A Time to Reap: Harvesting Herbs for the Kitchen
The air is getting crisp and cool, the days are getting shorter. Too soon the mornings will be frosty and our plant allies will go dormant for the long winter. There is still time to harvest and preserve herbs from your garden for winter cooking! Later in this blog I will offer you many ways to preserve your herb harvest. What? You didn’t plant an herb garden this year?
No worries. Did you know that many local “weeds” that grow in abundance in our area are considered both medicinal and culinary in other cultures? There are probably many edible wild herbs that are growing around your home and neighborhood. Plants, and wild plants in particular, are loaded with phytonutrients, and all have antimicrobial properties. This means they kill viruses and bacteria- including the ones that make you sick. Plus, they improve the flavor of your food. Let’s explore some of the wild herbs that can be used as culinaries… then we will get into some easy preservation methods.
Many of these wild herbs you might already know- some you may have heard of but cannot identify. Always be certain you know what plant you are harvesting- when in doubt, do not eat it. Get yourseld a good field guide (Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Plants is a good place to start) and go harvesting with someone who is familiar with local flora. I hold wild edible plant workshops in the spring and late summer- watch for those if this piques your interest. Never harvest plants for consumption if they have been sprayed with chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Don’t harvest plants that grow along busy roadways- the road dust and pollution will have coated the plants.
OK then! Here is a short list of readily available, hard to kill plants (AKA… weeds) that you can harvest for culinary purposes.There are many more- but this is a good start:
- Bee Balm (monarda didyma): Warmly citrus flavored. Use the fresh, tender leaves and flowers. Good as tea, and used fresh in salads, salsas and on white meats & fish. The wild variety- monarda fistulosa- tastes strongly of Oregano.
- Lemon Balm (melissa officinalis): Gently lemony with green undertones. Grows profusely and abundantly in our area. Looks like a mint, but has a distinct lemon scent when crushed. Great as tea, and as a dried herb on fish or poultry along with lemon.
- Mints (mentha spp): Used all over the world in all kinds of ways. Use fresh in tea, on veggies, in sauces; use dried on meats. Holds up well in red meats, and is delicious in ground beef meat balls.
- Lavender (lavendula spp): Not just for soaps! Use the pretty flowers & buds sparingly in cold teas and lemonades; in desserts and baked goods, with fruit and fruit sauces. Chop leaves and flowers and use with other herbs for lamb, beef & poultry.
- Marigold/Calendula (calendula officinalis & tagetes): Gives beautiful color and sweet/pungent flavor to foods. Use fresh and dried flower petals in salads, cookies, desserts, butters, infused oils. May be cooked with rice to add a lovely saffron color. Add to all spice blends, where its mild flavor and pretty color mesh well. Very versatile!
- Mugwort (artemesia vulgaris): A strongly flavored herb with bitterness that blends well with heavy or fatty foods. Use with garlic, onions, peppers in stocks, stews, and on red meats and game. The slight bitterness of the dried leaves deepens the flavor of these foods and aids digestion. Once used in place of hops to make beer.
Of course, there are our familiar culinary friends: Thyme, Sage, Basil, Rosemary, Parsley, Chives and the like. If you grew them, harvest and prepare them also for winter meals. These cultivated herbs also have plenty of phytonutrients and medicinal uses. Eating these plants help to keep us healthy, and do it deliciously.
Harvest them using the guidelines above. Wait until the morning dew has dried off the plant. Snip off the parts you will use with scissors or your fingers. Say thanks as you harvest- plants have consciousness, too. If you are going to dry the herbs, hang them or spread them in a single layer on cardboard or paper shopping bags. Place your herbs in a well ventilated room out of direct sunlight. I like to put them in a room with a ceiling fan that is running on low speed. You can hang any branched herbs on wire hangers. This makes it easy to find a space to hang the hanger and dry them. When your herbs are ready, they will easily crumble when you rub them between your fingers. Remove the stems and crumble the herbs into airtight jars. Experiment with your own dried herb rubs & seasoning blends- they make great holiday gifts!
What about the fresh herbs? The softer herbs- basil, lemon balm, bee balm, parsley lose much of their flavor when dried. They can be kept in storage bags in the refrigerator for up to several weeks. There are so many other ways to preserve these fresh friends! You can make herbed butters, herb infused oils and vinegars, and frozen herb water or oil cubes. Lets explore these options!
Herbed butters: The butter should be softened to room temperature. Mix the butter in a bowl with finely chopped herb or herbs, or you may use a food processor. Start with 8-10 tablespoons of minced fresh herb or mixed herbs per pound of butter, and adjust to your taste. Place the butter on a large sheet of plastic wrap, and shape it into a roll. Wrap the butter tightly by rolling in the plastic wrap, then twist the ends. Refrigerate or freeze. Delicious! Use to rub over poultry prior to roasting, in sauces as a finish, over vegetables, with olive oil while sauteeing- basically any way you would use butter. My favorite combinations are Garlic, Red Pepper Flakes and Rosemary; Chives and Thyme; Lemon Balm or Bee Balm or Parsley with some added lemon juice; Calendula and honey butter; Basil and Garlic.
Herb infused oils and vinegars can be used for cooking, sauces and dressings… and even as medicine! I always keep Sage infused vinegar around for a sore throat gargle that works incredibly well on winter colds and flus. For vinegars: I always use cider vinegar for cooking and eating- and save the white vinegar for cleaning. Fill a clean mason jar (you choose the size) with lightly packed fresh herbs of choice. No need to chop- just remove any hard stems and get the herbs into the jar. Heat enough vinegar on the stove to fill the jar- heat only until the vinegar is hot but not boiling. Pour the hot vinegar all the way to the very top, place wax paper or plastic wrap over the top of the jar, and cover tightly. Let it sit in a cupboard for 2-3 weeks, strain and discard the herbs. Try vinegars with the stronger flavored savory herbs: Rosemary, Sage, Mugwort, Thyme, Garlic. Be creative!
Herb infused oils are prepared in a similar way. Clean a mason jar, and remove any woody parts of the herbs. Place the herbs in a jar, lightly packed, and pour cooking oil over the herbs. Place the jar & oil in a crock pot of water and set it on the very lowest heat setting. The water in the crock pot should come at least 2/3 of the way up the side of the jar. This method of infusing oil lowers the incidence of bacteria growth in the oil. Let the herbs infuse for 24-48 hours in the low heat, then strain and discard the herbs. Refrigerate the oil.
Herb cubes: Place fresh herbs in a blender and add a small amount of cooking oil (I use olive oil) OR water. Blend the two, adding oil or water until you have a pesto like sauce. Pour into ice cube trays. Refrigerate the oil/water cubes until firm and store in freezer bags. Freeze the water/herb cubes and store in freezer bags. Pop these cubes into soups and sauces, or melt into a hot pan. Fresh herbs all winter!
I hope I have inspired you to go outside and harvest some of our local herbs and weeds for your kitchen. Even more, I hope you’ll see weeds in a new light and put the Roundup away! Cooking with herbs adds a whole new flavor dimension to foods, while boosting nutrition and killing dangerous microbes. Email me if you have questions. If you are a hands-on learner, attend one of my classes on herb preservation, or get a group together and I will come to you. Bon appetit!!