Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Shriveled Sage, Crispy Rosemary and Black Basil

The garden is the poor man's apothecary.
~German Proverb

Does your herb garden produce more fresh savories than you can possibly use in summer? Then drying and storing the leaves is the way to go so you can add their pungent essences to your culinary masterpieces all year long!

My three favorite herbs to grow and cook with are Basil, Rosemary and Sage. Basil thrives in hot conditions though is shallow rooted so doesn’t like the soil to dry out. One source speculates that Basil may have originated in India, but is better known in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine (Herbs and Spices by Mary Trewby). Basil leaves taste best fresh but another source suggests when preserving, put the leaves into a jar, sprinkle a little salt between layers, and fill the jar with olive oil (Herbs by Susan Fleming). The leaves will blacken but they and the oil will flavor your dishes nicely.

I’ve tried growing the big ‘lettuce leaf’ Basil (Ocimum basicicum), unsuccessfully. Perhaps my garden just doesn’t get hot enough for it to thrive, so I buy fresh organic whole Basil leaves on stems from the grocery store. But they last only a few days on the kitchen counter (refrigeration turns the leaves black) so I have to have several recipes in mind ready to use it every day. If I keep it too long, it wilts and turns brown. I thought I’d get smart and try to keep it longer. I cut about a ¼ inch (0.5 cm) off the base of the stems and put them in a glass of water, like flowers in a vase, and ya know…it worked. The leaves perked up and lasted about a week and a half so I didn’t feel like I had to use some every night for dinner.

When I lifted the last few stems I noticed they’d begun to root out! Well, being the thrifty gardener that I am I potted them up and I think they are growing. Ok, with the cold, wet spring we are having here they are not really GROWING, more like sulking. But potentially when summer gets here I could get 4 basil plants out of this! We’ll see. If you want to see true Basil growing success, check out Shari’s Bully Basil!  Shari’s experience prompted me to try again but with a different variety this time. So this year I bought some Greek Basil seed (Ocimum Balilicum minimum), a small leaf variety, growing to about 12 inches (25 cm). The seed germinated just fine and I have 6 seedlings, now with just a bit of continual summer heat they’ll be on their way. Still waiting for the heat.

I have better success growing sage and rosemary, which are perennials here. Both like the hot, dry Mediterranean sun with soils that drain well and are used extensively in that region’s cooking. Each spring when I prune my rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Hill Hardy’) I bring leafy stems in to dry for later use. In April I pruned back my sage (Salvia officinalis) and brought in the stems with leaves attached to dry as well. I gave up hanging stems upside down…I don’t have the space for that, so I dry my herbs in the refrigerator.

With today’s refrigerators, long gone are the days we need to defrost our freezers. Refrigerators are now designed to do that automatically, and because of this they will dry out foods left uncovered on the refrigerator shelving. After rinsing and spin drying the stems with leaves, I lay them out on a flat tray and put them at the back of the fridge shelf till they are crispy dry. It could take several weeks this way. For faster results you could pull all the leaves off the stems, but that’s more work. It’s much easier to remove the crispy leaves after they’ve dried. Keep it to a single layer for faster drying. Turning them daily helps too, but I usually forget this step and they dry anyway. Then I crumble the leaves from the stems (discarding stems) and put them in glass jars in my spice cupboard. Since I don’t like the feel of whole spiky rosemary leaves in my mouth, I crush them a little and keep them in a spice grinder, grinding fresh the leaves for each use.

Honey bees like herbal nectars and studies have shown the compounds they contain may be beneficial in strengthening their immunity, so I’m increasing the variety of herbs I grow. Last year I planted 2 dwarf oregano (origanum vulgare compactum ‘humile’) plants. I have several creeping thymes among my paths but added 2 taller varieties this year, Lemon-Gold Variegated Thyme (Thymus citriodorus ‘Aurens’) who’s lemony scent should smell amazing on the grill this summer, and Thyme ‘Foxley’ (Thymus pulegioides ‘Foxley’) a gorgeous large leafed, variegated thyme. Also, I’ve added 2 upright Sicilian Oregano (Origanum sp.). Herb harvesting for culinary purposes is usually done just before flowering for best flavor. As you harvest stems and plant tips you will be delaying flowering. Keep in mind the bees get the nectar from the flowers, so if you want to serve the bees you may be harvesting less. Perhaps buy double the herb plants, leaving the flowers for the bees on some and harvesting the leaves for you from others.

I’ve found a wonderful Scarborough Fair Bread recipe linked here from Taste For Life magazine. If you were around in the 60’s you may remember the song, it includes “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme”. I like the finished loaf but found it a bit weak on herbs. Being a recipe tweaker I substitute ¼ of the all purpose flour with whole wheat flour and I more than double the dried herbs. Not being a fan of parsley, I leave it out completely. The herby-yeasty aroma of this bread during the rising and baking is outstanding!

Now if I could only get that song out of my head!

In Bloom In My Garden Today: Bletilla (hardy orchid), Thalictrum rochebrunianum (Meadow Rue), Lavender ‘Hidcote’, Digitalis, Begonia ‘Bonfire’, Penstemon schmidel ‘Red Riding Hood’, Salvia officinalis (culinary sage), Salvia nemorosa ‘Viola Klose’, Astilbe ‘Bridal Veil’, Baptisia, Tomato ‘Stupice’, Dianthus (Pinks), Hardy Geranium, Peas, Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’, Armeria latifolia ‘Joystick’, Dianthus, Day Lily, Rose, Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’, Saxifrage, old fashioned Coral Bells (Heuchera), Alpine strawberry, Daphne caucasica ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’

Author’s photos


Cindy said...

MY favorite herbs are rosemary, basil and thyme. My MUST HAVE'S.

I so love this post. I can almost smell the aromas...ahhhh, fresh rosemary. I grind mine too because my husband doesn't like it if he sees it! haha shhh.

My mom used to sautee mushrooms and carrots in butter and then sprinkle rosemary in. WAS A CHILDHOOD DELIGHT.

I gave my first sprig of thyme a spot in dinner last night. AND CHIVES.

I love my herb garden.

Joan said...

Hi Cindy!

Your mom's mushrooms and carrots sounds great! I'll do that...I just bought more mushrooms today.

I love chives too...mine are in a spot not near enough the kitchen door so I forget about them. Note to self...remember the chives!

Have a great day

Shari B. (FitFeat) said...

My Bully Basil has turned major wimp since the last repotting. Not sure what happened, but now I'm scared to repot ANYTHING for fear of killing it. I'm trying to nurse my basil back to happiness, but so far it's just not cooperating. :(

I can't believe how many years I cooked without fresh herbs. The difference between the basil clipped from my own is 1000x better than the bottled stuff from the store!

Joan said...

Hi Shari!

I wonder about your basil...did you move locations? Did you disturb the roots alot? Is it outside in that hot 90+ degree sun? Or anywhere outside may have been too much a transition from kitchen to yard? Too bad I don't know much about basil, maybe it just needs some recovery time. Your local nursery may have better answers.

Yes, fresh herbs are incredibly better...I've read even if buy the bottled dry stuff you should use it up within a year or less. I like to buy my other herbs from the organic bulk bins so I only get small batches that I know I'll use in 6 months or so.

Thanks for reading!

Shari B. (FitFeat) said...

Hi Joan!

No, I just wanted to give it a bigger pot. I didn't move it outside permanently. I would occasionally put it out there for sun but if it started to look wilty, I brought it in right away and I never left it out overnight. But I did that before I even replanted it. We're trying to save it - it's down to about 10-20 leaves. :( MSP has been trying to work his magic!

Thanks for commenting back - if we make it to a nursery in the near future, I'll definitely ask. I hadn't thought of that!