I often find myself wondering just how much money one could save by simply buying and freezing food that’s in season and eating it when it’s not. You don’t need to live on a farm or even have a garden to do this, and you certainly don’t need to study herbalism or find time to climb up a mountain to go wildcrafting. All you need is access to local produce at the farmer’s market or grocery store, and a freezer.
The freezer part would be trickiest for me, though, since mine is stockpiled with grassfed beef and doesn’t have much room for months worth of vegetables! In fact, this task could require a freezer unto itself! Herbs and spices, however, are easy to preserve and take up such little space. Besides, store-bought herbs and spices are often expensive and flavorless. Why not preserve your own summer herbs in all their splendor to cook with in the winter?
Drying herbs is so simple. If you do happen to have a garden or a place to ethically wildcraft herbs that you’ve positively identified, just make sure to harvest on a day that is dry and warm. Otherwise, just take the lovely summer herbs you’ve purchased and hang them up. I leave them on the stem and tie them in bunches, but you can also lay them on a rack. (If you’re making an herbal tea blend, you can mix the herbs together even before you dry them.) If your house is dusty, cheesecloth bags are particularly useful for wrapping the plans in. Humidity is rarely a problem in the desert, but I’ve dried herbs in the Pacific Northwest and other areas with constantly creeping mold. In that case, I made sure the herbs were in the driest rooms I could find and had plenty of circulation. If you are pressed for time, or can’t dry herbs for whatever reason (children, pets and even roommates often make the task difficult), you can use a dehydrator or even an oven on low temperature (110°F or cooler). Just make sure to keep checking them! I’ve heard it’s also possible to dry herbs in microwaves, though I have never tried this. Oh! And once they’re dry, crumble them in your fingers and stick them in a jar! As always, herbs store best in dark jars, or clear jars in a dark cupboard. You can freeze the dry herbs also, but they are a bit too delicate for freezer bags. I prefer not to store in plastic.
Speaking of which, freezing herbs is also ridiculously easy. Wash ‘em, stick ‘em in a salad spinner or shake them dry and put them in a freezer container. If you’d like to simply defrost and use herbs in the winter, you can mince them before freezing them. Otherwise, make sure you crush the herbs between your fingers to release the oils when you use these preserved herbs in your delicious winter stews.
But my favorite option is herb cubes, which are great for delicious soups and stir frys. I simply chop up my herbs, stick ‘em in ice cube trays, cover them with water and freeze them. I prefer filling the trays with boiling water to blanche the herbs. Another option for herb cubes is to use oil instead of water, pureeing the herbs and olive oil in a blender or food processor before freezing. Just make sure to use the same proportion of herbs to oil as you’d want in your winter recipes!
I certainly can’t mention herbs and oil without discussing flavored oils. These are delicious. Simply pound basil, oregano, and/or rosemary (or any herb of your choice) in your mortar and pestle with a tiny bit of olive oil, mix it in with some more oil in a dark bottle or jar, and let it sit uncovered for a couple of weeks. Then strain it into another jar and seal it tightly. Store in a cool, dark place.
You can make flavored butter too! I like melting butter into a bowl of minced thyme, rosemary and garlic, and then freezing it for later.
And finally, herbal vinegars. Really they deserve a whole blog post unto themselves, as they can be both medicinal and edible and used in so many ways… but they are very easy to make for those of us who want to experiment (especially if you are using white wine vinegar). You need to pound the herb in your mortar and pestle, stick it in a jar, and pour two to three cups of BOILED vinegar over your herb. Let the mixture cool, cover it and set it aside for a couple of weeks and then strain it. Again, store it in a dark container (or a clear container in a dark cupboard) in a cool place.
There you have it! Ways to enjoy your summer harvest all year round! Bon appetit!
This post was first published in August 2009.