With September’s Eat Local Challenge’s emphasis on food preservation, I thought I would show “easy stuff” first. Refrigerator pickles are easy. This is even easier.
A lot of the reasons I do what I do is because, in the country, I have no access to the gourmet establishments that populated my city life. Instead of doing without, though, now I am D.I.Y. But even when I was a city kid, I dried my own herbs. It was so easy to do. Considering how expensive spices can be, this certainly appeals to my tightwad side. And in the thick of winter, it is so nice to be able to grab a bit of summer seasoning off the shelf.
Not that I am growing cinnamon, vanilla, peppercorns or even ginger outside (though I could grow the latter, I suppose). Instead, most of the spices I grow fit in that generic French category of “fines herbes.” These are the green ones that most of us can, and DO, grow in our North American gardens. Basil. Borage, chervil, cilantro (coriander), fennel, mint, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme. Chives. Tarragon. Lemon balm, lemon grass. And Hungarian peppers can even be dried and ground into your very own paprika.
So, here’s the procedure. Select the healthiest, strongest herbs: generally, they’re at their peak before they go into flower. Go outside in the morning and cut some herb branches. If they are wet with dew, shake them off a bit and set them in the sun to dry (but not fry: it is important to watch out for this). DO NOT wash them off; just try to brush or shake off any of the dirt you see. Tie them up with some twine and place inside a small paper bag (lunch bags work well for this) that you have punched a bunch of small holes in. Cheesecloth also works: you must make sure, though, that the drying place is dark. Tie the bag around the branches and hang it up in a dry, dark, well-ventilated spot (not your kitchen, in other words: your bedroom, maybe, or your garage). The herbs should be dry in about 3 weeks. You can them remove the leaves from the stems and gently crush them or grind them as needed.
I love making my own herb mixes. Italian herb mix is one I use frequently (oregano, rosemary, thyme, marjoram and basil). The true Fines Herbes is an equal mixture of of the following: chervil, chives, parsley and marjoram (or tarragon). Bouquet garni is a stronger mixture of thyme, sage, and parsley, but, like Fines Herbes, its contents can vary. I am also a huge sucker for savory (both winter and summer) and thyme, so I make a big mix of that, too.
Confession here: I did a lot more herb-drying in Minneapolis, as those harsh Minnesota winters generally laid waste to all but my most hardy perennial herbs. Now? I am a lot more lazy, as our winters here are a lot more forgiving. I find that I can still go out in December and pick fresh, frost-bitten herbs for my cooking.