Seasonal Cooking with Rita Calvert~The Local Cook
With the approach of cold weather it’s difficult to see those bountiful verdant herbs withering on the stem for a winter nap. So preserve these herbs yourself and since interest in the provenance of the plate is so high, that you know the source of the herbs you use in your meals. It’s a lovely thing to concoct your designer blends from herbs in your kitchen garden making you an artisan.
Dip the sprigs of herbs in a large bowl of cool water. Shake gently and then place in a single layer on a rack or a clean kitchen towel for a few hours to dry. You can also gently wrap in a clean kitchen towel or paper towel to remove the moisture. For a quick cleaning for herbs of little dirt, wipe the leaves with a damp paper towel.
A simple solution for drying tender herbs such as basil,lemon balm, mint, oregano and thyme quickly for use in a day or two is to place the snipped cleaned sprigs in a small brown paper bag and just let dry for a couple of days. At that time, rub the bag vigorously to crush the herbs and pour into a tin or jar to store.
If you don’t have hanging space with air circulation there are other ‘small space’ options. The leaves of herbs such as basil, oregano and mint can be stripped from the stem and then placed loosely in a basket (which has some air flow) until dry and crispy.
Stem drying is a good practice for sturdier herbs such as parsley, rosemary, sage, summer savory. Gather the stems in small clusters and hang upside down, in a cool well ventilated inside space. Outside air drying sounds fresh and clean but it can fade the color, flavor and nutritional potency of the herbs. Lavender gets the beauty prize for tying just the blossoms into a bouquet and hanging upside down in a cool dry place to dry.
Let the herbs dry until they crackle when touched. The entire process can take from 3 days up to one week. At this point strip the leave from the stem and crumble into large pieces and store in a dark airtight container-away from heat and light. To retain the best flavor, crumble to smaller pieces as you use them for your cooking.
It may not occur to you to dry the seeds or even to harvest them, but here you have some of the tastiest food embellishments. For instance, cilantro or coriander-gone to seed, makes an excellent spice as does whole fennel seed.
Pluck the seed heads along with some stem and place in a small brown paper bag to finish drying. Make sure to dry-roast or toast the whole seeds before grinding with a mortar and pestle or food grinder and adding to foods.
Dehydrators work beautifully if you are seriously getting into volume drying of herbs. After all, that is the process used by many herb companies as temperature and air circulation is controlled. Place the clean dry leaves in a single layer on dehydrator trays and heat on a temperature from 95 to 115 degrees F. Depending on the thickness of the leaves the time may vary from 1 to 4 hours.
Other Preserving Options
With Genovese Basil in mind, pesto is popular and it does freeze well however, it’s also a good idea to simply chop freshly cleaned dry basil,combine with olive oil and freeze in ice cube containers. When firm, pop the basil oil cubes out and store them in a sturdy freezer bag. Then if you do decide to turn your basil blend into pesto, adding freshly roasted nuts and just grated cheese makes it taste even fresher. Of course, the basic pesto is also a sure bet.
- Mix different textures, lavender, sage, yarrow along with dried hydrangea, goldenrod and dried Gerber daisies
- Join with a rubber band & then tie with raffia or ribbon
- Hang over a door as a welcome
- Hang from a pot rack in the kitchen
- Hang from hooks or spools on a decorative wall hanger
- Small bouquets of herbs are lovely to embellish a straw hat
- Use as a statement instead of a bow on a gift box or bag
Herb Infused Vinegars and Oils
One of grandest finales to your herb garden is to infuse vinegars and oils with them for gifts with that special designer homemade touch. The bottle can set the style, just make sure not to use a metal cap on either vinegar or oil as it can rust. A cork or plastic cap is best.
Fresh herb vinegars come together easily and rather quickly when you have fresh picked herbs and their flowers on hand. For the novice, straight forward herb vinegars are best-using just a single herb variety to make the flavor shine. When you’ve become a practiced herb vinegar designer, you may then want to combine a few harmonious herbs and add an aromatic or two such as garlic, peppercorns, citrus peel or even dried chile peppers. Cider vinegar works beautifully or these days people are experimenting with Asian style seasoned rice vinegar which has a bit of sugar and salt added. The apple cider vinegar usually comes at a lower price.
Fill a sterilized master container about one-third full with the leaves and flowers of the herbs and then pour in the vinegar up to the neck of the bottle and cover with a lid. Let infuse for two to three weeks. Test the flavor and when to your liking, strain the vinegar and place in clean jars. Even decorative decanters make a lovely presentation or gift. A few fresh sprigs of herbs can be added at this point. Since vinegar is a preservative, the herb vinegar can be kept for up to one year in a cool dark place but after that the herb can taste rather worn.
For herb infused oils, the process is similar but more herbs are needed to impart flavor which is often done in two infusions. Fill a clean container about half full with clean herb leaves and their flowers. Cover with a mild vegetable or extra virgin olive oil. Again the mixing and matching rule is best left to those experienced with combining herbs or follow a tried and true recipe. Taste the oil after a week and if more intense flavor is needed, strain to remove the herbs and repeat a second time with fresh herbs to infuse for another week. Strain the oil again and place in sterilized bottles. If decorative herbs flowers are added the oil can be used for two weeks or eight weeks without.
Note: It’s best to avoid combining fresh garlic and oil as botulism is a risk plus the oil needs constant refrigeration.
Annual herbs final harvest should be around late October-just before the first frost. Perennial herbs such as oregano, thyme, rosemary and sage should have the final harvest in late September in the mid-Atlantic region. Plan to harvest your herbs before they flower, in the morning, after any dew has evaporated. Snip the herb at the bottom of the stem with strong kitchen shears.