Flavor fall and winter by preserving herbs

Lavender is one good candidate for sugar conserving. Others are mint, scented geraniums, and fragrant basils. Cover them completely with layers of sugar, seal, and store in a cool place.
Lavender is one good candidate for sugar conserving. Others are mint, scented geraniums, and fragrant basils. Cover them completely with layers of sugar, seal, and store in a cool place. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 08, 2011

Fresh herbs are at their most abundant and affordable during these waning days of summer. So, yes, use them with abandon. Chop and sprinkle on grilled fish, mince and rub on lamb, tuck whole sprigs in glasses of iced tea and lemonade.

But the onset of autumn doesn't have to signal the end of herbal enjoyment. Now's the time to preserve your herbs for use later in roasts, stews, even cocktails.

Herbs are extremely easy to "put by." No sterilized jars and pots of hot water needed.

Air drying. This method takes two to three weeks and can beautify your kitchen in the meantime.

Sturdy herbs work best: sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, summer savory, lemon verbena, or lavender. And you can do this with herbs from your garden or with store-bought fresh herbs.

Pick just after the morning dew has dried, but before the heat of the day. Rinse and pat dry gently with kitchen towels.

Remove leaves from the bottom of the stem or branch and bundle together loosely (four to six stems per bunch). Tie with a string and hang out of direct sun, in a place protected from rain. Look for a spot in the garage, attic, or kitchen with good air circulation. Small bunches of herbs hanging from a pot rack look great in the late summer kitchen.

Another option is to spread the herbs in a loose-weave basket tray or screen and dry them flat.

Or, use the brown paper bag method. This works well for herbs with delicate leaves and flowers, or seed heads such as fennel or chamomile. Put them in a loosely tied paper bag so the flowers, seeds or fine leaves are contained.

Once the herb crumbles to the touch (in two to three weeks) the leaves can be packed in jars or sealed in plastic bags to keep off dust. Don't crush them at this point - store them whole so they'll retain more of their flavor-filled oils.

When you cook with dried herbs you should use less because the flavor is concentrated. Experiment. Start by substituting one teaspoon of dried herb for one tablespoon of fresh, then taste and adjust the quantities.

Use these methods with mint, lemon balm, bee balm, or lemon verbena for herbal tea. Plan ahead and save old tea tins or herb bottles in which to pack your herb blends, or store them in glass jars or plastic bags.

Generally, home-dried herbs will maintain their aroma and flavor for many months, but should be kept from direct sunlight to maximize storage time.

Salt curing and sugar conserving. These are both old-fashioned and newfangled approaches to preserving an herb harvest. Leaves of herbs are layered and well-covered in salt or sugar so that they retain more color and texture.

Mint, scented geranium, lavender, and fragrant basils are good candidates for sugar conserving.

Pour 1/2 inch of suger into a a clean glass or nonreactive container. Place leaves of rose or lemon geranium or mint or small sprigs of lavender across the surface. Cover completely with a ¼- to ½-inch layer of sugar and repeat until all the leaves are covered (or you've run out of room in the container). Be sure the top layer of sugar completely covers the herb. Seal the container. Store in the refrigerator or a cool spot in your house.

Use them later in baked goods, fruit dishes, puddings, sauces, and cocktails through the winter months.

Salt layering is done exactly the same way using sea salt or kosher salt instead of the sugar - and any herbs you like.

I've had success with basil, tarragon, savory, oregano, and thyme. And I especially like salt-cured red Shiso leaf (perilla) which grows like a weed in my garden and adds a piquancy and color to rice-based meals.

Make an easy herb salt by chopping preserved herb leaves with a small amount of the curing salt, or use the salt or the preserved herbs separately.

Freezing herbs. The freezer method is great with tender herbs such as chives, basil, parsley, and tarragon.

Start with fresh leaves, whole or minced. Spread the herbs on a cookie sheet so that they are not touching. Put the cookie sheet in the freezer.

Once they're frozen, scrape the herbs into a bag (make sure it's labeled) or small lidded container (ditto) and put back in the freezer. This method keeps the herbs separate and easy to use straight from the freezer.

An alternative to the cookie sheet is the ice cube method: Chop herbs such as parsley, mint, cilantro or basil quite fine. Fill each section of an ice cube tray halfway with herb and a small amount of water. Freeze. Remove from freezer and add water to now completely cover the herb. Freeze again. Pop the frozen herb ice cubes into a plastic bag. Use these flavor-filled blocks directly from the freezer in soups, stews, grain dishes, or even hot drinks.

Frozen herbs do not make a great garnish, but their flavor and color is well preserved for adding to cooked foods. Again, be sure to label your herbs while they are still recognizable.

You can also make herbed butters or herb-infused oils and freeze those for up to six months. This method works well with a single herb or a blend, with or without salt and pepper.

A mixture of tarragon, chives, garlic, salt and pepper blended with butter is great on fish or steaks.

Thai basil, mint, ginger, garlic, and hot pepper flakes blended with peanut oil is lovely to season stir-fried dishes.

Or try the easy and delicious Argentine condiment chimichurri (see recipe). This herb sauce sounds exotic and is fun to say out loud, but is a simple paste of parsley, garlic, and olive oil that is easily made in large quantities and frozen in individual portions.

The portions thaw easily to use as a terrific marinade or served tableside with grilled or broiled meats, fish, or vegetables. Make a big batch for your next barbecue and freeze some for later.

Herbed elixirs and tonics. Don't forget cocktails. Even a mid-priced vodka can be transformed into an exotic and elegant addition to your home bar.

Lightly bruise your choice of fresh herb (to release the oils) and add to a bottle of vodka or rum. After several weeks sample (with or without mixers).

Tarragon-cucumber vodka makes a Bloody Mary even better and adds zest to a Dirty Martini.

Ginger-infused rum makes a drink as warming as the Jamaican sun. Why not vanilla bean and basil? Green coriander seed and hot pepper? A sprig of lavender and some local honey added to good brandy and set aside for about a month makes a very soothing postprandial treat - and if you catch a cold this winter, add a squeeze of lemon and serve warm.


Lavender Lemon Pound Cake With Glaze

Makes 12-15 servings

For the cake:

23/4 cups all purpose flour

11/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted

   butter

13/4 cups sugar

3 large eggs

3/4 cup whole milk

Finely grated rind of one

   lemon

1 teaspoon finely minced fresh lavender

   leaves or flowers (or

   scant 1/2 teaspoon dried

   culinary lavender, very

   finely crushed)

For the glaze:

2 teaspoons fragrant fresh

   lavender leaves or flowers

   or 3/4 teaspoon dried

2/3 cup sugar

Juice and rind from one

   lemon

1. Grease and flour a 9-inch bundt or tube pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small bowl.

3. In the large bowl of an electric mixer cream the butter until smooth, add the sugar and beat until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs one at a time until well mixed. Add half the flour and half the milk and mix on very low speed until almost completely mixed. Add the remaining flour and milk and beat on low to medium until no more flour is visible and the batter is smooth. Do not overmix. Add the lemon rind and lavender and continue mixing until combined.

4. Turn batter into prepared pan. Bake for approximately 1 hour, until the cake top is lightly browned and feels just firm to the touch. Test with a thin wood skewer inserted into the center of the cake. Cool on a rack for 30 minutes to an hour and then turn out onto a serving plate.

5. To prepare the glaze: in a small saucepan heat 1/3 cup water with the lavender and sugar. Bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Let sit for 10 minutes. Strain out lavender. Add the rind and juice to the syrup. Pour this glaze evenly over cake while still warm.

- From Anna Herman, annasedibleadventures.com

Per serving (based on 15): 340 calories, 4 grams protein, 51 grams carbohydrates, 33 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 76 milligrams cholesterol, 185 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Chimichurri

Makes 1 cup

1 large bunch Italian pars-         ley, washed, dried, and

   large stems removed

   (about 11/2 cups loosely

   packed)

2 sprigs fresh oregano or

   marjoram (about 20

   leaves)

3-4 large cloves garlic,

   peeled and minced

Juice of one lemon or 2

   tablespoons white wine

   vinegar

Zested rind of one lemon

1/2-2/3 cup olive oil

Salt

Pepper

1 tablespoon red pepper flakes (Aleppo pepper recommended)

1. Place parsley, oregano, and minced garlic in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse several times, scrape down the sides, and pulse again until the herbs are minced fine. Stop well before the herbs are pureed. (This step can also be done by hand with a sharp knife and a cutting board.)

2. Scrape the herb mixture into a medium glass or stainless steel (nonreactive) bowl. Add lemon juice and rind, olive oil, salt, and peppers. Mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add enough oil to make a thick saucelike paste.

Note: This versatile traditional condiment has many variations. One can substitute some of the parsley for cilantro; use lime instead of lemon; vinegar in addition to or instead of lemon; add more or less garlic, more or less or different hot peppers. Just don't leave out the garlic!

Use chimichurri to marinate chicken or beef for an hour or two before cooking. Brush again on grilled or broiled meat after cooking and serve extra chimichurri on the side. When cooking fish or vegetables, use to baste during cooking and as a sauce at the table.

Freeze in small containers, well sealed, with a thin layer of olive oil on top to prevent browning.

- From Anna Herman, annasedibleadventures.com

Per tablespoon: 45 calories, trace protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, 5 grams fat, no cholesterol, 37 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.


Late-Summer Tomato, Herb, and Toasted Bread Salad

Makes 2-4 servings

1 baguette

1/3 cup olive oil

Sea salt and lots of fresh

   ground pepper   

3-4 ripe tomatoes, cored and

   chopped, reserving juices

6-10 green or black olives,

   pitted and coarsely

   chopped

1 clove garlic, finely minced

   or crushed

1/2 teaspoon fresh rosemary

   leaves, minced fine

1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme

   leaves, minced fine

3-4 fresh basil leaves, sliced

   very thin

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

Fragrant and fruity olive

   oil for drizzling

1/3 cup fresh Parmesan

   cheese shavings (made

   with vegetable peeler)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the baguette in half lengthwise, and each half into slices just over 1/2 inch thick.

2. Toss bread pieces with the olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and spread on a baking sheet.

3. Cook, turning bread pieces once or twice, until well browned, about 12 minutes.

4. Put the browned bread in a large bowl. Add the tomatoes and their juice, olives, garlic, herbs, and vinegar. Season well with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil and toss until bread is well moistened by the tomato juices. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add the Parmesan shavings, another drizzle of oil, and serve.

- From Anna Herman, annasedibleadventures.com

Per serving (based on 4): 468 calories, 12 grams protein, 41 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 29 grams fat, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 841 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Tarragon Cucumber Vodka

Makes about 20 servings (11/2-ounce shot per serving)

3 sprigs tarragon

1 liter vodka

2 fresh organic cucumbers,    washed

1. Lightly bruise the tarragon sprigs (squeeze them gently to release the oils) and put them in a large glass quart jar. Pour the vodka over the tarragon and seal the jar. Let sit for 3-10 weeks, shaking occasionally.

2. One day to one week before using, slice the cucumber into 1/2-inch chunks. Place the chunks in a new, slightly larger glass jar. With a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon, smash the pieces until they release some of their juices.

3. Pour tarragon-infused vodka on top - remove the tarragon at this time if the color has faded. Seal the jar and refrigerate for one week, shaking from time to time.

4. Store the mixture in the refrigerator or freezer. Enjoy straight, in a Bloody Mary, or with a fresh slice of cucumber, fresh lemon or lime and a splash of Elderflower liquor topped off with seltzer over crushed ice.

- From Anna Herman, annasedibleadventures.com


Learn more from Anna Herman at annasedibleadventures.com.

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