MY LIFE - The race to harvest herbs
MY LIFE - The race to harvest herbs
If you like the smell of basil you would have loved my kitchen this week. It fairly reeked of it. A couple nights of colder than average weather had put the fear of God into me and the race was on to cut and process the tender herb before frost wiped out the whole crop. It doesn't take much. One touch of frost would turn the beautifully lush green patch into a blackened wasteland unfit for anything other than composting, disaster for someone as basil dependent as I am.
Shortly after dawn every morning this week I could be found hunched over in the herb garden, scissors in hand as I cut the oldest stems first, snipping the leaves into a large plastic colander until it could hold no more and then filling a second colander to overflowing before bringing them indoors to be washed and drained.
Plastic zip-lock freezer bags were already labeled and waiting to be filled, a bowlful of peeled garlic cloves and a big bag of walnuts nearby. Olive oil had already been transferred from the cumbersome gallon can into an easier to use plastic bottle, and the food processor was plugged in and ready to go. We were ready to process the fragrant herb into enough pesto to take me, a few friends, and several family members right through the winter.
I process it in triple batches that are scooped into quart-size freezer bags, flattened with all the air squeezed out, and then zipped shut and stacked in a plastic storage container. At an average -inch thick per packet they don't really take up much space in the freezer. And once solidly frozen, the pesto is easy to remove from the bag. You can use the whole thing or just snap off what you need and put the rest back in the freezer for later use. I have learned the hard way, though, that in an unfrozen state the pesto will not willingly leave the bag. It's really not pretty, so if I plan to use it soon I put it in a container that can easily be scooped out.
Traditionally, pesto is made with fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts (very expensive) or walnuts, grated parmesan cheese, and olive oil. I don't put cheese in mine because it can be added later when you use it, and also because all of my pesto is not going to go on pasta. I use it as the main flavoring agent in minestrone, the delicious vegetable soup that is full of things that are so good for you. It makes a great spread for Caprese sandwiches on a crusty roll with a thick slab of tomato and a slice of fresh mozzarella. My daughter-in-law Lisa loves it on salmon; my sister Bev likes it on chicken. And I love it on pasta. Mine is usually garlicky enough that I am safe from vampires for days after eating it.
This year I am also processing a whole bunch of it with just garlic and olive oil so I can use it in spaghetti sauce. I am seriously addicted to both pasta and basil so it's nice to know where my next fix is coming from. And just in case fresh basil is what I really need, I hedge my bets by growing a big pot of it for use throughout the cold weather months. As we speak I have a bouquet of basil sitting in a glass of water on the window sill over the kitchen sink. I discovered quite by accident a few years ago that sprigs of basil placed in water will send out beautiful roots within a week or two, and if planted in a large pot and place in a sunny window it will see me right through to basil time next summer.
This year I promised myself that I wouldn't waste a single leaf from anything in my herb garden. It breaks my heart every year to see so much of it go to waste when the cold weather sets in, not to mention that I am also left high and dry herb-wise until the following year. Not this time. I have been planning ahead.
The Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network made Chive Biscuits a couple months ago. They looked so good, I went out to the garden, grabbed a handful of chives, and whipped up a batch on the spot. Oh my God! They were to die for, and I have treated myself to them, hot from the oven, at least once a week ever since. The prospect of not being able to make them anymore once the garden goes dormant was more than I could bear, so I began cutting, chopping, and freezing chives ahead. I have two bulging bags of them on ice already and will continue cutting and freezing for as long as they keep growing.
I am doing the same with the delicately flavored mix of herbs my daughter Kathy told me about. Parsley, chives, and French tarragon chopped and blended together and either stirred into the eggs before cooking or sprinkled on top when served (my preference) elevates the lowly scrambled egg to a whole new plane. I am working on filling a bag with those, too.
Rosemary, sage, and thyme are being individually packed into ice cube trays, covered with olive oil, frozen solid and then popped out into labeled freezer bags, as per instructions found online. I haven't really used them yet, so I can't say they're great, but I have the stuff on hand anyway and nothing to lose but a few moments of time, so I will give it a shot.
I really don't look forward to winter's approach, but with the flavors of summer packed into zip lock bags in the freezer, and my new gas stove in the living room, it should at least be bearable.
By the way, Rhonda and I have coordinated our efforts this week, so check out her column for recipes.
Rhea Bouchard Powers is a writer from Cumberland.