Thursday, July 14, 2011

Week on Waste: Easy Tips to Stretch and Preserve Herbs

Cheap Eat Challenge, Part 2: Watch our family of 6 eat on $10/day.

Fresh herbs aren't usually cheap. And they don't last long. And your recipe usually calls for an annoying 1/4 cup. In a perfect world you would have lots of fertile sunny land and you would grow your own and occasionally snip off what you needed. In that same perfect world you would stagger their plantings so you always had the herb you needed. Yes, well. It is a lovely thought.

But let's head back to real life. Because in real life you've got a bunch of cilantro wilting in your fridge. Maybe it's even past wilting. Maybe it's to the parts-are-getting-slimy stage. Don't you just love that stage?

The thing is, there are lots of ways to keep our herbs fresher longer as well as a couple of ways to keep them fresh-like for several months.

Easy Tips to Stretch and Preserve Herbs

1. Put the herbs in a glass with water in it (as though they were a bouquet of flowers). You can keep this in the fridge for storage; your herbs will last a good deal longer. In the case of some herbs--basil is the one that comes to mind--you can even store your "vase" of basil on the counter or table. Basil will actually start to root from a cutting of it (meaning the roots will start to grow from the portion of the stem that is in water), so if you cut off a stem and put it in a vase of water it will last a very very long time. I kept some basil like this for a month or so last summer. It sat in my kitchen window and I'd just clip off a few leaves when I needed them.

2. Wrap your herbs in a paper towel, put the paper towel in a Ziploc bag and store it in the refrigerator. The paper towel wicks off extra water that would cause the herbs to quickly rot if they were merely in a plastic bag. Then the damp paper towel also serves to provide a pleasantly moist environment for those herbs. Do this and you'll give your herbs an extra week--probably even longer.

3. Freeze them.

Method A: Just pluck off the leaves, put them in a Ziploc bag, and throw them in the freezer. No, you won't be able to use them in a cold salad because they'll be ugly and wilted after they defrost, but you'll be able to cook with them and they will taste very nearly as good as they would have fresh. This is especially true of certain herbs like cilantro and parsley. I have also read that basil, dill, mint, oregano, sage, lemongrass, chives, tarragon, rosemary, and thyme freeze well, but I have not personally tried those. I find that this is the best and fastest method for me when I'm like, "Yikes, my herbs are getting slimy" but I don't have a bunch of time (or maybe a bunch of remaining herb) to preserve my herbs. I did it today with some cilantro and managed to salvage a good bit of it. It took me 3 minutes to pull off the good leaves and throw them in the bag (yup, I checked the clock).

Method B: Pulse the herbs in a food processor or blender with a little bit of olive oil, put this into ice cube trays, and then freeze the herb cubes in a freezer bag. You can throw these herb cubes into stews and sauces later. I bet this works well with all herbs, although something like thyme with itty bitty leaves might not work quite as well. It's an absolute charm for basil and other leafy herbs.

Method C: Chop the herbs or pulse them in a food processor or blender, put them in ice cubes with a bit of water and freeze. You can then use these herbed ice cubes as a fun garnish in drinks. Naturally, it works best with herbs you'd want to have with your water, lemonade, or iced tea--things like mint, tarragon, basil, lavender, or lemon balm.

4. Make a butter with it. Chop up the herbs, mix them with soft butter (not melted butter), roll the butter in wax or parchment paper, and freeze it till you want it. Chives work really well in this as do Italian herbs.

5. Dry them. This is the peskiest method in my opinion, but also the most effective if you've got a booty load of an herb you'd really like to preserve (usually a harvest from the garden). You can do this outside if you live in an arid place. Here in Indiana, a food dehydrator works best. However, you can also dry them in the microwave (keep a close eye on them, so they don't burn) or at a very low temperature in the oven (150 degrees or less if possible). Strip the leaves off the stems. Place them in a single layer on whatever it is you're drying. They're done when you can crumble them in your hand. At that point, put them in an airtight container or the humidity from the air will add some moisture to them again and shorten their storage life.

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