In the Garden:
Herbal salts and sugars are timesavers during the busy holidays and make welcome gifts.
Flavor the Holidays with Herbal Gifts
When my children were young, cooking for the holidays played second fiddle to the more pressing business of decorating, choosing gifts, and traveling to be with family. Now that the boys are grown, however, gathering friends together for a brunch, tea, cocktail party, or dinner has become an especially cherished part of the season.
I particularly enjoy the feeling of anticipation that builds before each occasion and I relish the time spent creating special touches, such as a take-home treat. This year, I'm making herbal sugars and salts, a clever idea inspired by a friend who is an Italian chef. The basic recipe is simple: 2 tablespoons of finely chopped herbs (or more to taste) given a quick spin in a food processor with 2 cups of sugar or salt. Here are a few additional tips to ensure success.
- Use only fresh herbs. Leafy herbs should be snipped before the plants bloom, as this makes foliage bitter. Morning harvest ensures the most intense flavor. Once gathered, check carefully for insects and their eggs, as some herbs are butterfly host plants. Rinse in cool water to preserve essential oils, shake, and pat dry.
- I use table sugar (also called granulated sugar), but prefer the texture of sea salt over table salt.
- For gifts, single blends are the most successful; otherwise there can be uncertainty about use. My favorites are mint sugar, for tea (hot or iced) and chocolate cookie sprinkles; rosemary salt, for meats and popcorn; and dill salt, for fish, vegetable, and egg dishes. For myself, I also make double blends, such as rosemary and lemon thyme salt. Don't be afraid to use your imagination!
- A blend needs to cure 7 to 10 days before packaging, depending on the moisture in the herb. Put the mix in a quart-size container and store it out of direct sunlight. Shake or stir each day to intensify flavor and prevent clumping.
- As with most small offerings, presentation is everything. Decorative 4-ounce glass jars, with a fabric covering and handsome label, make an eye-catching package. I like seasonal colors, but avoid holiday-specific fabric, which I find too trite.
- The herbal sugar or salt will be especially welcomed if it has been used in the event menu.
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