Monday, July 9, 2012

Preserving your harvest, Part 2: Oils, Vinegars, Butters, and Pastes

Homemade butter, ready to add a few herbs!

Save that flavor! There are more ways to preserve herbs for the winter than just drying or freezing - making herbal oils, vinegars, butter, and pastes (pesto).

  • Herbal Oils: Not to be confused with “essential” oils. These are actually herb infused oils, used mainly for cooking. Gently heat olive oil, peanut oil, or other vegetable oil until it’s warm and fragrant. This will take three to five minutes, depending on how much oil you’re heating. Then pour the oil into a glass jar to which you have added fresh herb sprigs, herb leaves, garlic, or chilies. Use about three 2-inch sprigs, one clove of garlic, or one chili for each cup of oil. Let oil cool, cover, and store in the refrigerator for a week to let flavors develop. Use the oil to sauté and in marinades and salad dressings. Store oil in refrigerator and use within one more week.

  • Herbal Vinegar: Choose white vinegar, white wine vinegar, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or rice vinegar, depending on the herbs you’re adding. Be sure to choose a vinegar that will not overpower the flavor of the herb you’re adding. Heat the vinegar but don’t boil it; then pour it into a glass jar to which you have added fresh herb sprigs or leaves. Use about three 2-inch sprigs for each cup of vinegar. Garlic, shallots, or chilies can be used, too, by adding one for each cup of vinegar. Let the vinegar cool, then cover it with a plastic jar lid, since metal will react with the vinegar fumes and corrode. If all you have is a metal lid, place clear plastic wrap over the mouth of the jar before screwing on the lid. Store in a cool, dark place for up to a year. Use the vinegar in salad dressings and marinades and to deglaze pans.

  • Herb Butter: Combine about 1 tablespoon of minced fresh herbs with ½ cup softened sweet butter. Wrap the mixture in plastic and store it in the refrigerator for up to a month or in the freezer for about three months. Use the butter on warm biscuits or toast, steamed vegetables, poached chicken, or fish. Or use it to sauté .

  • Herb Paste, or Pesto: Check out my Basil post for a good, basic pesto recipe. And then… broaden your scope with it by using other herbs, different nuts, omitting the cheese and or garlic, using different hard cheese, etc! Pesto keeps very well in the freezer.
You can also omit the nuts, cheese, and garlic entirely to make an herb/oil concentrate: Use 2 hard-packed cups of herb leaves to ½ cup good-quality canola or safflower oil. Blend in a food processor until you have a coarse paste. Will keep 1 to 2 weeks in the refrigerator or 1 to 2 years in the freezer. You can use the icecube-tray trick to freeze herb pastes: Simply fill a tray with the paste, freeze it, then pop the cubes out into a freezer bag for storage. (I'd suggest double-bagging or placing the bag in a sealed container for longest-lasting flavor.)

However you decide to preserve your herbs, be sure you give yourself a healthy pat on the back come January. You’ll be enjoying the fruits of your garden and the work of your own hands, adding in a small (but very tasteful!) way to the quality of your life. So, save that flavor and enjoy your herbs!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Preserving your harvest: Drying and freezing

Picture this: In the depths of January, you’re making a big pot of vegetable soup. You go to the cabinet, take down several neatly labeled jars, and shake out some dried leaves. Crushing them between your hands, you release all the scents of summer – basil, oregano, thyme. You let the fragrant pieces fall into your steaming soup, bringing your garden into your home in the middle of winter…

Ahhhh, Herbal Drama! But by preserving your own herbs, you really can add flavor and new interest to your meals throughout the year. You can also save some serious money – just take a look at how much grocery-store seasonings cost. Your own, home-preserved herbs will also be fresher, healthier, and taste so much better.

Harvesting your herbs
If you’re planning on preserving your herbs, it’s best to harvest them when their flavor is at its peak.
  • Harvest just before the plant begins to flower. (For better yields all summer from herbs like basil and oregano, remove the flower stalks as they form.)
  • Pick your herbs in the morning on a dry day, after the dew has dried but before the sun is fully on them.
  • For most leafy herbs, clip stems rather than individual leaves, taking no more than 1/3 of the length of any stem.
  • For parsley, clip the entire stem down to the base of the plant.
  • Washing herbs is usually not recommended, since it actually washes away some of the essential oils that give them their flavor. If you feel you must, you can give them a quick rinse, then gently blot dry or run through a salad spinner.
  • After washing, be sure they’re as dry as possible.

The main goal of drying is to remove moisture while losing as little flavor as possible. How best to do this depends on the plant itself. If using the microwave or the oven, remember: Heat evaporates essential oils, and essential oils are what give herbs their flavor. So, use as little heat as you possibly can.
  • Keep only the most perfect leaves for drying. Discard any with yellowing, spots, holes, etc.
  • For most plants, leave the leaves on the stems. Gather the stems into bunches and band the ends together with a rubber band. Hang bunches in a warm, dark place with good air circulation.
  • If dust is a concern, you can punch holes (lots of holes) in brown paper sacks and place them over the bunches before you hang them.
  • When the leaves are very crispy, strip them from the stems, leaving them as whole as possible.
  • If you’d like, you can save the dried stems and throw them in the fireplace for a fragrant winter fire…or use on the grill for extra flavor.
  • If leaves are too fleshy to dry in bunches, you can pick them from the stems and lay them flat in a single layer on a screen or paper towels. Check often and gently stir them around. This also works well for flower petals, chamomile flower heads, and anything else without a stem.
  • Careful microwave drying can work for some herbs, especially basil. Place a single layer of leaves on a paper towel and cook on full power for short bursts of 30 to 60 seconds. Watch very carefully so that they don’t scorch. Cook until leaves are mostly dry, then let them air dry for a few days until crispy.
  • Oven drying can work, too. Set oven at its lowest setting, and leave the door open for air circulation.
  • Food dehydrators can be great for herbs. Follow manufacturer’s directions.
  • BE SURE TO LABEL HERBS WHILE DRYING! Dead leaves all look a whole lot alike!

Store dried herbs in clean glass jars, away from light and heat. They should last for a year or more, and the taste will be far superior to store-bought seasonings.

Many herbs freeze very well, giving you summer-fresh flavor in a convenient little package. Try freezing dill, fennel, parsley, chives, or basil (which should be blanched, or will turn black).
  • Seal small quantities, about 2 to 3 tablespoons, in freezer bags.
  • Freeze herbs alone or in your favorite combinations – soup herbs, for example, or blends for poultry, fish, or salad dressing.
  • Label bags clearly, and group them all together in a large freezer container. This keeps them from getting lost or damaged.
  • You can also freeze herbs in water: Finely chop the herbs, fill ice-cube trays half full with them, then top off with water. When frozen, pop them into freezer bags and label. (Chopped, frozen leaves all really look alike!)
So... this is how you can get started with "putting up" your herbs for the winter. Next week, we'll be talking about more methods - Herbal oils, vinegars, butters, and pesto. Hope you'll check back - until then, enjoy!

- Jules

Beautiful Basil

There’s not much better than fresh basil, any time! It's summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and basil will be reaching its peak flavor. 

Try basil in your cottage cheese, with pasta, with anything tomato, or in these recipes:

Very Basic Tomato Salad.  Fresh tomatoes!  Slice up the reddest, ripest tomato you can find.  Chop a few fresh basil leaves and sprinkle over the top.  Cover with plastic wrap, let sit a bit at room temperature, then serve.   Salt is very optional. Slices of fresh mozzarella cheese and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil makes it Caprese Salad - paradise!

Genovese Pesto Sauce
4 large cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup fresh basil leaves, packed
¼ cup pine nuts, walnuts, or pecans
Pinch of salt, or to taste
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Combine garlic, basil, nuts and salt in food processor.  Process until chopped fine and formed into a paste.  Gradually blend in olive oil alternately with the cheese, processing until well mixed.  To store, place in covered containers in small quantities, cover with more olive oil, seal and refrigerate.  To avoid spoilage or “off” flavors, you must freeze pesto if it will not be used within two days.   A handy way to freeze for future use:  Spoon sauce into plastic ice cube trays and freeze.  (You probably will want to dedicate the ice cube trays just for pesto, since they’ll reek of garlic forever!)  Pop pesto cubes out, and place into a freezer bag.    (Double-bag for long storage.)   Use a thawed cube or two over buttered pasta or noodles, drop a couple in a kettle of veggie soup, or perk up ready-made spaghetti sauce. 

Basil Vinegar
From Herbs: Cultivating & Cuisine by Carol Asher
1 quart jar, wide-mouthed
Basil, bruised
Wine vinegar

Fill jar with bruised basil to about ¾ full. Add vinegar to cover. Cover jar tightly (do not use a metal lid). Place in a warm, dark place for 2-4 weeks, shaking periodically. After vinegar has reached the desired flavor, strain into a decorative bottle, adding fresh basil to denote the flavor.

From Herbs – Cultivating & Cuisine
3 Tbl. butter or margarine, melted
Four 6-oz. flounder fillets
1 Tbl. lemon juice
1 Tbl. lemon thyme, minced
¼ cup fresh pesto 

Line a shallow baking pan with aluminum foil and lightly brush foil with half the butter. Arrange fillets in the pan and brush fish with remaining butter. Sprinkle fish with lemon juice and spread with pesto. Broil 5 inches from heat for 10 minutes or until fish flakes easily. Serves 4.

Enjoy - and stay cool this summer!   - J.