- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2006

If you only know dill for its association with pickles, you’re missing out on a wonderful addition to both the kitchen and the garden.

Dill is one of the most aromatic and easily grown herbs. It’s an annual that can be sewn directly into the garden, although I like to start it in small containers a few weeks before the last frost to get a jump on the season. The plant forms a long tap root, so it only needs about three weeks inside before going out and into the ground. Dill loves sun and will grow happily in average garden soil.

Once you grow dill, you’ll always have it, and that’s a wonderful thing. The plant throws seeds at the end of the season, and the following spring, the babies appear. They can be transplanted and moved to just the right spot. When the seed heads appear, I love to rub them between my hands as I work in the garden, occasionally stopping to enjoy the fragrance that lingers on my skin.

Dill is one of the best plants for attracting beneficial insects to the garden. Lacewings are just one of the many insects lured to the herb. Once they find the tasty nectar, they’ll venture into the garden to devour aphids.

Dill also attracts tiny beneficial wasps that can control cabbage worms and other cabbage pests. The white butterflies that hover over cabbage and broccoli plants will lay eggs on the leaves. They hatch into the green cabbage worm. The beneficial wasps then lay eggs into the caterpillar. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the host, eventually killing it. It’s nature’s way of dealing with pests.

Dill is not just for the vegetable patch or herb garden. It also can be grown as an ornamental. The fernlike foliage offers a soft light green background for other sun lovers. Try short zinnias or marigolds in front of it.

Fernleaf dill was an All-America Selection winner in 1992. It stays small (about 18 inches) and is slow to go to seed, allowing more time for harvesting the leaves.

Dill also is great for containers. An herb garden in a whiskey barrel just outside the kitchen would be perfect. When growing in containers, the most important concern is drainage. Make sure there is some way for the water to get out. Summer’s temperatures often mean daily watering.

One thing that can help is the addition of polymer-based water-absorbing crystals. They’re sold under a variety of names, including Soil Moist. When mixed in the soil, the crystals soften and swell as water is added and absorbed. As the soil dries, the crystals release the moisture they have saved. I’ve had great luck using them.

In spring, dill leaves are used for cooking, but in fall, the delicate seeds are good for recipes. To harvest the seeds, let the flowers open and start to turn brown before you cut them. Put the seed heads into a large paper bag and close the bag. Let the flowers dry and then shake the seeds into the bag.

There’s an old tradition that calls for planting dill seeds with cucumber seeds so that the two plants are ready to harvest together, but there are many combinations that work well with the herb.

Dill is often used in fish dishes and, of course, in making dill pickles. The leaves can be mixed with plain yogurt, chopped onion, garlic and cucumbers for a cool summer salad, similar to Indian raita.

Like many herbs, dill is Mediterranean in origin and has been consumed since ancient times. Romans used it as a stimulant for gladiators.

The word comes from the Norse word dilla, which means to lull or soothe. Dill also has been served throughout history to calm the stomach. Leave some seeds out for dinner guests. Maybe they will need it after consuming your latest recipe.

Easy salmon-dill ravioli

1 cup chopped onion

2 cloves garlic

4 ounces cream cheese

½ cup dry white wine

1 cup milk or half-and-half

2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill

4 ounces smoked salmon, cut in thin strips

1 teaspoon butter

Salt and pepper

1 16-ounce package cheese ravioli or homemade ravioli without handmade pasta (recipe follows)

Saute chopped onion and garlic until onion is transparent, about 5 minutes over medium heat. Add cream cheese and stir until melted. Add wine and milk or half-and-half. Then add dill, salmon and butter, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until heated through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

In a separate pan, bring to a boil 6 cups of water and cook ravioli until tender, about 7 to 10 minutes. Drain and mix ravioli into salmon and dill sauce. Makes about 4 servings.

HOMEMADE RAVIOLI WITHOUT HAND-MADE PASTA

This is easy, but it takes some time. The texture of the won ton wrappers is wonderful. The next step is to use handmade pasta, but we won’t cover that this time around.

16 ounces ricotta cheese

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 eggs, beaten a little

1 teaspoon pepper

1 12-ounce package won ton wrappers

Flour

1 egg white, beaten a little

To make filling, combine ricotta, Parmesan, 2 slightly beaten eggs and pepper. To assemble the ravioli, put one won ton wrapper down on a floured cutting board and brush with egg white and top with about 1 heaping teaspoon filling. Don’t overfill the ravioli.

Fold one corner over to meet opposite corner and form a triangle. Press edges shut to seal filling inside during cooking. Set aside and continue assembling remaining ravioli. Store remaining won ton wrappers in a sealed bag in the refrigerator. They will keep for several weeks.

Heat a large pot of water to a rolling boil, add ravioli about 5 or 6 at a time and cook for just 1 or 2 minutes. Remove and continue cooking remaining ravioli in the same manner. When each batch is done, add to the sauce.

Dill-walnut sauce for fried small fishes

Here’s a recipe from my boss, Larry Roberts, who is quite a cook.

1 cup walnuts

1 clove garlic

1 cup corn oil, divided

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons lemon juice, divided

½ cup chopped fresh dill

Fried fish of any kind

Toast walnuts in preheated 400-degree oven until just beginning to brown, about 7 to 10 minutes. (Watch carefully; nuts can brown quickly.) Cool. Place toasted walnuts, garlic, 3/4 cup oil, salt, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and dill in blender and blend until smooth.

If necessary, thin to desired consistency with some of remaining oil. (Puree should be thick.)

Season to taste with remaining lemon juice, if desired. Serve as a sauce with fried fish. Makes about 1 cup sauce.

Doug Oster is a garden columnist and picture editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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