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Most times I would tell you to use only fresh herbs in whatever you're cooking. But realistically, we all know that herbs just aren't always available year round. Once harvested, even the freshest of herbs needs to be used quickly in order to maintain its freshness. So, we need to find ways of preserving herbs that will maintain their optimum flavour and freshness. Drying is one of the more common ways of preserving. In general it's safe to say that drying your own herbs produces a better quality than the store bought.
Rule of thumb that the more pungent the herb is in it's fresh form, the better it will turn out when dried. So think of herbs such as oregano, lovage, sage and savoury. Cut your branches fairly early in the morning, once the dew has dried, and pick off any imperfect leaves. Spread them on screens or tie the branches into loose bundles of three of four stems. (Larger bundles will dry unevenly.)
Hang them in a warm dry place, if you have a wood stove or fireplace, near them would be the perfect spot. Not so surprisingly, it's a good idea to keep them from direct sunlight too as the sun can draw away both colour and flavour.
Your herbs are perfectly dry when they flake into small pieces. Once they've reached this stage, though it's nice to leave them hanging, there's really no point. They'll only gather dust. Spread them out on a clean sheet of newspaper, take the leaves off the stems, rolling the stems between your palms to make sure you get every last bit. Then, making the newspaper into a funnel, pour the herbs into clean dry jars for storage. Clear glass jars should be kept in a dark cupboard, but opaque containers may be kept anywhere as long as they are away from heat.
Alternatively, screen drying is a good method, especially for lavender spikes, and other flower petals. Any fine mesh screen will do the job; I prop mine up on blocks and leave it in a cool airy spot, sometimes even setting it on the stove while baking. Pluck leaves and / or flower petals and spread them in a single layer over the screen, making sure that air circulates and shaking the screen from time to time to turn the herbs.
Freezing works well also for most herbs. Pick only the best specimens, wash them and let them air dry, or for best results, just shake off any grit, place them in plastic bags and freeze immediately. You can then pull out stems and leaves as needed. My mother used to snip the herbs before freezing them and this way she had them recipe ready in seconds. Alternatively, take herbs that you use together often and roll the leaves tobacco-like into a long tube which you then wrap in foil and freeze. Use it by peeling back the foil and shaving off what you need. This works well with a combination of parsley, basil, marjoram and chervil, and I'm sure you can come up with many combinations of your own.
Use frozen herbs roughly two to one with dried and use them almost anywhere. The only place I wouldn't use them is in dishes where they would stay raw such as salads. Nothing can replace the crispness of fresh picked herbs in a salad.
Herbs can also be stored in vinegar or oil. The liquids will then impart a flavour of their own to the dishes to which you add them. White wine vinegar is my favourite medium, and it does sometimes pick up a light green tinge that's very pretty. Apple cider vinegar works equally well, but I'm afraid I must admit to a prejudice against plain white vinegar. I just can't bring myself to use it in a salad. But don't let my prejudice stop you -- it can make an acceptable condiment when seasoned.
We've talked about herbed vinegars and oils before in this space, but I'll recap it quickly. Always pick the best leaves and stems, push them into glass bottles, jars, or a ceramic crock, and fill with vinegar, cover securely and leave to stand in a warm place (in the sun works well) for about two weeks. Some people strain out the leaves when pouring the vinegar into bottles, but unless I'm using it for gifts, I prefer to leave the herb in it, just adding a few fresh stalks for interest. Store the finished vinegars in a cool dark, dry place. Some of the best herbs for vinegar are:
Basil -- the opal is my favourite as it gives a nice tint to the vinegar.
Garlic and Tarragon can be combined with Basil.
Borage -- the flowers will tint your vinegar a pretty almost periwinkle colour.
Burnet -- imparts a cucumber taste.
Cayenne -- 5 to 10 peppers will make a nice fiery vinegar.
Chives -- using the blossoms will tint your vinegar almost mauve.
Dill -- for a pickle flavoured vinegar.
Lemon Thyme, Lemon Balm, or Lemon Verbena -- make a lemon flavoured vinegar.
Lovage -- adding a leaf or two of lovage to other herbs adds a taste of celery.
Tarragon -- this is the classic herbed vinegar and makes a wonderful condiment for salads.
Violet flowers -- will give a lavender tint and a sweet taste.
In general, most of the milder herbs will do better as vinegars than the more potent ones. So use chervil and fennel among others, but stay away from sage, savoury, or oregano.
Salad oils can also be flavoured with herbs. Since oil doesn't have the preserving powers of vinegar, it's a good idea to refrigerate herbed oils.
Try steeping about a dozen crushed cloves of garlic in a litre of oil. Leave it for a week at room temperature shaking it occasionally. Alternatively, try the same number of split cayenne peppers, or a mixture of half a dozen of each. Once the oils are seasoned, refrigerate them. There's no need to remove the herbs from the oil before storing them.
Use garlic oil two parts to one part herbed vinegar, flavour it with Dijon mustard, and use it as a dressing for mixed greens, green bean salad, or steamed cauliflower. Use the chili oil as a seasoning oil for many spicy Oriental or Mexican dishes.
Place 1/4 cup of the oil and all other ingredients in a blender or food processor. On low speed, allow all ingredients to mix for about five seconds, then add the remaining oil slowly in a thin stream.
Yields: about 1 cup
Preparation Time: 5 minutes
Bringing herbs in over the winter is one way to bring a taste of summer in with you. It will keep you in fresh or close to fresh seasonings until the first signs of parsley and tarragon in the spring.
I, on the other hand, will be here in this very same spot next month. See you then. I look forward to hearing your over-wintering stories.