Garden To Kitchen: Beam Me In
In the Seattle area, the recent heatwave was sadly mellowed by a dense haze of smoke from Northern wildfires. On the worst days, you could taste the tang of burning trees at the back of your throat and eyes itched and burned in sympathy for the fallen. Grey skies and dry weather is not unusual for the maritime Northwest, but our grey summers are usually cool, not steamy like this one. Meanwhile, the gardens go on, the muted heat speedily ripening fruit and flowers and awakening essential oils in herbs, bringing them to full fragrant flavor.
This is a good time to harvest herbs for all sorts of uses, from oils and vinegars to simple syrups and seasoned salt blends, both culinary and for the bath. Tightly sealed in jars and stored in a dim, cool place, dried herbs keep their savor for months and can be stored in the freezer even longer. Right now I’m making herb-infused oils and vinegars of various kinds, some standard, others experimental. As always when playing about, I make small batches of anything I’m not sure about, keeping detailed notes so I can recreate the successes and avoid repeating the disasters. (That is, if I remember to check my notes before trying a seemingly grand notion yet again.)
Herbs picked in high summer have almost shockingly vivid flavors, bright and lively, with over- and under-tones missing from dried ones. captured in oils and vinegars, these sunny, summery garden essences contribute sparkle to many dishes. Basil oil and lemon thyme vinegar make a memorable dressing for green, fruity, or pasta salads. A dash of rosemary-shallot oil gives steamed vegetables depth and finish. A drizzle of garlic-chile oil lends pizza pizzaz. Plain soup gains luster from a few drops of lemon-basil finishing oil, while vegetarian chili sings with a splash of jalapeno-oregano vinegar.
To bring out the richest flavors, oils infused with garlic, shallots, and fresh or dried herbs are oven baked until the added ingredients are brown and toasted. In order to evaporate moisture from the foliage or vegetables that could harbor harmful bacteria, heat oils in a non-reactive, wide-mouthed container such as a large glass measuring cup or a glass casserole dish. Once cooled and strained, the clear and deliciously scented oil may be stored in the refrigerator for up to three months. If an oil looks cloudy or displays a definite layer of clear and cloudy oils after straining, reheat it for 30-45 minutes and strain through cheesecloth or muslin again.
Similarly, various basic vinegars may be gently heated with spices, herbs, or vegetables such as chili peppers or garlic. (Always heat vinegar in a non-reactive saucepan made of stainless steel or enamel). After steeping for several days or even weeks, flavored vinegars are strained and rebottled in handsome containers for gifting or kitchen use. Pretty though they are, flavored oils and vinegars should be stored in the refrigerator, not a sunny window, since heat and light can cloud them and may promote bacterial growth. For safest use, always refrigerate homemade oils and vinegars after opening.
I find it entertaining to develop playful combinations of herbs and spices with fruit flower petals, spices and even toasted nuts and seeds. For instance, a flavorful oil or vinegar can be made by partnering pink, green, or black peppercorns with organic lemon, orange, lime or grapefruit zest. Try different base ingredients, giving preference to polyunsaturated oils with high smokepoints, such as buttery avocado and blander grapeseed. Mild and almost flavorless, American Heart Association favorite rice oil is an excellent carrier that emphasizes the taste and fragrance of your chosen additives.
Now, this is the fun part. Assemble your backbone ingredients and a note book, then jump in and play. Try a little batch of whatever appeals most, perhaps infusing rice oil with rose petals, basil, and lemon rind, or calendula petals, rosemary, and toasted hazelnuts. Wow, right? Vinegars also have particular properties that make them suitable for various partnerings. Mellow apple cider vinegar works well with both herbs and spices, while red or white wine vinegars pair well with fruit, robust chili peppers, and garlic. Like its cousin oil, plain rice vinegar (not the kind made with salt and sugar) boosts delicate flavors without competing; try it with a split vanilla bean, rose petals, and toasted pink peppercorns, or lemon rind, dill, and chamomile petals.
Lemon Thyme & Basil Oil
1 cup safflower or canola oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon stemmed lemon thyme
2 teaspoons organic lemon zest (finely grated peel)
Place all ingredients in a glass 2-cup measure set into a baking pan. Bake at 300 degrees F for 40 minutes. Cool for 30 minutes, then strain through muslin or a coffee filter into a sterilized bottle and cover with a tight cap.
Rosemary Rose & Garlic Oil
1 cup avocado or olive oil
1/4 cup fresh rose petals
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
Place all ingredients in a glass 2-cup measure placed in a baking pan. Bake at 300 degrees F for one hour. Cool for 30 minutes, then strain through muslin or a coffee filter into a sterilized bottle and cover with a tight cap. Refrigerate after opening.
Basic Herb Vinegar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (such as basil, tarragon, lemon balm, parsley, cilantro, chives, dill, etc.)
Bring vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan. Roll fresh herbs lightly with a rolling pin and place in a sterilized jar. Pour in hot vinegar and cover tightly. Let infuse for up to 2 weeks, tasting every few days until you like the intensity. When it’s just right, strain through muslin or a paper coffee filter into a sterilized bottle and cover with a tight cap. Refrigerate after opening and use within 3 months.
If you like fruity salad dressings, try making some of your own and prepare to be amazed at the cleaner, fresher flavors you come up with. You can substitute many kinds of fruit, including other berries, peaches or nectarines, melons or citrus. Strain carefully through several layers of muslin or cheesecloth to remove as much pulp as possible; the result should be colorful but clear, not cloudy.
1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
2 cups red wine vinegar or cider vinegar
2 tablespoons cane sugar or honey
Combine all ingredients with 1/3 cup water and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium low, cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain through two layers of muslin lining a fine sieve, pressing very gently to get all the liquid out. Pour into a sterilized bottle, cover with a tight cap and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.