Herbs R Fresh

 

If you like herbs like we like herbs, then you plow through more than the average American. There are also likely fresh favorites you keep around pretty much all the time. For us, that would include cilantro and parsley. Both have subtle, lovely flavor profiles that go great with many dishes.

That said, both can get long in the tooth quite quickly. They're highly perishable, and can be hard to keep fresh after even a couple of days in your fridge. Considering the handling such foods receive as a part of modern distribution and sales, it's no wonder, really. A little handling and preserving work can go a long way toward having these indispensable always at hand.

When you get delicate perishables home, inspect them first and foremost. Get them out of the plastic produce bags, and better yet, don't put them in those things in the first place and reduce your plastic throughput. Remove any off colored or bruised stuff and toss it in your compost.

Give your goods a gentle rinse in cold, running water. Shake them dry, gently but thoroughly; excess water is not a friend to successful storage.

Remove any rubber bands or twist ties; all they do is bruise the goods and promote rot.

Place the washed produce on a clean paper towel and let them air dry a bit. Wrap the goods in the paper towel and store them in your crisper drawer just like that. If you use what you buy steadily, and pay attention to FIFO, (First In, First Out), in your fridge, your cilantro, parsley, green onions, radishes, etc will stay fresher, longer.

Consider drying some of those staple fresh herbs. It's a given that fresh is better than dry, but house dried herbs from a good fresh source are far better than store bought or none. Those faves of ours will dry thoroughly in a dehydrator in less than 30 minutes. I've tested both cilantro and parsley and found that our home dried stuff retains reasonably potent flavor for up to a month when stored in glass, in a cool, dark, dry spice cabinet.

Finally, and especially as the winter months are upon us, plant a fresh herb window box. An 18″ x 6″ x 6″ box will allow you to grow a full raft of your faves, and reasonable tending will sustain them through the season. There's nothing cheerier in the dark months than fresh, bright herbs growing in your kitchen.

 

 

Indoor Herbs

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Basil, Sage, Rosemary and Thyyyyyyyyyme,
And Oregano, too!

When it comes to great home cooking, herbs are the key to separating the ho-hum for the UH HUH! And when it comes to great herbs, fresh beats dried hands down.

Having what you love as indispensable herbs available year round means growing your own, especially when a sort-of-but-not-really little plastic thingy of herbs from the store runs $5…
Fortunately, it’s not hard to grow your own, doesn’t take much room, and is well worth the time and money needed.

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You do not need to make this a fancy or expensive venture, but you can get as elaborate as you like. Let your imagination be your guide on a cold weekend and have some fun: All you really need is a decent sized pot, some potting soil, and a few seeds or starts. You should also have a nice sunny spot, of course; herbs dig direct sun and warmth, just like us.

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You may want to go to a decent nursery to find a decent selection, and your chances are better for finding starters there, which have obvious speed of enjoyment benefits over seed.

Choose a variety of herbs that you like to use most. The five choices I opened with are our faves, but get what floats your boat; nowadays, you’ll not just find thyme, for instance, but varieties like lemon, lime, or lavender. Same goes for Basil, Oregano, Sage, Marjoram and a bunch more great herbs.

Buy a large, deep plant pot, 12″ to 18″ around and a good 8″ to 12″ deep. Keep in mind the growing habits of your choices when you select pot size; sage grows tall, basil and oregano fairly bushy, while thyme is a creeper. Make sure its got drainage holes in the bottom and buy a nice deep saucer to handle runoff.

Get a bag of decent quality potting soil big enough to fill your pot and have some left over.

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Scrounge some gravel, river rock, or pot shards to line the bottom of your pot; they’ll aid in drainage by making sure the holes don’t get clogged with soil.

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When you get everything home, fill the pot up with soil, stopping about 3″ inches from the top.

Moisten the soil lightly but thoroughly and mix it well by hand.

If you bought starters, make your holes about 1 1/2 times the size of the soil the plants came with. Gently pull the plant from its container and carefully loosen the soil around its roots. Don’t tear the roots, just give them some breathing room. Plant your starter, pack about 1″ of your potting soil over the dirt and roots and press everything down gently but firmly. Give each plant a couple of inches room from each other. Water thoroughly when you’re finished planting but don’t drown the little guys.

If you’re planting seeds, follow the directions for starting them, as to depth, water, germination time, etc.

Set your pot on its drainage saucer and pick your best growing spot; again, most herbs like full sun, and in the cold months, they’ll take as much of the weaker weak winter sun as they can get.

Don’t overwater; when your little buddies look parched, (droopy dull leaves are a sign), give them a nice drink. You do not want the soil saturated, nor should there ever be standing water in your drip tray. You can certainly give them a little plant food if you like. We find that herbs dig Superthrive, which is a great, well established growth supplement.

Speaking of growth, keep an eye on that and trim as needed for meals and to keep things fair in the jungle. When you want some herbs for cooking, cut top leaves first. If you trim to a junction rather than just in the middle of a stem, you’ll encourage better health and regrowth.

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Once it gets warm again, you can set plants outside or leave them in as you see fit. Personally, the closer the ingredients to the pot, the happier I am.

Enjoy!

Juniper!

It’s so much more than a flavoring for gin! The variety that Juniper berries are harvested from is indeed a relative of the ornamental kinds we see out and about, but not all juniper berries are edible, so go with known sources rather than picking from the front shrubs. As some forestry buff is likely to point out, Junipers are actually a coniferous evergreen, and as such, the berries technically aren’t berries, they’re cones; now look who’s picking nits…

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Juniper berries can be a bit hard to find, but World Spice, Penzey’s, or Pendrey’s will come to your rescue with a fresh supply; it’s well worth adding to your spice cabinet and here’s why.

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You’ll use Juniper sparingly, so an ounce or two is plenty for your pantry. It’s a strong flavor, similar in seasoning power to Rosemary, but with a fruitier, somewhat resinous overtone to it, (again, they’re cones, so that makes sense, right?)

Juniper makes a stellar addition to base spices for stock, equally good for my mind in beef, chicken, pork or veggie. Two or three whole berries are plenty, added to your usual cohorts.

You can toast or roast the berries to bring out more complexity in the flavor profile.

If you’re using them as part of a rub or marinade and want to release a stronger juniper flavor, gently crush the berries under the flat of a chefs knife as you would garlic cloves, or do them up in a dedicated spice grinder.

For dang near any kind of game, Juniper is a secret weapon for taking the funky (AKA ‘gamey’, ‘strong’, etc) notes out of the taste profile. Try this wonderful rub as a marinade on any game you like.

3 cloves fresh Garlic
1-2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 teaspoon black Pepper
3 juniper berries, crushed
2 sprigs Rosemary, about 3″ long
Juice and zest of 1/2 fresh Lemon

Peel and finely mince the garlic.

Zest the lemon, bright color skin only of course.

Strip the leaves from the Rosemary sprigs and chop them finely.

Put juniper and pepper in a spice grander and process them until fine ground.

Put all of the above into a non reactive bowl, add the garlic, lemon juice and 1 tablespoon olive oil. mix thoroughly to a paste like consistency, add more oil if needed.

Spread evenly on all surfaces of your meat. Allow to marinate, refrigerated, for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

This is also a great marinade for poultry or pork. If you like the flavor profile, try adding a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a cup of grapefruit or orange juice for a wonderful wet marinade.

Herb and Spice Use 101

Adding herbs and spices,
A ‘Duh’ cooking moment?

Well, yes and no…
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(And yes, that’s really our cabinet…)

First off, disclaimer, this is a quick overview in response to a question from a reader, not The Big Picture view, K?

The first and most important answer to the question is this: Herbs and spices and herbs should be used to compliment the flavors of great food, not overwhelm them. In other words, all things in moderation, eh?

With that in mind, do think of salt and pepper as spices. They impact the flavor of foods and should not be left out of your thought process when deciding what to add, if for no other reason than not to add too much or too many. You can almost always say yes to salt, to some degree. Just a little shake or two of salt will wake up natural flavors and help others blend. Likewise, pepper adds a pleasant bottom note, a base to a flavor profile if you will, that’s more often worth it than not.

So, what else, if anything, do you need? The answer is again, moderation, most of the time. If you’re not making black mole, you don’t need 20 different spices and herbs. If you’re unsure what you need, but confident you do need some thing, try 2 and 3 component combinations that will enhance the flavor of the dish you’re building. It may be as simple as salt, pepper and lemon, or salt, pepper and garlic, or maybe garlic, lime and dill. Be selective, add a bit, allow the flavors to marry, then taste and see where you’re at.

Take for example, something simple like chili – what could and should go into your signature taste for that dish? We braise our meat in beer, add a dash of salt, onion, a little garlic and fresh cilantro to the base tomato flavor, and then use our house made chili powder, and that’s it.

The chile powder looks like this:
3 Tablespoons ground Chiles of your choice
1 teaspoon ground Cumin
1 teaspoon ground Mexican Oregano
½ teaspoon smoked Paprika
½ teaspoon ground Garlic

There’s a great example of a wealth of complex flavor fueled mostly by the food, enhanced with just a few choice herbs and spices.

The next question that gets asked a lot is when to add herbs and spices. There’s no one answer to this question; it depends on what you’re cooking and adding. Here are some general rules of thumb.
1. You can add herbs anywhere in the cooking process. In general, if you want the flavor note of the herb to stand out more, add it toward the end, and I f you want the flavor note blended with the dish more thoroughly, add it at the start.
2. Ground spices and dried herbs release flavors quite quickly; they can and will peak and diminish if added too soon. For instance, in that chili we’re making up there, we add the chili powder when there’s about an hour left to go in the process; that lets the flavors infuse, but also keeps them brighter than they would be if they were in there for hours on end.
3. Whole spices release flavor more slowly than ground or leaf form. This is why we toss Bay leaves, whole pepper corns, Juniper and stuff like that in when we’re making stock; they can and should do their thing through the whole process to maximize the flavor notes they add to the mix. Try tying these kinds of herbs and spices into a sachet of cheesecloth; that’ll make them really easy to fish out when their work is done.
4. When making uncooked foods like salads, salsas, and dressings, add spices and herbs an hour or two or three before serving; that’ll allow flavors to marry properly. For salad dressings, add the spices to the vinegar and let that sit for half an hour before adding the oil.
5. For marinades, try briefly and gently heating the seasoned liquid and then allowing it to cool completely; that’ll help release the flavor notes from the spices.

And then there’s the ‘How Much to Add’ question.
It’s real hard to form a viable general rule for the correct amount of spices and herbs to use, ’cause the strength of each differs widely, as does their effect on different foods.
I think it is a sound rule of thumb to say that, the stronger the herb or spice, the more sparingly you should employ it. For example, it doesn’t take a whole lot of Rosemary to go from herbed to overwhelmed, so go easy with those bad boys.
Keeping in mind that recipes are often written to the lowest common denominator, you may want to get a feel for altering them effectively, and more to the point, you probably want to get comfortable building your own ideas for scratch, right?
If you need a starting point and just don’t have a comfortable reference, try this:
Use 1/2 teaspoon per pound of meat or pint of sauce or soup.
For strong herbs and spices and hot chiles, start with 1/4 teaspoon and adjust as you see fit.
It’s always easier to add than take away…

BTW, don’t shake herbs and spices from the jar into what you’re cooking; you’re asking for a disaster when the whole thing cuts loose and falls in, and besides that, rising moisture can ding the potency of the herb or spice. Crush leafy herbs in your hand and then add them to your dish.

Finally, store your stuff in airtight jars, away from strong light, heat and moisture, and if you don’t use it inside of year, reevaluate if you need it, and consider getting some fresh stuff, too!

Vas-y!