It is nearly November and many gardens have been put to rest for the Winter. Mine, however is still producing Brussels Sprouts, tomatoes, albeit green, and lovely herbs. I am reluctant to say goodbye to the herb garden until the hard frost has come and death prevails for all garden residents. Nothing brings me to my happy place faster than waltzing down with snips to capture a handful of freshness that liven up almost every dish. The fragrance and beauty of fresh herbs, delights my soul. Recently I harvested the last of my basil. It is not as sweet as it is in Spring or early Summer but my love for it remains strong.
Last month I wrote about The Farm Tour sponsored by our local natural foods coop. As part of this adventure, we visited Renaissance Farm in Spring Green WI. I had seen these growers at the farmers market hawking their wares, a variety of herb products including pesto, infused oils, vinegars and sea salts but to witness 2 1/2 acres of gorgeous fragrant basil basking in the sun was breathtaking. It inspired me to go home and capture the season so I had herbaceous goodness preserved for those long cold days of Winter. How do I do that? Let me counts the ways.
First there is compound butters. Sounds complicated but it is simply adding, in this case, fresh herbs, to softened butter and mix until incorporated. Roll into a log and freeze. When ready to use this for a sauce, to top meats or vegetables (think herb mashed potatoes for example) or just as a condiment for bread, all you have to do is slice off as much as you need and there you have it. Easy and delicious.
This is a picture of compound butter using wild leeks.
Next, we have drying. Many herbs can be used dried for long cooking soups and stews. this is a simple process. Gather the herbs by the stems and tie a bundle with twine. Hang them upside down in a cool well ventilated place and allow to dry. This works well for the woodier herbs such as rosemary, thyme or sage but I do not recommend this for the more tender ones such as parsley, basil or cilantro. Too much flavor is lost in translation.
This brings me to my favorite herb preservation, Pesto. Pesto comes from the Italian word pestare , which means to pound or bruise. A handful of herbs or greens, a few nuts, a clove or two of garlic, and a little sea salt are put into a mortar and ground to a paste with a pestle. Sharp, dry cheese is pounded in, then olive oil is beaten with a wooden spoon or whisk. These days, most of us find it easier to use a blender or food processor to accomplish this task but for small batches, I go old school as it is very satisfying.
Basil pesto has become as familiar as tomato sauce, but pesto can be made from many things including cilantro, parsley, mint, sage, arugula, spinach and sorrel to name a few. I have even made carrot top pesto. Updating the term even further, in The New Basics cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins (of Silver Palate fame), they use it to describe a group of concentrates of garlic, black beans, red beans and sun-dried tomatoes preserved and used to enhance soups stews and sauces. I like to preserve my pesto, which this year includes, basil, cilantro, mint and parsley by making a batch and then freezing small portions in an ice-cube tray, remember them? That way, you can keep the little cubes in a freezer bag and use as much or as little as you need. Like the gals above, I throw a cube or two in sauces, stews and soups and they impart Summer freshness even on a snowy day. Oh, by the way, many people say to eliminate the cheese if you are freezing it and add it at the time of use but I do it all up front so it is good to go when I need it. Works fine.
The pesto recipe I use goes like this.
Recipe by Jeanne Raffetto Tentis
½ c fresh basil leaves (or herbs /greens of choice), washed and dried (I use a salad spinner to dry)
½ c extra virgin olive oil
2 T toasted pine nuts
2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled
Sea salt, to taste
½ c Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated
2 T Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated
- Put basil leaves, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and 1 t of salt in food processor or blender and puree until smooth and almost creamy.
- Transfer mixture to a large bowl and stir in cheeses. This step is optional depending on what type you are making, For instance, I eliminate the cheese when using mint or sage.
* You can prepare pesto ahead. Best to cover top with a layer of oil to prevent turning dark, if not used immediately or freeze as stated above.
Transfer mixture to a large bowl and stir in cheeses, if using.
So as we bid adieu to our herb gardens for the season, take some time to preserve a bit of Summer’s love. Trust me, it will make you so happy down Winter’s road. Until next time, I send thoughts of good eating and thanks for spreading the love, one dish at a time.