Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Herb Harvest

Cilantro growing on my windowsill
We love fresh herbs!  The aromas and flavors they bring to our dishes are so enticing and delightful, and the bright green leaves perk up any dish with crispness and vitality.

In addition to trying to grow my own, my niece will often bring me generous bags full of fresh herbs from her abundant garden.  Basil, oregano, thyme, cilantro, mint, parsley, chives ... any and all kinds of herbs are always welcome in my kitchen.

There's nothing like the freshness and simplicity of a plate of herbed tomatoes, tender leaves of young basil draped over a Margherita pizza, fresh herbs sprinkled into a salad, tossed into a bowl of spaghetti, scenting our ice cream, or blended into our smoothies.  Fresh herbs not only add inviting aroma, zesty fresh flavor and vivid green to our food, but they also provide a number of health benefits, as well.  Herbs contain a concentrated amount of plant compounds called polyphenols which provide potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to our food.  So including more of these powerhouse herbs and spices to our diets may be boosting our health, as well.

A good way to add more herbs into your life is with Ana's s cookbook, "Everyday Alchemy: Transformative Cooking with Herbs," which is full of exceptional recipes that incorporate these wonderful flavor enhancers in all kinds of dishes and treats.

Like many other folks, we have also been discovering new ways of enjoying fresh herbs ... new blends for tea, infusing liqueurs and mixed drinks, flavoring our lemonade, and surprising us in desserts.  Basil, thyme, tarragon, rosemary and chamomile all work unexpectedly well in desserts, and the health benefits of ginger, turmeric, parsley, etc. have us looking for new ways to add them into our dishes.

Alas, once harvested, herbs don't stay fresh forever.  So finding a method of preserving fresh herbs while we have them is a must.  You can keep herbs washed and wrapped in paper towels in your refrigerator, ready for action, as Rachael Ray recommends.  But any timeframe longer than a few days requires long-term storage.

Drying is the method we're most familiar with, since most of us have a variety of dried herbs (some older than others) in our cupboards.  We can certainly dry our own herbs by tying small bundles with twine and hanging them upside down in our kitchen.  The herbs must be clean and dry, and the spot we hang them in must be warm, dry, away from any direct sunlight, and provide good air circulation to preserve their quality.  The oven, a food dehydrator and even the microwave can be employed to dry herbs, as well.

Herbs are sufficiently dried when the leaves are brittle and crumble easily.  They can then be stored in glass jars in your cupboards along with the rest of your herbs and spices.

However, drying herbs is not my favorite way to store them.  I prefer freezing, which seems to retain more of their fresh, natural state.

 There are several methods of freezing:
Bagged herbs before adding oil
  • Herbs can be frozen in water-filled ice cube trays for quick and easy portions of flavor ready to pop into your cooking at any time.  Pop them out and store in a ziploc bag in your freezer once frozen.
  • You can also spread out the herbs on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer.  Once frozen, transfer the herbs into a large plastic bag and seal.
  • I also like to place the herbs into labeled plastic bags, doused with good olive oil and allowed to steep for awhile, and then frozen.  When ready to use, I can easily slice or break-off portions of the herbs and drop it right into my cooking.  The oil seems to protect the leaves better, and I almost always use olive oil when cooking, anyway.  Plus, the oil itself becomes infused with the flavor of the herbs, so I always have flavored oils on hand when I need it (strained or not, as preferred).  I can also thaw a portion to toss with my freshly cooked noodles or pasta so they're instantly herbed and flavored, and I can also use a portion to perfectly dress a salad with the flavorful herbed oil, as well.

I also keep cloves of garlic, or smashed garlic, in a small jar of good quality olive oil in the refrigerator for the same reason.  A spoonful or two of garlic oil in my cooking can be used for quick sautés, stirred into soups or sauces, spread on slices of Italian bread with a sprinkle of salt and pepper (and perhaps some oregano and parmesan cheese) and popped into the toaster oven for fast garlic bread, whisked into salad dressings, mixed into pesto or hummus, or anywhere else I need a hit of garlic and olive oil.

Savor all the wonderful flavors, and flavor all of your cooking with a generous helping of herbs in your repertoire ... starting now!

Related post: Cooking with Herbs

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