I had the pleasure of attending the workshop "Home Cooking with Herbs and Palate Awakening," hosted by Betsy Williams while at the Commonground Country Fair last weekend.
Here's what I learned:
When harvesting perennial herbs in your garden, don't cut them back more than half. On an equinox, don't cut back more than a quarter.
Air-dry your herbs until they are crisp. They should be easy to pulverize when you rub them between your fingers.
Something I didn't know before: keep your herbs on their stems until you use them. When stuffing the dried herbs in jars to preserve, don't remove them from the stems! Handling herbs breaks their cells and wastes culinary flavor and medicinal properties.
Once dry, store them in airtight containers. Ball jars work very well.
When using the herbs for cooking or healing, strip the stems of the leaves, but don't throw the stems away. They can be used for roasting or grilling. All parts of the herb have the same flavor!
Tender herbs like basil, dill, parsley, etc. can be placed in a bag and frozen. Betsy doesn't even wash them first, because she gardens organically and knows her herbs are clean.
For herbs that aren't as tender, add 2 cups of herb leaves to enough olive oil to blend and make a slurry. Pack the paste into a ziplock bag and freeze. Or, you can freeze the paste into ice cube trays first for portion-size use.
Basil stays bright green when freezing in a paste because the oil keeps it from turning black.
Always use the best butter: organic, fresh, and preferably local.
It should be room temperature and easily mashable with a fork.
For every stick of butter, chop up and toss in 2-3 teaspoons of herbs. You can use more than one type of herb, like rosemary/sage, rosemary/lavender, sage/basil.
Also, if it's to your inclination, you can add 1-2 cloves of pressed garlic.
Your final ingredient? Lemon. Add a few drops of lemon to the mix and it'll perk up the flavor.
Herb butter can be frozen for up to one year.
Betsy passed around a tray of Wheat Thins topped with her herb butter. I ate one. Then I immediately started thinking of ways to ask for more.
Fill a canning jar to the brim with your herbs of choice. Add vinegar to the jar until it reaches the top. Keep the jar in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. Strain.
That's it! You've made herb vinegar!
You can also make something called Mrs. Thrift's "Garbage Vinegar."
Fill a canning jar to the top with your favorite vinegar (Betsy suggested white balsamic vinegar). While cooking and working with herbs, take all your extra bits and add them to the jar, covering it back up after every addition (you don't want to provide an awesome environment for fruit flies).
You can also add peppers, citrus, or anything that you want to flavor up your vinegar.
As Betsy said, "In all the odd bits go."
Once your jar is full of herbs, tightly cover and let it sit for 2-3 weeks in a cool, dark place.
Strain and discard what's left.
No two jars of Garbage Vinegar are the same!
Notes on vinegar:
White distilled vinegar is not ideal for cooking because it is not fermented. Fermentation is better for our bodies than distillation. Distilled vinegar can be used for cleaning, however.
Try raw unfiltered apple cider vinegar.
Always read the label on vinegar bottles to see what it's distilled in. In the last few years, vinegar producers have been required to provide this information. Some white distilled vinegars are actually distilled from wood chips!
Also, stay away from seasoned vinegar. You'll be adding flavor yourself and you want to start with an "unadulterated" product.
To make herb mustard, chop 2-4 tablespoons of herbs as finely as you can and add to your homemade mustard.
Homemade mustard is very easy to make! Buy whole mustard seed, measure out 2-4 tablespoons and cover it with liquid (any edible liquid you want: beer, rum, apple cider, fruit juice, wine, etc.). Let it sit overnight and, by the morning, all the liquid will be dissolved and you'll have your own homemade mustard.
In addition to herbs, you can also mix in some horseradish or garlic to your mustard.
Mustard cannot spoil, even if it's left in the pantry and is not refrigerated.
You can use mustard in cooking by:
deglazing pans with it
slathering it under chicken skin
topping steak with it and adding sauteed onions
pairing it with breaded fish
Pesto can be made with any herb (doesn't have to be basil!). Use olive oil and any mixture of herbs you want. Betsy uses Romano cheese in her recipes. Also, she uses walnuts instead of the "normal" pine nuts because they're much cheaper and keep longer. Once you've created your own signature pesto, you can freeze it in cubes or straight up in a ziplock bag. It will spoil after a while in the refrigerator, so freeze smaller portions to avoid waste.
Herb butters, vinegar, mustard, and pesto bring sass to cooking and always work well as gifts (wouldn't you know, gift-giving season is right around the corner!).
If you decide to make some vinegar (herb or Garbage), I'd love to know what you included in it.