Flavor Savers: Keeping the spirit of your herb garden alive throughout the winter

by Kathleen on October 2, 2010

It’s that time of the year again. Apple festivals every weekend, zinnias are in full bloom, and pumpkin-flavored everything.  Autumn is my favorite season of the year, but with it comes one very sad event– the end of the herb garden.  For those responsible enough to pot up their herb plants and actually keep them watered all winter, stop reading here. But for the rest of us– the good-intentioned houseplant killers of the world, I come bringing good news. You can enjoy the amazing flavors of your herb garden all winter long without having to buy one of those automatic watering thingies.

A brief suggestion on your herb gardens– if your plants are in pots, consider planting them in the ground where they might have a chance of surviving the winter (with the help of a little mulch). Potted herbs in winter= dead plants. The same goes for raised-bed gardens, unless you can get a serious amount of mulch/leaves to protect the plants.  Finally, remember that you can’t fight nature. Some plants weather the winter just fine– sage, thyme, and chives are a few examples. That lovely basil plant, on the other hand, is done at the end of the year.

Now, on to the flavor saving…

This isn’t rocket science. When you want to keep something preserved, you often freeze it or dry it. Canning, of course, comes in very handy for that huge cucumber crop, but it takes time and money. What I am suggesting here will take a few things you hopefully already have on hand: a few paper lunch bags and an ice cube tray or two.

This year,  I ended up with a huge amount of basil. My husband hoped for basil bushes, but by the end of the season, the plants are taller than me and still going strong. I know that in mid-December, my once-beautiful bushes will be dead, and I’ll be longing for the taste of fresh pesto. Beth already posted a fantastic fresh pesto recipe here. If you’re not up for making several batches of pesto right now, what I suggest is freezing chopped up basil leaves in a few ice cube trays. Once they’re frozen, you can pop them out into bags and store them all winter. Drop a cube or two into your tomato sauce, or defrost and make pesto when there’s snow on the ground!

This year, I spent a Saturday afternoon plucking Genovese and Thai basil leaves and creating one basil-rific mess in our kitchen.  I used my handy chopper (food processor would work fine too) and chopped the basil. Then, I distributed it into ice cube trays and called it a day.

If you’re feeling really advanced, you might want to consider adding a bit of water to the mixture, letting it sit, and freezing what is in essence basil water. Basil-scented ice cubes could be a great addition to a Sunday brunch Bloody Mary! The same could easily be applied to oregano or cilantro.

On to drying out those plentiful herbs. The key to drying out herbs for use throughout the winter is making sure there is proper air ventilation during the drying process. Not enough air, and you’ll end up with some lovely moldy leaves.

Grab a brown paper lunch bag and use a hole punch to make several holes in the bag for air circulation. Select herbs from your garden, clean them and dry them as much as possible. Throw them in and roll down the top. You’re done! Depending on temperature, and the amount you’re drying, you’ll soon be set with fresh dried herbs. Don’t forget to store them in an air-tight container once they’re ready for use. I also highly suggest dicing chives BEFORE going into the bag– it makes for very easy storage and portioning later.

So if you are looking longingly at your basil and oregano and wondering how much longer they’ll be around this year, dry those tears and get to saving that flavor!

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