Food Lover Friday: Using Fresh Herbs

With two vegetable beds and a few pots scattered around our yard my gardening space is limited and yet taking up nearly two thirds of that real estate are fresh herbs. I grow an abundance of herbs because it’s one of the few things I can grow well, as my green thumb is just starting to develop, and because they are used constantly in my kitchen. As soon as those vibrant green chives begin to push through the still frozen earth I’m snipping their stems and tossing them into salads or finishing my eggs with their bright bite.

As winter fades to spring it is the herbs that are the first thing in my garden to grow with great abandon. In order to keep up with their production I’m adding herbs to everything from salads, soups, roasted vegetables, dressings and even homemade sodas.

Buying, storing and keeping fresh herbs:

When buying fresh herbs at the store use your senses as your guide to their freshness. Look for leaves that are bright and uniform in color. Additionally the leaves should look vibrant, not wilting, and their scent should be strong. Gently rub your fingers through the leaves to release their fragrance.

As soon as you bring your herbs home from the store or in from the garden, wash them well. For the large leafy herbs such as cilantro or parsley I like to submerge them in a bowl of cold water. For smaller more tender herbs just place them under cool running water. Place each herb variety in a ziplock bag with a paper towel and store it in the vegetable crisper of your refrigerator.

It’s best to use fresh herbs soon after you buy them. But when stored properly they will keep for several days.

fresh herbs
Prolonging the life of fresh herbs by freezing and drying:

Right now the garden and markets are bursting with fresh herbs. In order to guarantee a fresh herbal taste in the winter months I often will freeze or dry the abundance of fresh herbs I tend to hoard.

Fresh herbs can be frozen for several months. For large leafy herbs such as basil and parsley, remove the leaves from the stems and wash and dry thoroughly before placing in a ziplock or freezer safe container. Heartier and smaller leafed herbs like rosemary and thyme can remain on their stems. Frozen herbs should be used in the cooking process rather than as a garnish as they will lose their structure (particularly the tender leafed herbs) and their color darkens a bit.

To dry herbs tie the bottom stems of the bundle with twine. Hang the bundle in a clean area that has plenty of ventilation. If you are drying several bundles make sure to leave plenty of space between the herbs so that air can circulate evenly.

dry herbs

Check the drying herbs every day or so to observe how rapidly they are drying. The herbs are ready to move into long term storage when the leaves easily crumble into small pieces when gently pressed between your fingers. It’s best to store the dried herbs whole and then crumble off what you need. But if space is an issue, store the dried herbs in airtight containers away from heat and light. Every now and again taste the dried herbs to make sure they still have flavor and don’t taste “off”.

How I use herbs in the kitchen:

These days it’s rare that a dish leaves the kitchen without being loaded with herbs. I puree a variety of leaves such as parsley, chives, mint and tarragon and use that as a base for dressings and marinades. With plenty of dill, parsley and chives I make a lighter ranch dressing by using greek yogurt as the base. I’ve made pestos with practically every herb in the garden including Italian parsley and sage.

In the winter we drink our herbs in the form of tea with a few mint leaves providing enough flavor for a soothing cup. Lemon verbena makes a lovely tea as well as a great addition to homemade scones.

In the summer our herbs are infused with simple syrup to make homemade sodas and to make our lemonade rival the neighbor boy who sells his at the stand down the street. I particularly like rosemary and thyme in my lemonade. Basil is pureed with fresh peaches for an added burst of freshness to Bellinis or if the peaches are frozen we’ll add them to the blender with a a bit of simple syrup or cream and honey and make an instant herb-y peach ice cream. This works well with any frozen fruit and the herb combinations are endless.

herb drink

How else do you use fresh herbs in your kitchen? I’m always looking for new ideas for herbs and would love to hear your thoughts.

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