August 5, 2011
I tend to shy away from recipes that call for more than one fresh herb; they’re expensive to buy, and I always end up having more left over than I can use before it wilts. The best solution would be to grow my own, which I have started to do—basil, parsley and dill in the garden, mint in a pot by a sunny window—but not everyone has room (or the inclination) for a garden, and some herb plants don’t do well indoors. Besides, only the most dedicated gardener has the time and space for all of the possible culinary herbs they might want to use.
Whether homegrown or store-bought, there are ways to preserve the flavor of fresh herbs for later:
1. Keep them fresh longer. One method does not fit all when it comes to short-term storage. Some leafy annual herbs, especially basil, stay fresher if placed in water, stems down (like a bouquet of flowers) rather than in the refrigerator. Woody perennials, including rosemary, thyme and oregano, can withstand the cold of the refrigerator. Cook’s Illustrated recommends stacking them in layers separated by parchment paper in plastic containers with tight lids, or in plastic bags for smaller amounts. Parsley, dill, chives and cilantro can be stored in the refrigerator but should either have their stem ends in water or wrapped in a damp paper towel and sealed in a plastic bag.
2. Freeze them. Some herbs don’t freeze well—basil turns black, and cilantro loses its flavor. But hardier herbs, including rosemary, mint, dill, thyme, parsley and tarragon, can be frozen and stored in an airtight container.
3. Dry them. The reason people use fresh herbs over dried is that they often taste better. But there are a few exceptions—bay leaves being the most notable—and, in any case, it’s better to dry your leftover herbs than let them go to waste. The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs, by Charles W. G. Smith, suggests drying dill, basil, rosemary or sage by hanging them upside-down by the stem and then storing them in an airtight container once dried. Other herbs can be dried on paper towels in the refrigerator. A dehydrator also works well if you have one. Don’t bother drying cilantro—it loses its flavor.
4. Make herb butter. Fats help preserve the flavor of herbs, and making herb butter (also known as compound butter) is easy. You just take softened unsalted butter and mix in a generous amount of minced fresh herbs, either singly or in combination, and, if you like, other seasonings. The butter can be frozen in small portions (some people use ice cube trays) and stored for months. The thawed butter can then be used on fish or chicken, in pasta, on vegetables or as a spread. Combinations to try include basil, thyme and dill (recipe at Annie’s Eats), cilantro and lime (from Simply Recipes) or nearly the whole kit and caboodle, as this six-herb butter from Chew on That calls for.
5. Make pesto. Basil is the most traditional herb used in pesto, but parsley, arugula, cilantro, dill and rosemary—really, almost any herbs—also work well. Again, leftover pesto can be frozen in small batches to use later. For something different try parsley and walnut (from the Daily Green), tarragon and pistachio (from Bon Appétit) or cilantro and pumpkin seed (from Tasty Kitchen).
6. Make herb jelly. Mint jelly is the traditional accompaniment to lamb, but just about any herbs can be turned into jellies. They can be used as a spread or as the basis for a meat glaze. As a bonus, they don’t need to be kept in the freezer. Renee’s Garden gives a basic recipe that can be used with any herb. You can also combine herbs and fruits, as in Pie and Beer’s tomato-basil jam or Gourmet magazine’s cranberry roesemary wine jelly (via Epicurious).
7. Infuse oil or vinegar. Infusing oil and vinegar is a great way to capture the flavor of fresh herbs without preserving the herbs themselves. The Beginner’s Guide to Edible Herbs recommends light oils such as olive, safflower or sunflower with strongly flavored herbs for the best results. You simply fill a sterilized bottle or jar about a quarter to a third of the way full with fresh herbs that have been rinsed and allowed to dry, then fill the rest with oil. Cap the container and let stand at room temperature for 10 to 14 days, then strain out and discard the herbs. The oil should keep for up to two months. The process is similar for vinegars: the Farmer’s Almanac shares the basic formula.
January 12, 2011
It’s a marshmallow world in the winter when the snow comes to cover the ground—as has been the the case for parts of the southeastern United States that have been dealing with some serious snowstorms. At times like this, it might be best to stay indoors and indulge in actual marshmallows, be they floating atop some hot cocoa or roasted in front of a roaring fire. (Those who don’t have a fire handy—such as apartment-bound urban dwellers—can make do with a can of Sterno.) But as you chomp down on a s’more or daintily decapitate a Peep, do you ever stop to wonder where these fluffy confections came from? If you think they come from a factory, you’d—well—you’d be absolutely correct. But there’s a little bit more to it than that.
Marshmallow is actually a plant. I’m not trying to ruin a perfectly good guilty pleasure food by telling you are ingesting wholesome vegetable matter. However, there is a connection between the sugary stuff you know and love and Althaea officinalis, an herb that, as its more familiar name implies, likes to call marshy, wet environments home. It’s native to Europe and West Asia. Greek physician Dioscorides advised that marshmallow extracts be used in treating wounds and inflammations. During the Renaissance, extracts from the plant’s roots and leaves were used for medicinal purposes, namely as an anti-inflamatory and soothing agent for sore throats.
The modern marshmallow confection is a mid-19th century French invention and was a cross between medicinal lozenge and bonbon. Originally, the marshmallow plant’s gummy root juices were combined with eggs and sugar and then beaten into a foamy paste. The plant extracts were later replaced by gelatin, which still gave the candy its signature pillowy texture and, given its ready availability, allowed for quicker, less labor-intensive production of the candy. Marshmallows gained in popularity and by the 1920s, they inspired edible novelties—such as Moon Pies—as well as derivative products to satisfy the sweet tooth, namely the incredible, spreadable Marshmallow Fluff. Some marshmallow companies even imagined up whimsical countertop toasters to give their powder-white sweets that much-desired golden brown hue.
And in the late 1960s, marshmallows began to foretell the future. Well, sort of. Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments where children were seated at the table with a single marshmallow set before them and told that they could either eat the treat right away or, if they could wait a few minutes, they could have two. The whole endeavor was meant to explore the mechanism of delayed gratification—and the kids who were able to resist temptation performed better academically and were more adept in maintaining social relationships. (This test has since been repeated.) You might not want to think about this study if you’re reading this and just cracking into a fresh bag of marshmallows to snack on.
With that food for thought, I will leave you with the dulcet tones of the Flufferettes, the namesake of a New England radio show that aired in the 1930s and 1940s that, in addition to featuring musical acts and comedy sketches, hawked Marshmallow Fluff. I think it’s definitely about time for a Fluffernutter sandwich.
September 23, 2009
Anyone who’s been to the southeastern United States has seen kudzu, the invasive vine that can swallow an abandoned car faster than Takeru Kobayashi can eat a few dozen Nathan’s hot dogs. Introduced from Japan in 1876 (that’s the vine, not the competitive eater) and promoted in the 1930s as a form of erosion control, the plant spread like a California brush fire in the Southeast’s steamy climate. It now covers about 10 million acres in lush, coiling and sun-blocking greenery and is considered a pest weed.
But it’s not all bad, as Asian herbalists and, now, American researchers, have found. In traditional Chinese medicine, kudzu, called gé gēn, is used to treat a number of conditions, including alcoholism, symptoms of menopause, neck and eye pain, and diabetes. Many of these claims have not been scientifically tested, but kudzu’s usefulness against the last ailment has recently been supported by research on laboratory rats at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The results of studies there, published in the latest Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, were that the isoflavones in kudzu root improved regulation of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose, all important to controlling diabetes. One isoflavone, puerarin, is found only in kudzu and appeared to have the most positive impact.
J. Michael Wyss, lead author on the study, was quoted on the UAB Web site as saying that puerarin “seems to regulate glucose by steering it to places where it is beneficial, such as muscles, and away from fat cells and blood vessels.”
The next step, Wyss continued, will be to understand more about how the isoflavone works, and conduct human trials to determine how it would be most beneficial. Interestingly, the South has the highest diabetes rates in the country, meaning help may have been growing right under the noses (and up the utility poles) of the people who could use it most.
Earlier studies have looked at other potential benefits of a kudzu supplement, like controlling binge drinking. In 2005, Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital found that subjects who took the herb for a week before participating in a drinking experiment consumed about half as much beer as subjects who took a placebo, and drank it more slowly.
Unfortunately for those who do over-imbibe, no one has proven—although some have tried—that kudzu can cure a hangover.
September 15, 2009
A local friend of mine recently received a bounty of fresh Middle Eastern spices, courtesy of a friend visiting from Qatar.
“I asked her to bring me a few spices, and she went to the market and asked for a half a kilo [1.1 lbs] of everything!” my friend explained. “Want some?”
What a happy coincidence—we had just been given a new spice rack, and the jars were empty! Now they hold a mix of the mysterious and the familiar: turmeric, cardamom pods, dried hibiscus, cumin, cinnamon, dried whole ginger, zatar, and something called simply “mixed spices,” which looks and smells like what the supermarket sells as “curry powder.” I added in some garam masala I bought in Kenya (2 years ago, but it’s still remarkably potent), and a few store-bought spices like nutmeg and cloves, creating an aromatic dust storm in the kitchen as I funneled everything into jars.
I’ve already made a great tofu-vegetable curry flavored with the mixed spices, crushed cardamom, turmeric, cumin, and zested ginger. I’ve sprinkled the cinnamon on waffles, and tried a touch of cardamom in my coffee, but I know I could be more adventurous.
I’m a bit stumped by the dried hibiscus (not technically a spice, I know), also called Jamaica flowers. I haven’t found any food recipes that use this, but a quick search turned up some appealing drink recipes, such as a hibiscus margarita, or hibiscus-lime iced tea.
The new ingredient I’m most excited about is zatar (or za’atar, or zaatar, however you want to spell it), which is apparently both the name of a wild herb and the name of an herb/spice blend. The blend varies by region and household, but often includes sumac, sesame seeds, and salt, along with green herbs like oregano, thyme and marjoram.
I’m not not sure exactly what I received; it looks a bit like dried lawn clippings, to be honest, but tastes quite good! I’ve only tried zatar once before, on a trip to Israel, where a street food vendor served it atop warm pita bread brushed with olive oil. I plan to try re-creating that tasty treat at home, and I bet zatar could also add a lively touch to comfort foods like pizza, pasta or even mac and cheese. (Of course, it would be nice baked into homemade bread, too, if we had an oven…) Any other ideas?
What’s your favorite spice?