Winter may seem a long way off, but summer is the time to cut and preserve herbs for your favorite recipes and for healthful supplements during the winter months. For the last three days, my granddaughter and I have been tying bundles of thyme, lovage, oregano, winter savory and sage to dry on a wooden laundry rack in my kitchen. We have been preparing infused herbal vinegars and oils to add to the pantry, and picking chamomile, peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm and red clover to make teas. We are also stocking the cupboard with Medicinal herbs. This is a busy time of year for the herbalist and gardener.
Not all Herbs Dry Well
Drying in a warm, airy place, or in a food dehydrator, until paper dry, and then storing in clean, dry glass jars works for many herbs, but not all herbs retain their flavor well when dried. Parsley, basil and French tarragon are examples of this limitation. Fortunately, these herbs can be preserved by other methods.
Many people know that one way of preserving basil is to grind it with garlic, olive oil, black pepper and pine nuts (I use the less expensive raw almonds) to make pesto. Fewer people are aware, however, that parsley can be prepared in a similar manner to make a condiment known as baguet. Baguet is amazingly delicious. A couple of years ago, I made some and used it with shrimp sautéed in butter and lemon. It was superb. I even loved eating the baguet alone with a spoon. I will include some recipes at the end of this blog. To store baguet and pesto, I like to freeze them in cocktail sized ice-cube trays until solid, then remove them from the trays and place in freezer bags kept in the freezer. This gives me portions that are handy to throw in an omelet, add to spaghetti and fettuccine sauces, or to flavor an herb butter. I am going to experiment with preparing cilantro and tarragon in this way.
Tarragon may grace your winter dishes by using it to infuse olive oil. I just fill a jar with the fresh herb and pour enough olive oil over it to completely fill the jar. It is very important that the oil completely fills the jar to avoid condensation, as condensed moisture from the herb may cause the oil to become rancid. The jar is then placed in a very warm place, such as a greenhouse or sunny window for a couple of weeks. Some people suggest leaving the lid loose for a few days to allow any moisture from the herb to evaporate. Since I placed mine in the greenhouse, I didn’t loosen the lid, as I don’t want insects getting into the jar. I think it would be good however to put the jar in a food dehydrator set at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It may take less time than the other ways. In about two weeks, the oil is strained off. Dispense with any water or sediment that has settled to the bottom of the jar, as these can make your oil become rancid. The infused oil is then stored in a cool dark place. Many herbalists do not suggest storing it in the refrigerator as this encourages condensation. I have never had a problem with this myself, but I’ll not buck the experts. A dry root cellar or cool basement would be ideal. Basil is another herb that may be used to infuse oil with good results.
Herbs that don’t dry well may also be preserved by vinegar infusion. Every year, I make several herb vinegars. I make a tarragon vinegar, a country-style herb vinegar and an Italian-style vinegar. This year, I might try a raspberry vinegar. I just pack my chosen herb or herb combination into a jar and cover it with apple cider vinegar. I then let it sit for two weeks and strain it. Very simple. Again, keep it in a cool, dark place. You could use balsamic or wine vinegars for the Italian style, or the tarragon, and apple cider vinegar for the country style. Just don’t use distilled white vinegar, as it has no nutritional or therapeutic value.
Be Sure to Preserve Enough Herbs to Use as Gifts
I always make my vinegars and oils very strong. That way, a little goes a long way. I can give a half-pint jar to a loved one, and that person can add more vinegar or oil to easily have two to three times the amount to use in their cooking. One of my daughters looks forward to the tarragon vinegar I always bring her at summer’s end. She has a recipe for a tarragon marinade she uses on grilled chicken breast. She likes to add the basil oil to an artisan-style homemade bread. Good cooks will love you for your herbal offerings. Herbs make great hostess or Christmas gifts.
The following instructions are from Stocking Up: How to Preserve the Foods You Grow, Naturally by the Editors of Organic Gardening and Farming:
“Tie sprigs of fresh-picked herbs into small bunches and blanch them, one bunch at a time, in a steaming basket for 1 minute. Then plunge each bunch into ice water to cool it quickly. Shake off excess water, pack loosely in a plastic bag, and seal with wire twists.”
Some cookbooks suggest you tie your favorite combinations of herbs into bunches and blanch and freeze them to add to your favorite soup and sauce recipes later.
Health and Nutritional Value of Culinary Herbs
Some people may question the value of all of these somewhat elaborate preparations. After all, aren’t herbs just something gourmet cooks use, and not practical additions to the diet? Just something extra? In fact, some people think that spicy food is not even good for you.
The fact is, there is a fine line between herbs that are used for culinary and medicinal, or health, purposes. There is a great deal of overlap between the two. Many Western herbalists are becoming aware that food can be used like medicine, an insight that is common in Chinese herbalism. And herbalists think that one reason herbal supplements generally have less undesirable side effects on the human body, is that our bodies treat herbs as food products and metabolize them the same way.
Many of our culinary herbs have medicinal uses. They are often rich in volatile oils which not only give them the rich flavors we love, but they often have antimicrobial properties that protect against infectious diseases. Before the days of refrigeration, these same antimicrobial properties were why herbs and spices were highly prized for food preservation, and why the spice trade was so lucrative in the Middle Ages.
In addition, many of our culinary herbs are nutrient dense. Parsley, for example, is loaded with vitamin C, and contains vitamin A. Parsley and garlic are of particular importance for the health of the pituitary gland, which controls our thyroid gland. English thyme, oregano, parsley and lovage are considered rich sources of nutrients. Those nutrients can be extracted with vinegar.
Pinki Mattu, practicing herbalist and instructor for Dominion Herbal College, informs her students of the uses of herbal vinegars as a vitamin and mineral supplement. Using the nutrient-dense culinary herbs, wild spring greens, and other herbs, one can use apple cider vinegar to extract valuable nutrients to supplement the diet. She says that one can even add natural homegrown eggshells to the vinegar to extract calcium and other minerals! Like many herbalists, she only recommends the apple cider vinegar (not apple cider flavored) because it has health values of its own. One takes a couple of teaspoons a day.
Using herbs in food for health reasons is a longstanding folk tradition. In Eastern Europe, peasants add calendula to winter stews and oxtail soups (with the bones) as an immunostimulant. It is a tradition in some cultures to gather the new wild greens, such as sheep’s sorrel and nettles, in the spring to cleanse the body of toxins. By the way, nettles are a great source of trace minerals, as well as vitamins. Mother’s chicken soup is a primary example of folk food medicine. I have my own variation: if I am coming down with a winter cold and sore throat, I make a big pot of pinto beans with lots of broth into which I add ample amounts of cayenne, onions and garlic. I sip on the broth, and my sore throat is always soothed, and often even goes away in one day.
Wrap-up and Recipes
So there you have it–easy straightforward ways to preserve your garden herbs for winter use, and ways to use them for your family’s health. I will include some recipes below for baguet and pistou, a basil preparation that is similar to pesto. I hope this blog encourages and inspires you to prepare for winter by laying up some of your own favorite herbs for teas, vinegars, oils, condiments, and for topping off your spice jars. May your days be filled with herbs.
The following recipes are from Keeping Foods Fresh: Old World Techniques and Recipes by the Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante:
Baguet (Parsley Condiment)
1 part shelled nuts
1-2 parts parsley (to taste)
1 part garlic and onion (mixed)
A little vinegar
* Optional: a few anchovies ( I haven’t tried this addition)
Small jars and lids
Grind all the nonliquid ingredients together very finely. Add the vinegar; put the mixture in jars, and cover it with oil. Without the vinegar, preservation is iffy. With the vinegar, it’s a sure thing. Use for pasta and soups.
* Unless you have a cool dry cellar, I suggest you freeze this as I described above. And don’t forget using it with sautéed shrimp and lemon butter. Too good.
Pistou (Basil Condiment)
Pistou is the Provencal version of the more familiar Italian pesto, which usually includes pine nuts.
1 large bunch basil
4 cloves garlic
1 cup olive oil
Small jars and lids
Grind the garlic and basil, add a pinch of salt, and cover with oil. Mix all the ingredients well and spoon into small jars. You can top off with two or three basil leaves, but make sure they too are covered with oil. The jars will keep very well if they are kept in a cool place.
* Again I recommend freezing this, as described above, if you don’t have a storage place that maintains a constant 45 degrees F. or less, such as a cool cellar or basement.