When I was about twelve years old, I fell in love with the idea of herbs and herb gardens. My parents indulged my interest and I grew excessive amounts of catnip and tansy, along with chives, salad burnet, parsley, thyme and a couple of the other usual suspects. I loved the idea of hanging bunches of herbs to dry which I did until they were gray and dusty. I was a little vague on cooking with them. After all, mom did most of the cooking. I do remember, though, that she encouraged me to pick fresh ones like the chives, burnet, and parsley to chop finely and put in salad. Mind you, in those days, salad was iceberg lettuce with mayonnaise on it, but the herbs really did make a difference.
The experience, though, that opened my eyes to the difference herbs could make in a recipe, came when I was learning to cook in a fireplace, and used a recipe from the 1820s for something called “winter vegetable soup” which was made of carrots, potatoes, turnips, onions, and was seasoned with marjoram, thyme, savory, and salt and pepper. Wow! Thereafter, anytime I thought something needed a little more flavor, out came the marjoram, savory and all. No doubt I over did it.
These days I grow a modest selection of the herbs I use most: chives, dill, thyme, basil, parsley, oregano, cilantro, sage, tarragon, lemon balm, rosemary, borage for the star-shaped blue flowers I put in salad, and this year I am adding chervil. There is little better in life than dashing to the garden in my bathrobe and slippers to pick chives, tarragon, dill, and a little parsley to chop and add to a batch of breakfast scrambled eggs.
Right now, before they bloom, is the best time to pick chives, though I gather it all summer and I love the purple blossoms torn apart, and sprinkled into salad. Most herbs are best before they bloom. I ruthlessly pick blossoms off herbs, especially basil, to encourage the plant to keep sending out new shoots.
Dill is best harvested when the plant is still a little fluff of fronds. As soon as it begins to shoot up, the dill leaf flavor diminishes, and it is best to wait until you can use the flowers, or the green seeds, and eventually, the dried seeds. I let dill self-sow by leaving seeds on some plants. They hate being transplanted and will bolt (flower) first chance they get after you move them. Ditto cilantro; let it self-sow, and you’ll hardly ever run out.
So, it is wonderful, of course, to pick fresh herbs to use, but what if you don’t have a garden and you obtain your herbs at the store in those packs sufficient for four families? What do you do with the rest of the herbs after adding all you need to a recipe? Or how do you keep those fresh flavors coming when the snow is three feet over the herb bed?
Hint: drying is not the only answer. In fact, check your herb and spice collection. If the jars contain yellowed dusty stuff, pitch it out. Consider using different-sized jars with the largest jars for your most frequently used herbs and spices: I save tall horseradish jars, mustard and jam jars for my favorites: ginger, cinnamon, curry, black pepper, oregano, basil, chili, cumin. A whole rack of identical jars maybe aesthetically pleasing but probably doesn’t match real life. Buy your herbs and spices from bulk containers at store front coops where you can scoop out exactly what you want. Cheaper that way, too.
For fresh herb flavor, consider tearing off the leaves of herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, and shredding them into ice cube trays, adding olive oil and freezing them until they are solid. Knock them out and store in a plastic bag. Next time you want rosemary (or sage or thyme) roasted potatoes, drop a couple of cubes onto the roasting pan and you are all set for both rosemary and olive oil.
Basil pesto freezes very well, and you can make a proper batch with the nuts, garlic, basil and olive oil and freeze that. Or, as I discovered, you can whirl up parsley, garlic scapes, dill, basil, almost any kind of tender leaved herb into a thick paste with olive oil, and put it in the fridge or freezer in small jars or frozen in cubes. Spoon out a blob to add to soup, stew, or a pasta sauce. Once it is out of the freezer, you do have to use it promptly or it will grow mold (which you can just scrape off.)
If you are a seasoned-salt fan, you can make your own. Strip the leaves off your choice of herbs such as parsley, thyme, basil, chives. Finely shred the zest of one lemon. Spread in a baking pan with as much salt as herbs. Put into a low oven, about 250 until the herbs are crisp. Throw it into a blender or food processor, whirl it up, and store in a jar.
Easily done also is a small batch of herbed mayonnaise for spreading on sandwiches, adding to potato or pasta salad, chicken or ham salad, or deviled eggs. Mix a batch and keep it in the fridge. Consider using goat cheese instead; it will work just as well.
- Herbed Mayonnaise
- 1 cup of your favorite mayonnaise or goat cheese
- Generous handful of your choice of dill, parsley, chives or scallions
- Clove of garlic, optional
- Put the mayonnaise in a bowl.
- Finely mince the herbs, and puree the garlic.
- Add to the mayo and mix well.
- Let stand a while, taste, and add more herbs if desired.