Every year I plant something new that I’ve never grown before. This year, it is an herb called fenugreek.
Fenugreek does triple duty – it is both a culinary and medicinal herb, and as a nitrogen-fixer, it improves the soil as well.
It is thought that fenugreek was first cultivated in the near East, India and North Africa, and it is commonly used in south and central Asian cuisine. I have to admit that I’ve never tasted fenugreek but I am looking forward to trying its young leaves in salad or dried for tea, and its seeds when the plants mature. The taste is described as a combination of maple syrup and celery. I can’t imagine how those flavors combine!
Fenugreek is a quick-growing annual heb that germinates in just a few days from rather large seeds placed ¼ to ½ inch deep and 6-8” apart in full sun. Spaced closer together, fenugreek is useful as a ground cover under slower growing crops. Water regularly to keep the soil moist, but not so much that it is waterlogged.
The leaves are similar to those of clover and the flowers are reminiscent of pea blossoms. Plants can grow to about 2’ tall. Periodic pinching off the top third of mature stems encourages branching growth. If you aren’t intent on saving seed, continuous pruning of the top 6” encourages more growth and prevents flowering and seed production.
You can plant fenugreek in containers as well. It is shallow-rooted so the container need be only 6-8” deep. Place seeds 1-2 inches apart atop the potting soil and cover with an additional ¼” of soil.
Young leaves are good mixed with other greens in salads. They can be harvested just 20-30 days after sowing. They will keep for a week if they are removed from the stems, wrapped in paper towels and placed in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Even with regular cutting, eventually the plants will bolt and produce pretty flowers and then seeds. The leaves then become tough and bitter.
Fresh leaves can be frozen by removing them from the stems, roughly chopping them, wrapping them in foil, and placing the foil packets inside a zip freezer bag.
Leaves can be dried by tying the stems in bundles and hanging them upside down in a dark, dry spot, or use a dehydrator of warm oven. Once dried, remove leaves from the stems and store them in a glass jar in a dark cabinet. Dried leaves are used for cooking and tea.
Seeds are harvested when the plant turns yellow and begins to dry out and die. The seeds develop inside pods which hold from 10=20 seeds each. Snap the pods off at the stem, being careful not to tear them open or seeds will scatter. Break open the pods over a large bowl so seeds are contained when they fall.
Just like the leaves, there are multiple uses for the seeds. To use them as a spice, dry roast them on the stove top over medium high heat for one to two minutes, stirring constantly. Over-roasting will cause them to taste extremely bitter.
If you want to go the distance and grind the seeds into fenugreek powder for cooking, there are a few steps. First, soak the seeds in water overnight. Drain and pat dry with a paper towel or let air dry. Heat a pan over medium heat, add the seeds and dry roast and stir until their color deepens. Let cool and use a spice or coffee grinder to powder the seeds. Dried or powdered seeds will keep for a year in an airtight container.
Finally, seeds can be sprouted on the countertop in a mason jar. It’s best to include fenugreek seeds with a mix of other sprouting seeds because the sprouts are slightly bitter.