Herb Harvest_Alba 2014

Happy Harvest, Blessed Equinox! Autumn has arrived!

Any regular readers of this blog know that the autumn is my favorite time of the year. The colors are so vibrant after the lush green of summer, the air is crisp and that crispness seems to make food taste so much better!

Today is the first day of autumn, the official equinox will happen tonight at 10:29 PM, EST. This is the perfect day to give thanks for the bounty of the season, all those delicious garden fresh fruits and vegetables that we have been enjoying all summer and that we can now harvest and use to prepare foods to keep for the leaner, colder months and let us not forget about our herbs, those wonderful plants that bring such wonderful flavors to our foods.

I love having a nice big herb garden although I admit that some years I am not very good about preserving the harvest. This year I decided to make it a priority. We didn’t have a very big vegetable garden this year – it was an unseasonably cool summer this year here in Vermont. So I concentrated on my herb garden. I had a variety of annuals and perennials and I really tried to make the most of the harvest this year.

I hope you enjoy these five easy ways to preserve your herbs and some delicious recipes to go with it, so you can enjoy your harvest all winter long!

DRYING HERBS:

Hanging from rafters

The easiest way to preserve herbs is to dry them. Some herbs are better for drying, than others because there are more natural oils in them and therefore they retain their flavor better. Herbs I particularly like for drying are: oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, savory and anything in the mint family. These herbs will retain their flavor for about 6 months to a year depending on how you package them after drying.

It takes about a week for most herbs to dry. Those that are very oily and have woody stems, like rosemary and sage might take a few days longer. The best place to dry your herbs is in a well-ventilated place that gets a lot of natural sunlight. In my fantasy world I live in a little cabin in the woods with herbs hanging from the rafters in the kitchen. So that is where I decided to dry my herbs this year, and they did very well.

Thyme

You know your herbs are dry when they crumble easily at the touch. Dried herbs should look much like they did while they were in the ground, the same color and have a strong smell.

thyme in bottle

You can see in this picture, I have some thyme from last year on the bottom and the thyme I just harvested and dried on top.

Once your herbs are dry, you can package them for storage. I prefer glass bottles. I usually save any old glass spice jars, and then re-use them for this purpose.

COMPOUND BUTTERS:

Compound butter

Compound butters are another great way to preserve the harvest and add some excitement to winter meals. Several years ago I made an herbal compound butter with maple to rub under the skin of my Thanksgiving turkey. I couldn’t locate that recipe, so I made up one of my own. I am looking forward to putting this on my turkey this year. However, I made extra. I might toss it with some roasted sweet potatoes or winter squash or perhaps put a dollop in the pan when I am cooking chicken. Making compound butters is really very easy and is a great way to enjoy your herbs.

Autumn Maple Herb Butter

INGREDIENTS:
16 Tablespoons of softened butter (I use Kerrygold)
8 TBS of fresh herbs minced – I used a combination of sage an rosemary, equal parts
1 teaspoon of black pepper
3 Tablespoons of pure maple syrup (from Vermont of course!)

METHOD: On a large flat plate place the butter and spread it out a bit. Don’t work it too much or it will begin to melt. Sprinkle the herbs, pepper and drizzle the maple on top, then gently fold everything into the butter.

TO STORE: I found these wonderful Ball Frozen Herb Starters to help me preserve my herbs this year. So using a spatula I filled the cubes until all the butter was gone and then froze it over night. The next day, I popped them out and put them in a plastic freezer bag and then back in the freezer to be used later.

PRESERVING HERBS IN BROTH:

broth

I always have bone broth on hand. If you don’t you can always use some organic free-range chicken (or vegetable) broth. I like Pacific Organics in a pinch. This is an easy way to get you a step ahead when making soup in the winter. I love a good chicken soup, so I created a quick Chicken Soup Starter.

Chicken Soup Starter

INGREDIENTS:
2 cups fresh herbs, minced (I used a mixture of sage, rosemary, winter savory, parsley and thyme)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup chicken broth
salt and pepper to taste

METHOD: Mix the herbs and the garlic together. Place the herb mixture into a silicon freezer cube, fill to the top and then press down. Continue doing this to all the cubes in the tray until all the herb mixture is used up. Mix the salt and pepper in the chicken broth and then pour on top of the herbs. If the chicken broth is thick, it might not fill in around the herbs. I had that problem with mine. So I used a chopstick to swirl everything together, this left a little more room in the cube and so I just added more broth to fill the cube to the top.

HERBAL VINEGARS

vinegars

If you have a large bulk of herbs and you have dried as much as you will need for the season, I find that making herbal vinegars is the next best thing. It uses up a lot of herbs and you can use the vinegars on many things – salads, drizzle on grains, rice, and vegetables. You can even take a tablespoon of it for a healing elixir. This article by herbalist Susun Weed sheds more light on this and gives wonderful directions for how to make these vinegars. I made several this year: oregano vinegar, cilantro vinegar and one with sage, rosemary and thyme.

PASTA SAUCES

Every year I make pesto from the basil in my garden. I really like adding arugula to it and sometimes I make a pesto using cilantro (one of my favorite herbs). I don’t find that either basil or cilantro dry very well, so if you have an abundance of these herbs (or parsley, chives) I recommend turning them into compound butters, vinegars or making pasta sauces.

This year I made a different kind of sauce as well. My favorite chef, who is also a dear friend, Bruno Staccioli lives and cooks in Tuscany. A few years ago, he and my other dear friend Grazia De Tommaso wrote a lovely cookbook called Cucinar Cantando which is now also a small café, opened by Grazia in Colle di Val D’Elsa a year or so ago where she cooks local rustic specialties.

I was lucky enough to receive one of the first 11 special addition copies of the book and it is still to this day one of my very favorites. The recipes are simplicity at their best.

Bruno makes the most mouthwatering delicious food – all local and seasonal. One of my favorite dishes he makes is pasta with a butter and sage sauce. It is very simple, literally butter, sage, garlic and topped with parmigiano. But it is mind-blowingly delicious! The first bite brings me right back to a fall day in Tuscany, the clean crisp air with the scent of wood burning. Paired with a beautiful glass of red wine and I am in heaven. To read more about my adventures in Tuscany, click here

So I decided to do myself a favor and make up a batch of this sauce, in compound butter format that I can just toss on the pasta when I feel like a quick amazing dinner.

Butter and Sage Sauce

INGREDIENTS:
16 Tablespoons of butter (I use Kerrygold)
13 leaves of fresh sage, minced
5 cloves of garlic, minced

METHOD: I made this recipe just like the compound butter recipe at the top.