August 11, 2007

Hail to Herbs

According to Wikipedia, herbs are seed-bearing plants without woody stems, that die down to the ground after flowering. They have a variety of uses, including culinary and medicinal. Culinary herbs typically make use of the green, leafy part of the plant, whereas medicinal herbs make use of the roots, flowers, seeds, root bark, inner bark, berries and sometimes other portions.

Usage: Culinary herbs are probably the most useful to herb gardeners. They have long been used to add flavor to soups, stews, dressings, sauces and salads. Because of their intensity, they are generally added in small quantities. Culinary herbs used most often include parsley, sage, chives, thyme, savory, marjoram, and basil.

For centuries, medicinal herbs have been thought to have curative powers. Pharmacists kept them in dried form for year-round use. Herbs were the principal, if not the only, medicines used in many countries. Although not used as often today due to advanced medical technology, some herbs have been recognized to have healing properties.

Availability: Herbs are available in dried or fresh forms. Some,like chives, are also sold frozen. Fresh herbs can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days - wrap in a dampened paper towel and seal in a zip-lock bag. Dried herbs are available year-round, and have a stronger, more concentrated flavor than the fresh herbs. Store dried herbs in an airtight container and keep in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months.

Growing & Harvesting: People have grown their own herbs for thousands of years. They are small in size, making them ideal for indoor herb gardens or other places where space is at a premium.

Regardless of how you preserve them, most herbs are at their peak flavor just before flowering so this is the best time to pick them. Cut shortly after the the morning sun, just after the dew has dried, as the herbs are most potent then. Never pick herbs in wet or humid conditions. Wash herbs, with the leaves on the stems, lightly in cold running water to remove any soil, dust, bugs, or other foreign objects. Drain thoroughly on absorbent towels.

Preserving: Freezing is the best way to preserve herbs. Although freezing and infusing in oil or vinegar are better methods of preservation, many gardeners prefer drying because of ease.

Freezing: There is an easy freezing method. Chop the leaves and place 1 Tbsp. into each section of an ice cube tray. Add 1 Tbsp. of water to each section, and freeze. Once frozen solid, place your herbal ice cubes in a plastic bag or other airtight container. Take out as many "cubes" as needed when you are cooking - do NOT refreeze herbs!

Infusing: Preserve your herbs in olive oil or vinegar, either individually or as mixed herbs. It is not the herbs themselves that are preserved, but rather the flavour and aroma since these are rapidly absorbed by the liquid. These are great for flavouring salads, sauces and other dishes.

Drying: To air-dry, cut the sprigs several inches in length and remove the bottom leaves to expose a few inches of bare stem. Gather into small, loose bunches---allowing room around the leaves for air to circulate. Using string or rubber bands, tie stems together very tightly since stems will shrink. Hang the bundles upside down in a dark, warm, dry, well-ventilated place (an attic is ideal). Leaves are ready when they feel dry and crumbly (about 1 to 2 weeks). To keep the dust and bugs out of your herbs while drying, place a paper bag over them. Just make sure they are tied in bundles small enough so they aren't touching the sides of the bag when covered. Tie the end of the bag closed. For ventilation, punch air holes in the sides.

Herbs can also be dried by simply laying them on a rack in a dark cupboard for a few weeks. Open the doors periodically to prevent moisture from developing. When they are dry enough to rustle break them into small pieces and store in airtight containers.

If no such place is available, dry your herbs in the oven! Cover a rack with aluminum foil and lay your herbs atop it in a single layer. Set the oven to its lowest temperature and place the rack in the oven. Leave the door of the oven slightly ajar for air circulation. Turn the herbs every 1/2 hour until they are dry and crumbly.

Your microwave can even be used to quickly dry the herbs! However,use caution and check your microwave manual for cautions regarding drying herbs. Arrange a single layer of herbs between 2 microwave-safe paper towels. Microwave on HIGH for 2 to 3 minutes; checking frequently to make sure they are not scorching. If herbs are not brittle and dry, microwave on HIGH for another 15 seconds. A dehydrator or a flower press are other options to drying your herbs.