In summer, dill’s feathery fronds, so wispy and insubstantial through the vacillations of spring weather, now put on a bold display, growing at breathtaking speed into a tall, fernlike mass. Indeed, dill’s carefree, lacy appearance is almost a metaphor for lazy, sun-baked days in the backyard. Perhaps that’s one reason dill assumes such prominence in summer foods. Can you imagine barbecues or picnics without dill-spiked potato salads, deviled eggs, or pickles?
Distinct Dill Flavor: Dill Weed and Seeds
Dill (Anethum graveolens) offers two variations on one flavor theme. The foliage, called “dill weed,” tastes crisp, fresh, and herbaceous like parsley but with added sweet-citrusy notes. The seeds, which develop later in the season, have a stronger flavor — more aromatic, minty, medicinal, and pungent.
The difference in flavor between the leaves and the seeds results from the differing composition of their essential oils. The seed oil, which is 2 to 5 percent of the weight of the seeds, consists mainly of carvone and limonene, compounds that also dominate the oil — and thus the flavor — of caraway seeds. Dill and caraway seeds are interchangeable in many recipes.
Dill weed contains roughly a third as much essential oil as the seeds, and its oil contains less of the rather strident carvone and limonene; these are replaced in part by the fresh and faintly minty alpha-phellandrene.
Dill weed is the perfect match for the foods we love when the temperature soars: grilled fish, vine-ripened tomatoes, blanched baby carrots, shellfish cocktails, bean salads, cucumbers in yogurt, guacamole, and chilled vegetable soups. Even zucchini, so welcome at its first appearance but so tiresome thereafter, retains its appeal when thin slices, quickly sautéed in olive oil, are dressed with snipped dill weed.
Though dill weed is native to Southwestern Asia, its admirers extend deep into the Middle East and north into Scandinavia. The dill-filled dishes of these regions offer some delicious uses of this herb. In Iran, people add it by the fistful to their classic sabzi polo (dilled pilaf) and serve dill weed and other fresh herbs with yogurt or fresh cheeses. In Scandinavia, dill embellishes pickled herring, and the herb is essential for gravlax (salt-cured salmon). People in Russia enjoy dill with fish, wild mushrooms, beets, sour cream, and even vodka. For a tasty Bloody Mary (or Virgin Mary if you omit the vodka), muddle a sprig of dill weed in a glass with tomato juice, add vodka and ice, and serve.
You don’t have to rule out dill weed when the air turns nippy. Try it with hearty barley pilaf, stuffed cabbage or mushrooms, baked potatoes with sour cream, and cheese soufflés. Buckwheat blintzes and caviar with dilled sour cream are heavenly.
Dill plants flower and set seeds when the temperature reaches its zenith, just in time for late-summer pickling and harvesting the seeds for hearty winter dishes.
Dill seeds add a pleasing crunch and a burst of flavor to rye breads as well as crackers and bread sticks. Crushed, they enliven braised cabbage, provide a crisp counterpoint to sturdy beef stews, and add zest to fricasseed chicken (sautéed in butter and stewed with vegetables). For a finishing touch to a Christmas goose, roast it with apples or pears spiced with crushed dill seeds.
You can store fresh-cut dill weed for a few days in the refrigerator or at room temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Immerse the stems in water and cover the leaves loosely. Change the water every day or two, and keep the leaves themselves above water level. Leave purchased sprigs in their store packaging; make sure no excess moisture is clinging to the leaves. Most frozen or dried dill weed is tasteless.
Dill seeds keep well in an airtight jar stored in a cool, dry place. Harvest them when the seeds just turn brown. Clip the umbels with some stem attached, bundle loosely, and hang upside down in an airy, dark place. Spread paper under the bunches to catch any seeds that fall. When the seeds seem dry (after three to five days), rub the seed heads between your hands to dislodge the remaining seeds. Spread them in a pan for a few more days, and then bottle a few, screwing the cap on tight. After several days, if no mold develops, bottle the remaining seeds and store for up to a year.
A single dill plant, raggedy when going to seed, seems a poor bet for garden design, but less-mature plants, massed or bordering other plants, can add a knockout touch to your landscape. The young, feathery, emerald foliage looks lacy. Later, the yellow flower umbels mimic bursting fireworks. Not until the plants turn brown and brittle do they lose their appeal.
At least nine heirloom or open-pollinated dill cultivars are available online. Although some of these register subtle flavor distinctions, the main difference is in growth habit: Some soar to 5 feet while others grow no taller than 18 inches.
A group of at least four plants of the tallest cultivar, ‘Mammoth,’ could visually anchor the center of a formal herb wheel or square. In the vegetable garden, these 3-to-5-foot giants are appealing planted between shorter vegetables and tall pole beans, corn, or tomato towers.
Medium-tall cultivars that grow 2 to 3 feet tall add a breezy touch to an informal fence line or background strip with such companions as borage, yarrow, cumin, caraway, rue, tansy, daylilies, southernwood, or feverfew. Broadcast a mixture of dill and flax seeds to produce a mass of green foliage that later sparkles with yellow umbrellas and tiny blue flower cups. The planting will attract bees and butterflies, which brush against the foliage and release dill’s heady scent.
‘Bouquet’ and ‘Fernleaf,’ the two shortest cultivars, are excellent in patio pots or as compact edging plants.
Dill foliage grows best when daytime high temperatures are between 75 and 95 degrees. Hot and dry weather causes the plants to hurry up and flower, set seed, and die. To ensure a continuous supply of dill weed, sow seeds every two to three weeks from early spring until the advent of hot weather. In the Sun Belt, you can sow a fall-winter crop in mid-August.
Select a sunny, well-drained site. In warm climates, plants benefit from filtered afternoon shade. Work the soil well, and then sow seeds in rows 30 inches apart or in small clumps. Cover them with 1/4 inch of soil. Keep the soil moist until the seedlings are at least 5 inches tall, and then water as needed — daily during very hot weather. Thin the 5-inch plants to 6 to 12 inches apart (and you can eat the thinnings). Feed plants lightly with diluted fish emulsion or another liquid organic fertilizer every four weeks. Dill often self-sows year after year. Look for (and harvest) the ferny seedlings before digging up your garden in spring.
Although growing dill by direct-seeding is preferable because transplanting the seedlings can damage their delicate taproots, you can jump-start dill plants with minimal handling by sowing pinches of seeds in small peat pots three to four weeks before the date of the last expected frost. Cover them with 1/4 inch of potting mix. When the seeds germinate, place the pots in a sunny window or under fluorescent lights. Keep the soil moist but not wet. Harden the seedlings off for a few days before transplanting them, pots and all, into prepared garden soil. Tear off any pot rim that sticks up out of the soil, as it can wick moisture away from the roots. If growing dill in a container, select the largest, deepest pot you can find.
You may have heard that dill and fennel can cross-pollinate, producing hybrid seeds with inferior flavor. Although the pollen transfer can be effected by hand, it doesn’t normally occur in the garden. Plant your dill and fennel wherever you like and be assured that the seeds of each herb will taste the way they’re supposed to.
An Ancient Plant
Ancient civilizations also valued dill. Dill seeds were found at a 3,500-year-old archaeological site in Thrace (Southeastern Europe), and dill weed is said to have been found in an Egyptian tomb from the same era.
Dill is mentioned in many early Greek writings. The Hebrews also knew and used the herb; scholars have suggested that the word “anise” in the Bible actually refers to dill.
Among numerous Roman references to dill, the naturalist Pliny the Elder proposed using dill seed in breads, and the Apicius manuscript provides a recipe for pork cooked with dill.
Some superstitious European cooks and healers, believing that dill warded off witches, protected their households with dill plants. Others, believing it to be an aphrodisiac, compounded the seed into elixirs.
Apart from these practices, the ancients clearly were aware of dill’s medicinal value. As Pliny the Elder noted more than 1,900 years ago, “Dill acts also as a carminative, allays gripings of the stomach. … The seed of it will arrest hiccup; and, taken in water, it dispels indigestion.”
Dill’s common name is derived from the Norse word “dilla,” meaning to calm or soothe, which also reflects its widespread appearance in “gripe water,” to soothe colicky babies. Today, many Indian markets stock gripe water next to the rose water and other liquid herbal flavorings.
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