One of my favorite things to grow is herbs. They’re easy, plentiful, and smell delicious. They grow basically without effort. In the back of the house there is a small plot where I grew tomatoes and a few herbs last summer. It was torn up when we had some sprinkler problems and basically ignored for six months. This spring, a huge oregano plant sprang up in a matter of days, presumably from last years seeds. I think the sprinklers weren’t even on at that point. And there is a patch of mint in the front of the house that I did not plant, ever. It is slowly taking over the lawn. (This is a PSA – always plant mint in a planter, not the ground, it’s a menace).
How much fun is it to just run outside and grab a handful of fresh herbs for cooking? I don’t know about you but I am not a big fan of dried herbs. In the case of rosemary I will absolutely go without before I use dried, it just has the texture of a twig in my food. Yuck! But fresh rosemary? Delicious. If you’re not sure that you can manage an entire edible landscape, just plant a small herb garden. You won’t be sorry.
Of course, some of the herbs grow so well that I am never going to be able to use them up for cooking. So I’m often trying to find other ways to preserve herbs. The most basic way is to wash and chop the herbs and then freeze them in little ice cube trays so you always have a single-serving of fresh herbs around when you need them. But in California, a lot of herbs grow year round so this doesn’t really solve anything. Other options? I do sometimes dry herbs for use in bath/body products, especially rosemary and lavender. I’ve also seen recipes for herbal jellies, which are on my list to try.
Then, there are infusions. As we talked about yesterday, you can infuse a simple syrup. Simple syrups are surprisingly easy and really quite versatile. Of course they can be used to sweeten lemonades, limeades, and aguas frescas. They are also great in tea (hot or iced). I actually like adding a few tablespoons to sparkling water for a sort of low-calorie soda. It keeps about a month in the fridge, and even longer in the freezer. The basic recipe is 1 cup sugar plus 1 cup water plus whatever flavoring to taste. Bring to a boil, stirring, then allow to cool before straining of the herb. Store in the refrigerator for up to a month, or in the freezer for longer
One simple syrup I love is made with lemon balm. Lemon balm is a lesser-known member of the mint family. It grows rapidly and evidently you can never let it flower or it will take over your garden. Based on that I suspect I will soon have a lemon-balm garden. And I might be fine with that. It smells wonderful (if nobody has made it into perfume yet, it needs to be done). Plus, it has health benefits including reducing anxiety. Which I need, beleive me. I usually brew it into a tea, either by itself or a few leaves mixed in with some green tea. It has a lovely, light, springy flavor which is a bit citrusy as its name suggests. It might be the perfect herbal accompaniment to lemonade.
I use a lot of lemon balm in my simple syrup. The flavor is still not super overwhelming. It’s a pretty voluminous herb. If you try this with other herbs, keep in mind that not every herb will infuse equally. For example, only a few sprigs of rosemary produce a fairly strong flavor.
You can also infuse herbs into oils, vinegars, and distilled alcohol like vodka. This is typically a slow process, taking a week or more, and requires appropriate sterilization techniques to avoid bacterial growth. On the other hand, you can quick infuse oil by bringing it to a boil with fresh herbs and then cooling. Use immediately or refrigerate, but avoid storing for more than a week. They can be breeding grounds for botulism (especially if you use garlic in the recipe).
I made some rosemary-garlic infused oil and used it to flavor some nut cheese. It would also be great atop pasta or with some balsamic vinegar as a bread dip.
Finally, you can scent sugars with herbs by leaving the herb and sugar in a covered container for a week or two. I tried this with lavender but wasn’t very successful. I would actually recommend doing this with dried herbs, since fresh herbs have too much water and can make the sugar sticky and moist.
And there you go. Now go out and preserve your herb harvest. If you make something yummy, let me know!