Many ways to enjoy summer herbs
Corn on the cob sprinkled with minced oregano, fragrant pesto on ripe tomatoes, little bursts of fresh mint enlivening green salad — late summer is a wonderful season for using herbs. With a couple of hours’ work, you could have a pantry stuffed with various herb preparations, plus dinner on the way.
Many of us are most familiar with dried herbs, and drying your own is easy and produces really flavorful results. Fresh herbs should be rinsed, dried and then spread on a dehydrator tray, or hung in bunches. Dehydrate until they are crackling dry, then strip them from their stems and store in glass jars. I don’t usually crush them until just before using; they keep their flavor better. Most are easy to crush by rolling them between your hands. Drop the crushed herbs into a bowl, measure the desired amount, and return the rest to the storage container. I like to dry thyme, oregano, sage and basil for cooking. Thyme is annoyingly fiddly to get off the stems, but it’s one of my favorite cooking herbs, although I prefer it fresh.
Really, most herbs are at their flavorful best when fresh, but keeping a supply of dried herbs on hand is very convenient, especially for those that are seasonal.
A lot of people like to freeze herbs to maintain their fresh flavor. Some freeze whole fresh leaves to chop as needed. I typically freeze basil and parsley, minced and made into ice cubes, with a small amount of water. Both are handy for dropping into soups and stews.
Another option is to mix minced herbs into softened butter. Roll the flavored butter into logs, wrap tightly and freeze. Pull out for use when you want to serve something a little fancy. I haven’t actually done this, but it offers some very tasty possibilities for making, say, really good garlic bread.
Herb salt is one of my favorite preservation methods. It’s just what it sounds like: minced herbs mixed with salt. Typically, I use a ratio of about four parts salt to one part herbs and store it in the refrigerator. Tarragon salt is wonderful on eggs. Basil salt provides fresh basil flavor year-round.
One of my favorites, from the cookbook “Italian Farmhouse Cooking” by Susan Herrmann Loomis, combines minced rosemary with garlic, lemon zest and salt to make what may possibly be the best garlic salt ever.
You can experiment to find your own favorite combinations; perhaps a thyme, orange-zest garlic salt sounds appealing, or oregano basil garlic salt.
Herb vinegars are another classic technique for preserving fresh herb flavors. Tarragon vinegar is something you can purchase in stores, and has myriad uses, although it’s one of those things I keep meaning to try and just haven’t yet. Oregano vinegar is perfect for using in vinaigrette. I like to pair it with fresh oregano and thyme, and lemon olive oil for spring salads, when I’m craving a rich herb flavor, but fresh basil is still months away.
And then, of course, there’s pesto to enjoy fresh for supper or freeze for winter. I prefer to make it by hand in a granite mortar and pestle, but you can use a food processor. Serve, freeze or refrigerate immediately.
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