May We Recommend: Preserving Summer Herbs
As the summer winds down, I look at my garden with a combination of wistfulness and hope – sad that the lush entanglement of tomato and cucumber leaves and vines are drying up and hopeful that I can find a way to hold on to the produce that will soon disappear.
In addition to the dozens and dozens of red, orange, yellow and brown cherry tomatoes that are ripening on the vine each day, I have barrels of lush herbs. What to do with the bounty? How to keep it fresh and use it all, now that we are heading into the barren days of winter?
Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen has devised a simple way to enjoy the crush of end of season cherry tomatoes. She halves them, sprinkles them with salt and olive oil, mixes in cloves of garlic and fresh herbs like thyme, and roasts them on a low temperature for several hours. The resulting jammy confection tastes like home-made sun-dried tomatoes. Keep them in a jar in your refrigerator, topped with olive oil and use them at will – mixed into pasta, piled on grilled chicken breasts, or shmeared on toasted baguettes with fresh basil. It allows you to extend the life of the cherry tomatoes for a few more weeks. The resulting tomatoes, cooked low and slow, are so sweet that you can swear that somebody put sugar on them. No need for that – the sweetness happens naturally. And the resultant olive oil, infused with the sweet tomato flavor, is wonderful in dressings or even to use in place of butter when making scrambled eggs.
Fresh herbs can be preserved, too. I planted one modest spearmint plant in a big wooden barrel over Memorial Day weekend. One plant begat many; green leaves now fill every centimeter of that space. I use the mint constantly – every meal in my home ends with a pot of boiling water filled with branches of fresh mint and a hint of sugar, for a middle eastern style tea. I use it on a summer salad of sliced tomatoes, peaches and goat cheese topped with mint. The colors – red, orange and white, set off by the green leaves – are beautiful together. But still, I can’t keep up. There is just too much mint to get through.
I turned to the food scientists at Cook’s Illustrated Magazine for methods on how to keep herbs fresh longer and how to preserve extra herbs via freezing or drying. There is nothing like a judicious addition of flavorful herbs in your food to add impact and surprise and to remind you of the tasty days of summer.
Most herbs can be categorized in two columns – what Cook’s Illustrated calls hearty herbs, like rosemary, oregano, and thyme, and delicate herbs like basil, parsley, cilantro, dill, chives, tarragon, and mint. Hearty herbs are generally added at the start of cooking; delicate, at the very end. When storing herbs, keep their categorization in mind: hearty herbs should be kept dry and delicate ones need a source of moisture to remain fresh.
Keep the hearty herbs in an open zipper-lock bag and refrigerate. The delicate ones should be wrapped in damp paper towel, placed in an open zip lock bag and refrigerated, too. You could also store your delicate herbs upright in a Mason jar with water covering the stems, but if you do so be sure to not wet the leaves themselves and to change the water daily.
As to drying fresh herbs, Liz Bomze, managing editor of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, recommends you do so only with the hearty herbs since “their leaves are sturdy, and their flavor compounds are relatively heat-stable.” To dry rosemary or other hearty herbs, place them in a single layer between two pieces of paper towel and microwave on high for between one to three minutes. When the leaves look dry and fall off the stem, you know they are sufficiently dried.
The delicate herbs can be preserved by chopping them, filling the chopped leaves into an ice cube tray, topping with water and freezing. Once frozen, move the herb infused cube into a zipper-locked bag. The cubes can be added to stews and soups for fresh herb flavor.
We can’t hold on to summer. But we can try to keep it just a wee bit longer.