Garden To Kitchen Delights
As summer ripens, so do many of our garden treats and treasures. Herbs and berries, root crops and legumes are at their peak, while summer squash and tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are coming on quickly. When the garden is large, it can feel like a full time job to capture the bounty before it passes its prime. Fortunately we can employ some time proven techniques for preserving foods in forms that remain tasty and useful for many months.
Hot summer days awaken essential oils that create both flavor and medicinal benefits in our kitchen herbs. When we harvest and dry or freeze them immediately, our home grown herbs retain far more flavor than store bought ones, especially if the commercial ones have been sitting in our kitchen cupboard for very long. Even when we grow our own herbs, it’s easy to forget that they can grow stale quickly in warm, humid kitchens. Give your dried herbs the sniff test and taste a little to see if they’ve lost their savor. Toss any that fail on the compost heap, along with any spices that are past their sell-by dates.
And Keep Them Tasting Great
Whether you buy dried herbs or dry your own from the garden this summer, you can extend their shelf life by freezing them in tightly sealed containers. Keep just a tablespoon or so ready to use, since you can refresh supplies anytime with stock from the freezer. For frequent use, herbs and spices are best stored in small glass jars with tight fitting lids, so you can see what you’ve got and how fresh it looks. Glass also protects flavor and prevents fragrance crossovers better than plastic. This is especially important if your herb and spice rack is right next to the stove, where it’s very convenient but also exposed to flavor-degrading heat and moisture.
For fullest flavor, harvest fresh herbs in the morning while the foliage is still refreshed by dew. Ideally, you’ll want to gather leafy herbs from unflowered stems, as blossoming changes the chemical composition and therefore the flavor, and not for the better. For soft, leafy herbs such as basil, chervil, chives, mint, oregano, and parsley, trim up to half the length of the stems each time you harvest. They’ll grow back quickly and can be gathered again every few weeks. Only rinse herbs if they are dirty (unusual), as immersion in water can dilute the essential oils. Dry fresh herbs in a single layer on bakers’ cooling racks over clean newspaper in a warm, dim, dry place (attics are great). When crisp, store them in labeled, tightly sealed glass containers in a dim place (not a sunny windowsill, as sunlight and heat degrade essential oils). To keep dried herbs potent for months, freeze in double containers (sealed glass jars tucked inside plastic boxes works well without flavor loss or contamination).
Saving Flowers & Seeds
To preserve floral herbs such as borage, chamomile, lavender, parsley, and sage, pick blossoms when the buds begin to open but are not fully expanded. Dry and store them as noted above, using the screen-type cooling racks so the little flowers don’t fall through the gaps as easily. If it’s seeds you’re after, whether from celery, coriander, dill, fennel, or poppies, allow seed pods to ripen fully before harvesting. If you’ll be away at a critical moment, cover the ripening seed pods with draw-string muslin bags (often used for tea brewing or herbal bath salts) to capture any that burst before you’re ready to gather them.
To dry woody-stemmed herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, and lavender, gather twiggy stems, rinse briefly if need be and dry in a salad spinner. Arrange them as above on bakers’ cooling racks, and when leaves are brittle (3-5 weeks), gently strip off stems (save them to toss on coals when grilling). If you dried your lavender blossoms separately, you can later harvest the leaves for use in potpourri and moth repellent sachets. If you need to speed things up, you can dry both annual and perennial herbs, leafy or twiggy, buy placing them in single layers on baking sheets in a cool (200 degrees F) oven overnight or until crisp (around 12 hours).
Playing With Herbs
You can also have splendid fun by weaving small kitchen wreaths from rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano, decorated with dried chilies and garlic. Simple wire wreath frames in various sizes are available at many nurseries, or you can make your own with grape vine prunings or willow wands. It’s easy and extremely pleasant to create fragrant pot pourri and sachets or soothing bath salts, all simple projects children enjoy as well; all that marvelous tactile and olfactory stimulation is wholesome for everyone. For closet sachets, add some citrus zest and cloves to sachets to discourage moths. Sew small bags of lavender to tumble with drying clothing, or turn muslin tea bags into sachets of rose petals and fragrant herbs to toss into a steaming tub without clogging the drain (ask me how I know).
Of course there is no reason why you can’t use fresh herbs straight from the garden to enliven an omelette or a salad or practically anything, savory or sweet. As when using any herbs, fresh or dried, you’ll get the most impact add them during the final 15-30 minutes of cooking. When using herbs to flavor dressings or steamed vegetables, heat the chopped or crushed herbs in a little oil with minced garlic or onion to waken their flavor first. High summer is a brilliant time to make herb salt blends that are extremely popular holiday gifts. If you will use them up within a week or so, air drying is sufficient, but if you want to stockpile for gift giving, always bake off your herb salts, after which they will keep indefinitely.
Herbal Salt Blends
I like to wander through the garden clipping a little of this and a bit of that, then grind the herbs with flaked sea salt to create seasonal blends that grace anything from fish or poultry to desserts (but of course; sea salt with lavender, chamomile, and pepper is brilliant on berries). As a rule of thumb, you can add anywhere from a teaspoon to a quarter cup of goodies per cup of sea salt. However, it is imperative to oven dry the more richly endowed blends or they can mold despite the preservative qualities of salt. You can use any kind you like, but I prefer to use medium flaked sea salts over coarse ones (which don’t melt evenly) or very fine ones, which don’t maintain their relationship to the herbs very well. But that’s just me.
Meyer Lemon Pepper Salt
1 teaspoon tellicherry peppercorns
1 cup medium flaked sea salt
Finely grated zest of 2 organic Meyer lemons
In a dry frying pan, toast peppercorns over medium heat to the fragrance point (about 1 minute). In a blender or coffee grinder, (not a food processor), grind peppercorns with 2 tablespoons salt. Add to remaining salt and grated lemon zest and toss until evenly mixed. Spread in a very thin, even layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 250 degrees F for 15-20 minutes, until salt mix is slightly crisp and brittle but not brown. Store in a tightly sealed jar. Makes about 1 cup.
Italian Herbal Salt Blend
1 teaspoon dried pepperoncini flakes
1 cup medium flaked sea salt
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon stemmed oregano
1 teaspoon stemmed rosemary
1 teaspoon thyme sprigs
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
In a food processor, grind pepper flakes with 2 tablespoons salt. Add remaining ingredients and process until evenly ground. Spread in a very thin, even layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 250 degrees F for 15-20 minutes, until salt mix is slightly crisp and brittle but not brown. Store in a tightly sealed jar. Makes about 1 cup.