Amongst your lush garden may be a treasury of herbs

If your garden is anything like mine this season, you are seeing a jungle that is difficult to keep up with.

But there is good news: Among the lush plants are my plantings of culinary herbs, and it behooves me to get busy preserving their lushness for the coming months. Of course, using them immediately is on my list as well.

The perennial herbs I love and use are sage, oregano, chives, savory, thyme, rosemary and tarragon. As far as annuals, I must have basil and Italian flat-leaved parsley, chervil and dill. By annuals, I mean I must start or buy new plants every year.

Parsley and thyme are thriving now.
Photo by Joan Weed. Parsley and thyme are thriving now.

And since we are talking annuals, don’t forget garlic … hmmmm … is that considered an herb? It’s just about time to harvest mine and begin a curing process in a dry place. After a couple of weeks, I’ll trim them and store in a net bag or a basket on my counter. My modest supply will last till late winter. If it begins to sprout, I peel and trim and store the last in the freezer to save.

There are a couple of ways to preserve herbs. Certain ones adapt best to drying. Thyme, I will hang in bundles and crumble as needed. Sage leaves can be dried, rubbed to a powder after drying and stored in jars. So fine in the Thanksgiving stuffing. Beans take well to sage flavoring as well.

Oregano as a fresh plant is worlds away from the jars of “sweepings” used so liberally in faux Italian dishes. Once you get a bed of oregano you will be gifted for life. It is nowhere as harsh as the dried. I add it to chili, especially, and hardly ever to tomato sauce.

Chives are useful in so many ways while fresh from the garden. If you watch Jacques Pepin videos, you’ll see him top nearly every savory dish with chives from his garden. Think of topping a baked potato, adding to salad or stir-fry or sprinkling on a creamy soup. Vichysoisse anyone? Chowders? Baked chicken?

Rosemary needs shelter in winter in our clime but snipping off stems for lamb dishes means I must have it. It adds the classic touch to rack of lamb or Julia Child’s herb-stuffed leg of lamb.

Basil is probably my personal favorite herb. I make several deli containers of pesto each year and freeze. Another way to store it is in a plastic bag and flatten for ease in breaking off a serving. It is fairly easy to cut off a chunk for tomato dishes, a salad dressing for caprese, pasta sauce or adding to the classic French vegetable soup Pistou.

Havest some sage, right, and you’ve got three-fourths of a classic English ballad refrain.
Photo by Joan Weed. Havest some sage, right, and you’ve got three-fourths of a classic English ballad refrain.

Italian parsley is on every cook’s radar for so many dishes, and I chop many bunches in my food processor and freeze loosely in plastic bags. So easy to grab a handful for soup, meatloaf, meatballs, etcetera and return to freezer.

Red Wagon Plants offered a class in making herb salts which I took. If I recall, you can chop any favorite, or mixture, of herbs, and add to equal amounts of salt. The kind of salt is up to you — kosher, sea, table — whichever you prefer. Store in glass jars. I admit to buying their labeled mixes now. Tuscan and rosemary-garlic and tarragon are my go-tos.

You might notice I don’t mention cilantro; yes, I’m averse, but when I feel it makes the character of a dish and mixes in, I will allow it. Like in homemade salsa.

Fresh-from-the-garden uses for herbs include chervil on a green salad (a bit like anise) and dill, of course, for cucumber salad, tzatziki sauce in Greek dishes. Don’t forget pickles!

When processing herbs, you can freeze bundles of the trimmed stems from cilantro or parsley and roll in freezer paper to add later to soup or stocks. No waste.

Another way I preserve many herbs is in compound butters. Mix a single, chopped herb, or a desired combination, into softened butter and roll into a log on waxed paper or parchment. Twist ends. Freeze and slice off pieces for dishes all winter. I love tarragon butter on fish, scrambled eggs or chicken. Mixing the Mediterranean-flavored herbs like thyme or rosemary, gives your cooking toolbox a creative nudge. Frittatas love herbs.

Here’s a basic pesto recipe:

Two cups of packed basil leaves
1/4 cup of pine nuts (or walnuts or almonds)
1 large clove of garlic
enough olive oil for a creamy consistency.
I like to add 1/4 cup of grated pecorino or parmesan when finished.

In your blender or food processor, grind basil, nuts and garlic, adding oil slowly to help it run smoothly. Don’t overprocess as olive oil can become harsh. When you’ve reached a smooth but sturdy consistency, add grated cheese. Freeze as noted above in cups or bags.

I have experimented with rack of lamb over the years. Here is my version:

Purchase a “Frenched” rack of lamb, meaning ribs are trimmed down to meaty portions. Coat entirely with Dijon mustard.

In a bowl mix:
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon minced rosemary leaves
2 finely minced large cloves of garlic
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons cornmeal.

Pat this mixture all over the prepared roast. Don’t forget ends and backside. Prop in a baking pan with bones up and roast at 400 degrees for approximately 20-25 minutes for medium. Adjust time to your liking.

Remove from oven, cover and rest for at least 15 minutes, as cooking will continue.

Slice into chops for serving. I like to offer with tomatoes provencal, roasted potato wedges and some in-season green vegetable.

I hope you’ll enliven your summer cooking with the garden’s bounty and extend the wonderful flavors well into the winter season as well.