Cooking With Herbs By Milka Hider
In our gardens, many of us have space for, or may already grow an herb garden but feel more comfortable keeping these fragrant plants outside. These delicate plants can very easily be brought into your kitchen to enrich your cooking and your lives.
Growing and cooking with fresh herbs can be an extremely rewarding experience. Not only do you have beautiful fresh herbs throughout summer and fall but if harvested and dried properly you can have a bountiful supply of herbs throughout the winter and spring months until once again your new harvest comes in the following summer. Imagine walking out to your herb garden and snipping just the right amount needed for a recipe as opposed to going to the market being forced to buy a large overly-priced container of an herb such as oregano when all you need is one or two teaspoons. That in itself is worth the effort of growing your own herbs.
A good idea is to plant only those herbs that you will cook with or use to make herbal teas, vinegars and oils. An excellent selection of herbs to start with would be basil, chives, cilantro, dill weed, fennel, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, sweet marjoram, tarragon, and lemon thyme. Many aromatic herbs such as mint, parsley, sage and rosemary tend to repel certain insects therefore making valuable garden companions for vulnerable plants. Dill, balm, and thyme are some of the herbs that attract bees which pollinate other plants. Therefore, keep in mind companion planting when deciding on where to plant each herb. But as delicate as these herbs are, aggressive growers such as mint and oregano should be contained in pots so they do not overtake your entire garden.
Harvesting Herbs – Throughout the growing season, be sure to snip herbs regularly to encourage branching and new growth. Harvest whenever you need fresh herbs but do not cut more than one third of the stem’s length. The only exception to this would be when harvesting chives or lavender which should be cut at ground level.
Preserving Herbs – To preserve freshly cut herbs, wash thoroughly and then dry them using a salad spinner and then blot the rest of any remaining moisture with paper towels. Tie the stems together with kitchen string then hang upside down in a cool, dry area that has good ventilation. Then once the herbs are dried they should be placed in clean jars and labelled and dated. Using a dehydrator which has a heat control, will dry herbs in hours rather than days.
The three greatest dangers in storing herbs are: Excess moisture, too much light and improper sealing of container. If herbs are not properly dried after washing excess moisture left on herbs will produce mould; excessive light in the drying area will cause fading and/or loss of colour; and improper sealing of storage containers will allow insects etc. to get in and contaminate the product.
Herbal Tea - Those of us that buy herbal tea tend to forget that the fragrant plants that fill our tea bags can be harvested in our own backyard. Making your own herbal tea is a lot of fun and a total matter of preference when selecting and creating flavours. The rule of thumb for brewing tea is to use only one teaspoon of dried plant material for one cup of water. Three teaspoons of any fresh herb equals one teaspoon dried. That rule only exists until you figure out the strength of tea you prefer. So then, the perfect cup of herbal tea would be to pour one cup of boiling water over one teaspoon of dried herbs or three teaspoons of fresh herbs, wait five to eight minutes and then sit back and enjoy your tea. If you steep your tea any longer it can develop a bitter taste, and if you steep it less than five minutes you will barely get the flavour from the herb.
Herbed Vinegars - The two main considerations in making herbal vinegar is the type of vinegar to be used (examples being white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar, champagne vinegar, sherry vinegar etc) and the desired flavour, dictated by the choice of herb or combination of herbs. To create flavoured vinegar simply fill a jar with chopped fresh herbs, then pour in the vinegar of your choice to cover the herbs completely. Stir the contents to release any air bubbles then cover the jar using a plastic lid. Label the jar with the date made and herbs used and type of vinegar used. Leave for two to five weeks, making sure to sample each week until the desired flavour strength is reached. At that point, decant the vinegar by straining the vinegar through a cheesecloth or coffee filter into a new clean jar or bottle and create a new label with a date and the list of contents. Unopened, the vinegar will last approximately two years but once opened it should be used within six months.
Herbal Oils - When making herbal oils, like vinegars, there is a tremendous selection of oils. The popular choice is to use sunflower or safflower oil as they have the mildest taste therefore have a minimal effect on the final product allowing the flavour of the herbs to shine. The process is quite simple. Loosely fill a jar with freshly chopped herbs then pour in enough oil to cover and fill the rest of the jar covering the herbs completely. Seal and label the jar with the date and list of contents then place in a sunny spot like a window sill for three to four weeks. For the first two weeks stir the contents every day then place back on the window sill. After the four weeks, strain through a cheese cloth and bottle the herbed oil, remembering to create a new label with the date and list of contents.
These herbed vinegars and herbal oils can be used to enhance your favourite dishes. Adding them to salad dressings or pasta sauces adds depth and a joy of knowing your garden provided these delicious flavours.
General Culinary Uses – An excellent way to use herbs during barbecue season is to cut sprigs of rosemary, oregano, marjoram, cilantro, and basil and tie them together at one end with a rubber band creating a basting brush. Then proceed to baste meats, fish and vegetable with any specific marinade using the herbal basting brush. While basting the essential oils of the herbs are released onto the food along with tiny bits of the herbs. Once the food is ready to be served, cut
off the tied end of the brush (then discard) and spread the remaining sprigs of herbs onto the serving platter before plating the food. The resulting aroma and taste is exceptional.
Herbs have been used for centuries to enhance the flavour of soups and stew either by adding the herbs directly or creating a small packet of herbs tied up in cheesecloth, commonly known as a “Bouquet Garni”. This herbal bouquet is typically made up of fresh parsley, marjoram, summer savory, thyme, a bay leaf and rosemary. In French cooking a well known seasoning blend is known as “Herbs de Provence” consisting of dried winter savory, thyme, rosemary, basil, tarragon and dried lavender flowers. This herb blend is delicious when used in egg dishes such as soufflés or omelettes.
The herbs you grow can also be used in potpourris, sachets, herbal butters, or to make long lasting floral displays that scent your home well beyond the growing season. As Julia Child once said “There’s no end to imagination in the kitchen.”