Friday, 28 June 2013

Preserving culinary herbs and edible flowers

A sun-drenched corner in the herb garden at Upton House, Warwickshire

If you grow culinary herbs, it is presumably because you love to cook with them. Apart from growing them to eat, they enhance any garden, and look marvellous when grown to perfection, and the scent as you brush past them on a summer's day is sheer delight. They are the simplest of plants to grow (being closer in nature to 'wildlings') and easy to preserve in a number of ways. Yet I wonder how many shop-bought jars languish on larder shelves, purchased because one needed a pinch of this or that in some recipe. They soon lose their savour. 

The paper cones should ideally cover the plant material (but that would
make for a rather dull photograph).
There are a number or ways of preserving herbs – and edible flower petals, which add a touch of colour to many a dish. Amongst the most common are air-drying, dehydrating, freezing and storing in olive oil. The easiest is air-drying, for which all you need are some brown paper bags or brown parcel-packing paper twisted around the stalks - and warm weather devoid of overmuch humidity.

Dehydrated fruit will be the subject of a future post - the jars were
photographed with my dried herbs and flower petals stored in bags:
calendula, elderflower, rose and marjoram (store in a dark place)
Or you can cover ordinary cake-cooling trays with muslin and lay the plant material on that. Ensure you pick plant material that is truly fresh once all moisture has evaporated in the warm sunshine, and lay onto the trays; turning regularly until they material is dry. Alternatively, invest in a food dehydrator which can also be used to preserve fruit and vegetables. When I first used mine, I made the mistake of mixing plant material with sliced fruit – the latter requires longer to dessicate. (Subject of a future post).

Herbs ready for planting - and good for freezing - thyme, sage, rosemary and lavender
(the santolina bottom left is not a culinary herb but one whose dried stems
are used to deter clothes moths)
Freezing small quantities of herbs is useful if you want to be able to add flavour to soups and stews – or make mint sauce out of season. Pack chopped leaves into ice-cube trays, and top-up with bottled water, then freeze. Store the cubes in zipped freezer bags.

Jars and pots awaiting preserved herbs and edible flowers -
with a pot of freshly-made herbal tea in the background
Olive oil is equally easy as a means of providing piquancy for certain dishes – though it is the actual oil that you will be using, which, by the time the herbs have been steeped for some weeks, will impart a specific herbal flavour to your cooking. The simplest method is to insert fresh sprigs of specific herbs into individual bottles of olive oil (buy the smallest size from the supermarket). That way you do not need to worry about sterilizing the bottles. Brush meat with the flavoured oil, or use it when making a salad dressing. You can use the same method to flavour vinegar – particularly good with chives; add a flower stalk, very pretty.

Dried herbs - but don't be tempted to keep them too long
Make a mental note to throw out any unused preserved herbs each year as a fresh crop becomes available. using stale, musty ingredients is worse than not having them at all. As for those that don't really need preserving at all because you can pick them fresh all year round (such as Bay - Lauris nobilis), that's fine; no need to clutter your shelves. BUT gather a few and preserve some nonetheless when they are at their best, because who wants to head down the garden for a few leaves to make a heart-warming stew in the depths of winter when it's snowing hard? or keep an eye on the weather forecast.

Lavender florets are edible - and a boon to wildlife as well
Does your garden lack the herbs you find are frequently required in all the new recipes you dying to try? Start a list, make a point of checking the herb section at garden centres you visit and read the labels if you find an unfamiliar one. Visit the herb section of the Dobies website (plants) and also list the herbs you could grow from seed. And if the thought of all this preserving seems somewhat tiresome, the easiest of the lot in a good summer is lavender. Leave the flower spikes on the stalks until the petals start to fade; cut the heads on a warm day and rub the florets into a dish. Use sparingly and, if you like, mix them with sugar for cake toppings.


Don't forget to  visit the Dobies' website for all your gardening needs and requirements. You may particularly like: vegetable seedsvegetable plants, flower seeds, flower plants, herbs, fruit and equipment. And don't forget their regular mailings and special offers online. Just keep visiting so you don't miss anything special. I'll be back again next month.

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