Too much thyme on your hands? Head to the kitchen with these herb-friendly methods of preserving summer in a bottle.
This season we'll all have plenty of thyme along with sweet basil, tarragon, rosemary, sage, parsley, lemon verbena and, of course, mint. The lower temperatures have been tough on tomatoes, but these herbs certainly thrive.
And so do our uses of them: homemade tomato sauce with just-picked oregano, a fruit salad with freshly snipped mint, cucumbers marinated with cilantro and basil -- all these make ordinary flavors sing.
Now is the time to savor and to save our fresh herbs. Whether you grow your own or take advantage of our burgeoning farmers markets, you can "put up" simple herb vinegars, pestos, butters and oils, or dry some of them for fall and winter's pantry. It's simple, easy and satisfying, and, when finished in pretty containers, these make thoughtful gifts.
The recipes that follow are not "plant-specific" and will work well with individual herbs or with herb combinations. When deciding what to use, think of the herb's flavor and keep the end use in mind. The light-tasting dill, basil, parsley and chervil are good with fish and seafood, so use them in herbed butters and pestos.
More pungent rosemary, oregano and chives complement braised meat (lamb or pork) so they will do well in vinegars and pastes. Game, poultry and root vegetables respond to the citrusy notes of thyme and rosemary in seasoned salt. The robust herbs, such as oregano, thyme, sage, savory, mint and rosemary, dry beautifully as their flavors become more concentrated.
These days, specialty artisan herb products -- vinegars, oils, pestos and butters -- fetch premium prices. A bottle of artisan herb vinegar runs $15 while the translucent lavender-colored opal basil-and-chive vinegar you've made in your kitchen runs about $1 a bottle at the most. With an array of handsome containers, you can create a handy assortment of specialty herb gifts for the holidays. But be sure to save a few for yourself, as they are the cook's ready secret for perking up salads, sautés and stews.
Before you begin any of these recipes, wash the herbs in cool water and dry them thoroughly using a salad spinner or paper towels. Be sure the containers you store these products in are cleaned thoroughly, then sterilized and completely dry.
To sterilize jars
Carefully place jars in large pot (or canner) with enough hot water to be 1 inch above the tops of jars. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove jars with tongs and drain jars. They must be thoroughly dry.
Sterilize corks by floating them in boiling water, then thoroughly dry before using.
A bouquet of pestos
Purists agree that the best way to make pesto is to pound it by hand with a mortar. The process yields a rough fragrant paste, but this method is best suited to small batches. When making large quantities, you can't beat a food processor for speed and ease. If I'm planning to freeze my pesto, I often leave out the cheese before turning it into small containers, then add it back in right before I use it.
With pesto, don't limit yourself to fresh basil. The term itself, roughly translated, means paste or sauce. It's equally good with mint, cilantro, thyme and marjoram in different combinations. Try using walnuts, almonds and pistachios lieu of pine nuts for variety and flavor, too.
Choose strong assertive herbs for drying. Oregano, tarragon, marjoram, sage, rosemary, thyme all work best. Basil, parsley, dill seem to loose their flavor when dried and are so much better used fresh.
To dry herbs, gather them in a large bundle, tie with a string and hang upside down in a cool dry place. When they are dry, remove and crumble into clean jars. Store in a cool dark place. They lose their potency after six months to a year.
Here are general recipes, but improvise with different combinations, citrus and spices; let your imagination run wild.
Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis writer and cooking instructor.
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