There is nothing a cook loves more than being able to grow and cook with fresh herbs. Adding freshly picked and chopped herbs to whatever you are cooking, catapults the dish to stardom! Well, maybe I am being a little dramatic but, fresh herbs do make a huge difference. Some herbs are perennial, which means once planted they will return for many years requiring very little maintenance. Others are annual and require planting every year and tend to be more work.
In this part of the world, with our long and cold winters, we are forced to buy our herbs from October to April. It makes me wild to pay any where from three dollars and up for five scrawny stems of herbs. So I try to preserve what I can for winter use.
Some herbs dry beautifully but others do not. Sage, rosemary, summer savory, thyme, dill and oregano are the herbs that I have had the best success with drying.
I preserve flat Italian parsley, basil, cilantro, mint and chives in olive oil with great results. I have freeze dried chives but was not satisfied with the flavor.
The nice thing about herbs is that you do not have to own a garden in order to grow them. They do beautifully in pots on a window sill. When I lived in New York, my fire escape was loaded with pots spilling over with fresh herbs. It made me feel like I still had a garden!
My mom has a greenhouse which is where she keeps her basil. One summer, she was so busy that, she forgot to put her basil seedlings in the ground. When she went back to the greenhouse the basil was doing so well she left it there. When she harvested it, at the end of that summer, it looked like it had come from the Amazon forest!
Any of the herbs that I grow in containers, sit in my garden. I find the containers either protect the tender plants from all sorts of predators or keep the more intrusive herbs in check. The mint family is wildly prolific and, if not watched, will choke out a flower garden in several seasons. I love mint and want lots of it so I grow several pots of spearmint, English mint, lemon mint and, a new for me this year, ‘berries and cream mint’. I am going to take the plants, at the end of the season, and plant them at the back of one our pastures. If it takes, I think it would be heavenly to mow a field of mint! Hmmm, imagine lamb raised on mint…I could be on to something.
Preserving herbs with olive oil is simple. I enjoy my herbs all summer by pinching off what I need, which causes the plants to bush out and become more sturdy. At the end of the summer, when it is time it harvest, I wait for a dry sunny day and cut the stems. I remove the leaves, wash away any soil and then make sure they are well dried. Next I put them into my food processor and whiz until coarsely chopped. Then they are stored in small containers holding around 1/4 cup of chopped herbs. Most recipes require two to three tablespoons of fresh herbs so the 1/4 cup portion works perfectly. Cover the chopped herbs with olive oil making sure you leave a little head room so that the olive oil has room to expand once it is frozen. Cover the containers and freeze for up to six months. When you want to use your preserved herbs, give yourself a day’s grace and allow the herbs to defrost in the refrigerator.
Air drying herbs is equally simple. Again, harvest your herbs on a dry, sunny day. Wrap the stems in small bunches with a rubber band and hang in a dry well ventilated room. If the room is dusty, you can cover the herb bunches with a paper bags to keep them free of dust. Just cut a small hole in the bottom of the bag and insert the tied stems through the hole. Then turn bag and all upside down and hang. The bag needs to be large enough to allow air to circulate.
Cooking with fresh herbs moves good food to great. Go get yourself some good potting soil, some terracotta pots and a few starter herb plants. It will change your culinary life!