Sunday, October 05, 2008


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D.

The reassuring thing about dill for high country gardeners is that it can be grown near the Arctic Circle. Although native to Eurasia and the Mediterranean basin, as a hardy herb it wandered north to Norway where it found its name, dill coming from the Old Norse word dylle, meaning to soothe or lull. Not only that, as gravlaks it became one of the great triumphs of Norwegian culinary arts, in addition to cod fish balls, lutefisk, and akevitt. Lutefisk is fish cured in lye, and akevitt is an 80 proof alcoholic drink, distilled from potatoes or grain often with dill seeds. It's about as subtle as a jack-hammer.

Gravlaks, the triumph, is salmon cured with salt, sugar, and dill weed. A weight is placed on the salmon, gradually squeezing out the water and allowing the spices to seep into the salmon. The Vikings originally buried the salmon and spices in sand above the waterline where it fermented. Neither fermented nor smoked, gravlaks is cured.

A close variety is lox, a gift of the Ashkenazic Jews of Central Europe which when served on bagels with cream cheese, onion, and capers is a gastronomic delight close in ecstasy to eggs sardou.

But back to dill (Anethum graveolens) which does quintuple duty in the garden. In the spring its leaves are herbs, and in the autumn its seeds are spices. When dried, the leaves are called dill weed. Medicinally, it helps ease the stomach and quells flatulence, hence the Old Norse dylle. The seeds are more strongly flavored than the leaves, both of them having a sweet, grassy, tea-like aroma and flavor.

As a graceful addition to a flower and vegetable garden, towering elegantly and delicately above the garden, when picked it can be used in flower arrangements as well as the kitchen. Bespangled with dew after an evening's rain, an elegantly graceful dill plant is an epiphany. Reaching a height of three feet, it should be planted to the rear of a rock garden or scattered in clumps randomly throughout a garden. If planted singly, it should be supported.

Finally, it helps vanquish aphids by hosting beneficial insects whose larvae feast on the aphids.

Betraying its origin, dill likes a well-drained, light, rich soil and lots of sun. Dill should be planted in sunny locations where it's protected from the winds. A big plus for dill is that it’s easy to grow, and year after year dill, as a volunteer, will keep popping up all over the garden. Dill shouldn't be grown near fennel because they will hybridize in a kind of botanical incest.

A cool season herb, dill can be planted a couple of weeks before the last frost. Since it is so easy to grow, it can be seeded early, and if it is allowed to seed itself in the fall, dill will pop up in the garden when ready. A light feeder, all it needs is a little 5-10-5 organic fertilizer.

Used with fish and shellfish, cottage and cream cheese, and tomato juice, dill weed is a favorite in the cuisine of the Middle East where it is used to season meats, especially lamb, and vegetables, such as spinach, hence eggs sardou. Germans use dill in potato soup, and the Greeks season grape leaves with dill weed. Dill is also used in rice pilaf. Needless to say, the seeds are used in dill pickles and in curing corned beef. Also, a sprig of dill can perk up soups, salads, and main dishes otherwise threatened with tedium.

Dill seeds have been found in the tomb of Amenhotep II. The ancient Hebrews used it for tithing. During the Middle Ages, dill was used to ward off witches, and nowadays a sprig worn on the label would do quite well while listening to politicians, television commercials, and corporate pitchmen in the employ of oil, insurance, and drug companies.

A recipe: chop dill leaves and mince garlic, mix in a paste of olive oil, salt, and pepper, rub over fillets of salmon, and bake for fifteen minutes. 'Tis a rich feast that won't coagulate the blood.
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008

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