In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
Chervil, basil, peppers, and chives thrive in this lovely kitchen garden.
Growing herbs for culinary and medicinal purposes has been done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Native people used herbs to heal illness and cure wounds. Great chefs know that fresh herbs enhance the flavor of food. That's all well and good, however if you have ever grown your own herbs, you know that the plants produce far more fresh leaves than you can ever possibly use. So the subject of this column is harvesting and preserving herbs from your garden to use during the dark months of winter.
When to Harvest
Ideally, you should harvest herbs at the end of the season when the flavor is at its peak. Snip tender leaves at the tips of the branches in the morning before the dew dries. Wash them and lay them on a clean towel to dry for a few hours in the sun.
Into the Freezer
Basil: I love basil and rarely have enough left over to preserve. If, by some strange coincidence, the snails don't beat me to the last crop (everything loves basil!), I gather and wash the remaining tender leaves. Next, I finely chop them and fill a couple of ice cube trays with a tablespoon of basil in each cup. Then I top off the herb-filled trays with canned chicken broth. The prepared trays go into the freezer until frozen hard. I then remove the herb cubes and store them in plastic bags. The frozen cubes are perfect to toss into spaghetti sauce, soups, and stews.
Tarragon: Tarrgon's flavor enhances salads and gives a nice tang to soups. French tarragon is my favorite for vinegar, but Russian tarragon is flavorful, too. Purchase white vinegar in gallon containers. I buy small covered glass jars at the local Goodwill store and wash the dickens out of them. A couple of runs through the dishwasher usually will do the trick. After the jars are squeaky clean, I tuck a sprig of tarragon inside the bottle and top off with white vinegar. Herbed vinegar makes nice holiday gifts when finished off with a decorative bow.
Fresh and Flavorful
Rosemary: Rosemary doesn't go dormant here so it doesn't need to be harvested all at once. I like to snip some sprigs of fresh rosemary and bundle them together and use this as a basting brush when barbequing. When using fresh rosemary in a recipe, harvest only the tender tips; the leaves lower down on the stem have a bitter flavor.
Sage: White sage can be harvested and bundled into smudge sticks. Although sage is both culinary and medicinal, it can also be used as a spiritual cleanser to clear spaces of negative energy. Gather 6 to 10 stems together and then tie them into a tight bundle; you can burn sage wands to create harmony in your home.
Drying and Storing
Various herbs can be cut, bundled, and hung in a warm, dry, dark area -- such as above the water heater in the garage -- until the leaves are dry and crisp. You can then store them in clean glass jars or in plastic containers.
Seeds, such as dill, fennel, and coriander, should be harvested when the flowers have faded. Clip the entire flower head, place it in a paper bag until the seeds shake free, then store in airtight containers. Try harvesting your own poppy seeds this year. You will be amazed at how many seeds are inside those little pods!
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