The Herbal Harvest: a Thymely Discussion
It is August. The garden has been yielding its bounty. The greens have been a part of the menu for a three (or more) months, the broccoli, squash and cucumbers came forth last month and are now being joined by the eggplants, peppers and tomatoes. There is nothing as enjoyable as savoring the fresh flavors of just-picked, garden-ripened vegetables. But with the abundance, there comes a problem. Even after we’ve shared our bounty with friends, co-workers and neighbors, there is still much left over. How best to save that goodness for a rainy, or better yet, snowy day? We’ll have time in a future issue of the Observer to discuss what to do with all that produce, all those vegetables. For now, let’s focus on something that I consider a bit more timely.
Every accomplished cook knows the huge culinary benefits that are reaped when freshly grown produce is used in recipes. Beyond the produce itself is the significant enhancement that is provided by fresh herbs. Many of us have small kitchen herb gardens where we can snip off a bit of basil, rosemary or oregano. Given a bright sunny spot, a good early-morning soaking, these little patches of flavor can be prodigious indeed. But, care must be taken. A wonderfully lush cilantro can bolt, and go to seed overnight (and now you have coriander). All herbs are best before they bloom and begin producing seed. It is important to snip back those blooms. We don’t generally think of our herbs in the same way as our tomatoes. Sure, we snip as needed, but many times the bulk of the herb harvest never gets harvested. The productive herb garden will yield a great deal more than a snip or two. One needs to be fairly aggressive and do some significant pruning. Unlike picking a cuke, it is only through cutting the plant that we realize our harvest. How can we best preserve these unused cuttings for future use? Now is the thyme to do so, while the flavors are still savory.
Preserving herbs does present some challenges. The most common means of preservation is drying, but it is that very process that causes the huge difference you experience between store bought, dried hers and fresh. The process of drying means the evaporation of the water within the plant. And as that process occurs, essential oils, together with their more-pronounced flavors, are diminished, if not lost altogether. And it seems that the more delicate the herb, the more pronounced the loss. Certainly drying is an option. It is certainly easy and does preserve at least a portion of the flavors from our summer herbs. Tied bunches of herbs should be hung and allowed to dry, the leaves then stripped from the stems, and placed in heavy freezer bags and frozen or refrigerated until needed. A food dehydrator can speed the process a bit. But, although this is perhaps an adequate method, the flavor loss is still troubling. And there are other options.
With other garden produce, freezing would be the obvious answer. And some herbs, such as parsley and chives, hold up to freezing very well. But freezing most fresh herbs has the same impact as the first frost. Once bright green and vibrant, the basil becomes an unappetizing goo. There are, however, some preparations which can be implanted to allow for successful herbal freezing. I had previously written about making a pesto (not limited to basil) and freezing the product in ice cube trays. I have also had some good results in making what amounts to herbal popsicles, adding water or broth to the food processor and chopping up the herbs, much as one would do for a pesto, but without the oil. The resulting liquid can again be frozen in ice cube trays for future use.
Another good way to preserve those summer fresh flavors is to preserve the herbs in good quality, extra virgin olive oil. This can be done as a mélange, a mixture of complimentary herbs, or a singular preparation. Herbs with an oiliness to them, such as rosemary, work particularly well preserved in oil. It is important that the herbs have been well washed all moisture removed. Water and oil do not mix, of course, and the presence of stray water from the washing can result in unwanted bacteria or mold growth. The oil itself can be used in cooking, or as a dipping oil for crusty baguettes, but the preserved herb is also quite useful in soups and sauces during the cold winter months.
Whether you choose to dry, freeze or immerse your herbal harvest in oil isn’t really the issue. The quest here is to preserve, in one form or another, the flavors of the herbs that you have been snipping at all summer. And while you continue to take a fresh snip here or there as required by your daily culinary needs, don’t hesitate to take a more aggressive stance with your healthy herbs and harvest some of that foliage for future use. After all, the thyme is now!