon mustard
½ cup red wine vinegar
1 ½ cup canola oil
Place lettuce leaves in cold water to refresh and rinse off any dirt. Lift out and spin dry. Tear into small pieces. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt, a few grinds of pepper, shallots, chives, parsley, tarragon and chervil. In a small bowl, mix together mustard, vinegar and canola oil to make a vinaigrette. Toss lettuce mixture with ½ cup of the vinaigrette and lemon juice. Serves four.
One of the joys of gardening is preparing meals using a bountiful harvest. The staff at The Growing Place is offering a series of classes with suggestions on using garden-grown produce. Classes are from noon until 3 p.m. Saturdays at the Naperville location, 25w471 Plank Road, and Sundays at the Aurora location, 2000 Montgomery Road. No pre-registration is required and classes are free. The dates and topics are listed below. Call 630-355-4000 or 630-820-8088 for more information.
May 10 and 11 — Peppers, potatoes and herbs that make them great
June 14 and 15 — Salsas and pestos
July 12 and 13 — Herbal teas, beverages and snacks
Aug. 9 and 10 — Tomatoes and cool crops for fall, plus companion herbs
Sept. 13 and 14 — Fall salads, beets and herbs for soups and stews
Oct. 11 and 12 — Pumpkin and squash recipes, plus windowsill herbs
Nov. 15 and 16 — Holiday treats featuring herbs