Thursday, October 13, 2011

Preserving Herbs the Quick and Easy Way

In case you've been wondering what I have been up to lately, I've been very busy harvesting, drying, storing and labeling seeds, pushing raffle tickets and drying herbs. This caused me to think about brushing off an old post and updating it with tricks I have learned in the three years since I posted it.

One of the best things about a garden is the ability to grow and eat your own herbs – sometimes within hours or even minutes of harvesting them. Over the years, I’ve stayed with the basics and easiest to grow: basil, rosemary, thyme, cilantro, dill, parsley, fennel, oregano and sage. I once tried to grow some cumin, but it died within a few days of transplanting it. In days of yore, I harvested my basil as I ate it and then the rest in October, when I would freeze it. In 2008, however, I had way too much to freeze, and so I made and froze pesto from some of it and dried some of it (which I then grind and store in jars like you buy in the store). The pesto was outstanding (and I substituted easier-to-find and less expensive walnuts for pine nuts).

For myself, I store many of the dried and frozen herbs in regular zip-lock storage bags. However, dried herbs also make nice gifts during the holidays, so it’s a good idea to find some nice herb jars. I had trouble finding jars in 2009, but then happened upon some $2 herb jars at Crate & Barrel in June. (While they’re a little bigger and expensive than I’d like, they are very cute). World Market also reliably has inexpensive herb jars. Let’s face it, you can buy dried herbs for $1 at Big Lots, so how you packaged your dried herbs will matter if you want to create a thoughtful gift.

Basil. I used to think that the best way to preserve basil was to freeze the individual leaves and then throw it into the recipe (for pasta sauce or soup) at the end. This is certainly the least time consuming method and I still always store at least one quart freezer bag of basil this way every year. Pluck off the leaves, wash them, and then throw them in a salad spinner to dry them as well as possible. Then, you can put a layer on a cookie sheet and stick it in the freezer for about an hour before putting them in the freezer bag. If you're really rushed, just fill the bag, and then suck out all of ther air (with a straw) before sticking the bag in the freezer.

My new way (or to be precise -- Iced Tea Latee's way) to store basil is to take the washed and salad-spin dried basil, fill my food processor to the brim, and puree it with extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) before then freezing cubes of this in an ice cube tray. Pull them out and stick them in a freezer bag to have basil all winter long.

The old, tried and true way is to make pesto. This involves taking 3 cups of washed and dried basil leaves, 2 tablespoons of pine nuts or walnuts, 2 tablespoons of parmesan cheese, 5 chopped cloves of garlic and 3/4 cup of EVOO and then pureeing it all through the food processor before freezing them into tiny containers or ice cube trays. Pesto thaws quickly by putting the container in a bowl of warm water or even in the microwave. For a quick meal, I mix it alone with pasta or spread it over white fish (like tilapia) before putting it on the George Foreman grill for a few minutes. You can also use it in a pinch to make bruchetta for an impromptu cocktail party.

One nice thing about basil is that you can stick the stems in a glass or pitcher of water and, if you break the stems off only at the main joints, the stem will sprout new roots and live for weeks in a glass of water placed in direct sunlight. (I've even seen basil flower in the my kitchin and form seeds). Once you have enough roots, you can even repot it and then grow it for most of the winter under grow lights (although it will look rather sticky and unappetizing if you ask me).

When you have a bumper crop (like I have this year) and the food pantry looks at you as though you're insane for bringing them bags and bags of fresh basil, you can dry the rest. One way is to hang the washed branches upside down in a place shielded from direct sunlight where they will get lots of air circulation. I gather the braches into a small group, put a rubber band around the tip of the branches and then run a twist tie (like you find on bread packages) through the rubber band. I hook or twist the tie around the rod.

Another, quicker way to dry the leaves is to 1) pre-heat your oven to 200 degrees, 2) stip the branches, 3) wash the leaves, 4) run the leaves through the salad spinner until dry, 5) place the leaves in a thin layer on parchment or wax paper on a cookie sheet, 6) put the cookie sheet and leaves in the oven, 7) turn off the oven and 8) let them sit overnight or even until you get home from work the next day.

Once the leaves have dried, I run them through my herb mill into a cereal bowl until I have enough to fill a jar or bag.

In the meantime, you should have been prolonging your basil harvest by pinching the aspiring and actual flowers twice a week until mid-September. Then, let most of the plants go to seed and let the unsightly brown seed pods dry on the plant. If you harvest the seed pods, you will find a few (maybe 5-10) tiny black basil seeds inside each pod. I save those tiny in small coin envelopes for next year.

Parsley. Pretty much everything I’ve just written about basil applies equally to Parsley. (I’ve never made pesto from parsley, but I’m told you can). Parsley is best preserved by freezing and I dry the rest for grins & giggles and for gifts. I usually freeze two bags of Parsley by just filling the bags and freezing them. My parley comes back year after year even though it is supposedly an annual. However, the second- and third-year plants always go to seed way too early and so I recommend pulling the entire plant out of the ground in the Fall so that you can start over next Spring.

Cilantro. The only way to preserve it is to freeze it. Unlike basil, I don’t bother with freezing the leaves on a cookie sheet. I just wash it, shake it dry and then pluck the leaves and put them in a freezer bag. I freeze two or three bags in June so that I will have enough to make salsa in July, August and September.

For the seeds, I split them between seeds for next year’s cilantro crop and storing the rest to grind as coriander.

Finally, if you like Thai or Asian food, it is good to wash and freeze some of the roots and stalks to use to make, among other things, curry paste.

Dill. Until this year, I always had too much dill. It generally takes over my back yard and I weed it like crab grass. Before it goes to seed, I harvest a lot of it, wash and shake it and then hang it until it dries out. I then pull the dried leaves into the herb mill and process. To preserve dill seeds, I wait until the seeds turn brown on the plant and then bring them inside and dry them inside a paper bag (which will catch any falling seeds) like I described above.

Dried dill weed is great on white fish. Take the fish, top it with sour cream, dill weed and red onion and then bake. Dill seeds are great in making dill pickles.

Sage. The best time to harvest sage is before it flowers, but you can harvest some without the flowers if you look. (There are not many leaves left on a branch after it flowers). I hang the sage upside down to dry and then process through the herb mill as described. Sage smells so good and has such a fluffy texture, I often think I am doing my recipient a disservice by processing it before putting the leaves in a jar. For myself, I save whole leaves and then crush them when I use them in cooking. I found an interesting recipe for taking fresh sage, spreading anchovy paste, between two leaves, draping it in egg and flower and then frying it in EVOO.

Thyme. I usually process this at the end of the season (like basil). Most of my thyme survives well into the winter and so I am judicious in my harvest. The leaves are freakishly small, but you can hang them to dry like other herbs and process through the herb mill. You can also dry them in the oven (as described above for basil).

Rosemary. Ditto for thyme.

Fennel. If you want leaves or stalks to cook with, you had best harvest them before the plant flowers. Afterwards, the stalks get narrower as the plant flowers. When the plant goes to seed, let the seeds dry on the plant and then bring them in as described above with dill.

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