It happens every year at this time: Those herbs that started life as tiny specimens in early spring look like they’ve been on steroids of late.
My sweet basil has crowded out its Thai, Mexican and Greek cousins in the antique wash kettle that sits in the middle of the herb garden. The Salem rosemary’s roots have traveled out of the pot’s drainage hole and rooted themselves in the surrounding soil.
The herbs in the ground are faring just as well. The Greek oregano has been cut back several times and is due for another trim. Ditto for my heirloom sage and the various thymes.
What to do to take advantage of that culinary zeal?
Here are a few ideas for getting those herbs picked and preserved for winter use.
Three easy ways to dry herbs:
• Strip an inch from bottom of stems and hang upside down in clusters away from bright light, which may fade color. Why upside down? Nutrition and flavor start in the root and travel up stems to leaves, flowers and seeds. Secure with a rubber band or string. If you like, hang them in a paper bag. As the herbs dry, they’ll fall into the bag.
• Remove leaves and/or flowers from stems and place in single layers on cooling racks or lint-free towels. Dry away from bright light.
• Use a dehydrator, following manufacturer’s instructions.
When the herbs crinkle between your palms, they’re ready for storage. I like to store them in whole leaf, flower or seed form, so the volatile oils stay intact until used.
Storing dried herbs
Store in sealed containers away from heat.
Substituting dry for fresh
If a recipe calls for a tablespoon of fresh herbs, use a teaspoon of dry herbs. With the moisture removed, the flavor of dry herbs is stronger than fresh.
Make a paste of the herbs with a bit of water or oil by pulsing in the food processer. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze. Store in containers in freezer. Herbs turn dark when frozen, but will have plenty of flavor and nutrients.
Substituting frozen herbs for fresh
Use about the same amount of frozen as fresh minced.
I make master batches of strongly flavored herbal vinegars and dilute them for bottling. Use a single herb or a combo of 2-3 compatible ones.
Fill a quart glass jar halfway up with leaves and/or flowers, bruising them with a spoon to release oils. Pour enough white wine vinegar in to fill jar, and seal with non-metal cap. Let sit on counter for a week or two.
Speed up the process by putting the jar in a sunny place outside.
Is it done yet?
Do a sensory check. Do the herbs look limp? Have they lost their bright color? When you open the jar and give it a sniff, does a heady aroma waft out? If so, then your vinegar is ready to be strained, diluted if desired, and bottled.
Use the dishwasher to clean bottles. If you can, put in a fresh herb sprig in each. Seal with non-metal caps.
No refrigeration needed.
FREEZER PESTOThe garlic tends to get stronger in the freezer. If you like, add it after thawing, to taste.
1 large clove garlic
1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts
3-4 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup parsley leaves
4 cups packed basil leaves
1 cup Parmesan cheese or more to taste
3/4 cup olive oil or enough to make a thick pesto
With processor running, add garlic and nuts. Add everything but oil and process until smooth.Slowly pour in oil and process until blended.
I like to store pesto in baggies, flattened and stacked atop each other to save space. Keeps 6 months.
MY FAVORITE MEDITERRANEAN HERBAL SALT
Sub this for regular salt to add flavor and nutrition.
3/4 cup coarse sea salt
1/2 cup packed rosemary needles
1/2 cup thyme leaves
1/3 cup parsley leaves
1/3 cup oregano leaves
1 1/2 cups fine sea salt
Place 3/4 cup coarse salt and herbs in a food processor. Pulse until ground to a fine consistency. Pour in 1-1/2 cups fine sea salt and pulse to combine.
Pour onto a baking sheet and let dry for a few hours. Store in sealed containers away from heat.
Thanksgiving’s not far away, and this butter will come in handy to rub under the turkey skin. Or use as a flavored butter for sautéing aromatics for stuffing. It’s delicious, also, stirred into risottos and grains.
3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
6 tablespoons minced sage
Combine, divide in thirds, and then dump each onto waxed paper, parchment or plastic wrap. Shape into cylinder. Twist to seal ends. Store in baggies and freeze up to 6 months. To use, just cut off what you need.
Tip from Rita’s kitchen:
Don’t limit yourself to sage. Create your own herb blend.