Preserving Herbs

Preserving Herbs:
Prepare now for adding flavor to the colder months

bigstock_oreganoLet’s go outside, spade and scissors in hand, and pay a visit to that patch of ambitious herbs. It’s time to start the process of collecting and preserving before Minnesota’s bullying frosts set in. We don’t have to say goodbye to the herbs that give our food so much flavor—we can keep their integrity intact over the colder months by drying them or freezing them. It’s easy, it’ll save you money when you’re stocking your spice rack, and you’ll know for certain the origin of the dried herbs in your food.

All right, first things first: take a trip around your garden and snip your choicest herbs. Remember, basil won’t survive a frost and herbs like cilantro can only withstand a light dusting, thus you should collect your herbs when they’re still at a healthy peak. And for this step—the harvesting—timing is everything. It’s best to gather your herbs late in the morning, just after the dew is starting to evaporate. Don’t wait too long in the day because if the sun starts to beat down on the leaves, the volatile oils diminish and you’re left with less flavor. After you’ve clipped all the herbs you want, be sure to wash well and blot dry.

Now, you’ve got a choice: do you want to dry or freeze? If you opt to dry them, the easiest way is air-drying at room temperature. If you’ve got whole branches or stems of herbs, gather them into bunches of 5 to 10 and tie them at the base. Another option here is tray drying: use an old window screen (for maximum ventilation) and arrange the herbs on top. Whether using the bundle method of the screen method, the herbs should be dried in a dark, warm place. Attics, pantries, and sometimes basements work well for this.

You should expect to dry the herbs for 3 to 5 weeks. If the leaves crumble when you rub them between two fingers, then you’ll know that they’re finished drying and ready for storage. At this point, keep the leaves whole or crush them and then put them in tight-lidded glass bottles. (If you choose to crush them, however, attempt to use them within a week; the flavor doesn’t last as long when crushed.)

Another way to preserve your herbs is by freezing them. For this method, soft-leaf herbs like basil, tarragon, and parsley work best. Either strip the leaves and tuck them in a freezer bag, or you can try my personal favorite: the ice cube tray method. Purée your herbs in a food processor, then fill each section of the ice cube tray with a ratio of 1/3 chopped herb to 2/3 water. Freeze these herb-cubes and pop one out over the winter to add zing to a sauce or a soup.

Of course, most of us prefer fresh, live herbs—but keeping a few jars of dried herbs can tide us over to the next growing season. Remember when using your dried herbs, however, that they are much more concentrated than freshly cut herbs (1 teaspoon dried herbs is equal to 1 tablespoon fresh herbs).

There’s one egg recipe I find irresistible: it’s a frittata with loads of herbs and Parmesan cheese. I made it once with fresh herbs and once with dried (whatever herbs I had on hand in my kitchen). Both times it’s gotten good reviews. I recommend making this dish on rainy weekend mornings.

Herb & Parmesan Frittata
(feeds two very hungry people or three sorta-hungry people)

1 cup minced or dried herbs (try parsley, dill, basil, or chervil for 3/4 of the cup, then add others like tarragon, oregano, marjoram, or chives)
2 Tbsp butter
6 eggs
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 °F. Beat eggs, then add herbs, cheese, salt, and pepper to the mixture. Melt butter in a medium-sized, ovenproof skillet on stovetop over medium-low heat. Once butter is melted, pour the egg mixture into the skillet and let this cook for about 10 minutes, or until the bottom of the frittata is firm. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake. Check every 5 minutes and remove once the eggs on the top of the frittata are fully cooked (not runny). Expect to bake 10-15 minutes total. Carefully remove from oven and serve hot. Delicious with whole wheat toast and fresh fruit.

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