No gardener, new or experienced, can walk away from the garden centre without a few herb plants, myself included. Somewhere in our collective subconscious we understand the value to growing and using our own fresh herbs and feel compelled to grow them in our garden or windowsill whether we understand it or not. I would rush home with visions of using fresh herbs in culinary masterpieces to delight friends and family or a cupboard full of infused oils and dried leaves for restorative teas to be enjoyed through the long dark days of winter. Usually I ended up like many of us with good intentions, growing a few straggly plants that had bolted before I even thought to harvest them. Not this year! Last year I had such great success with Rosemary officinalis, I expanded my assortment to include Basil, French Thyme, Greek Oregano, Sage, and Peppermint. By the way, whenever you see the term officinalis it designates the plant as historically catoragized as medicinal in use, herb or not. Herbs and their uses have been surrounded by myth and folklore through the ages. In medieval times, herbs were planted during different phases of the moon. Women who were trained in their use were sought for their ability to use them for healing or could at the flip of a coin, be burned for a witch. Fortunately for us today, knowing the benefits and uses of herbs can only be a good thing. For a complete history and folklore about your favorite herbs, The Yard Therapist recommends visiting www.ourherbgarden.com. It’s fascinating reading, and will confound you as to the superstitions and folklore surrounding their uses, medicinal, culinary or otherwise.
Getting back to modern-day, I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed slipping out into the garden and snipping whatever I wanted to use that day. With fresh herbs, the pungent scent and aroma are due to the oil still infused within the stems and leaves of the plant. That is what gives your special dish that unbelievable aroma and taste. Well worth doing my friends! Now we are in the twilight of summer and harvest is upon us. This includes herbs to be stored and used through the fall and winter. There are many gizmos and gadgets for drying and preserving herbs, but this gal still believes the old ways to be simplest and best. I would recommend drying for sage, thyme, savory, dill, oregano, rosemary and marjoram. These are herbs with a lower moisture content and therefore not likely to mold before they are dry. There are two ways to dry: air or oven. When harvesting make sure you wash your herbs thoroughly and dry by placing on a paper towel and blotting with another. If you air dry, strip the lower stems of leaves and tie into bundles of 4-6. They can then be hung upside down in a warm, dry place for 1-2 weeks. They can be placed in a paper bag with holes and tied shut or not depending on where you are placing them to dry. The bag method may take a week longer but be sure to check that no mold has formed halfway through the drying process. The longer you take to dry the herb, the more oil remains making air drying the preferable method. In a hurry or out of time? Place cleansed herbs flat on a baking sheet and place in 180*F oven. Leave the door slightly open for ventilation and let dry for 3-4 hours. (whatever is needed to fully dry). Herbs with a higher moisture content such as Basil would do best with the oven drying method.
When your herbs are dry, place them in a lidded jar or ziplock bag. It doesn’t really matter as long as it is airtight. Use within 6 mos to a year. To use them in a recipe crush them (I like to use a mortar and pestle) and add to your recipe the last half hour of cooking. To make an oil infusion simply add clean herbs, stems and all to your favorite oil (mine is olive) but corn or sunflower oil works fine also, into a lidded jar and refrigerate or keep in a cool spot until use. To make a fancy herb butter a la $$$$ restaurant, add herbs to softened butter, mold or shape and refrigerate until needed..
Some easy and yummy ways I have used my herbs this year is to add a few sprigs of fresh mint to dishes of chocolate frozen yogurt with a dark chocolate sauce. Add to olive oil, tomatoes, garlic and caramelized onions for a fresh and frankly the best, pasta sauce going. Add a spring of rosemary to lemonade. Easy! Refreshing! Fantastic! Add mint to hot or iced teas or make mint tea by steeping the leaves in a tea ball. Most herbs have a well-defined health benefit. Burn dried sage leaves inside your home to purify and sweeten the air, no chemicals or artificial perfumes which are harmful to inhale. Here’s to herbs and to your good health!