Tag Archives: herbs

Presto Pesto!

and Other Ways of Preserving Your Bountiful Garden

Homemade herb-drying rack made from a stick and some yarn. From left to right: thyme, French tarragon, chocolate mint, and rosemary.

Dear Reader:

This year’s garden was a great success. One giant sunflower produced fifteen or twenty blossom/seed heads and provided the early autumn garden with a showy display. The straw bale gardens gave the tomato plants a much-needed boost of sunlight along with the nitrogen fertilizer and carbon from the straw, and we had plenty of Early Girl and heirloom tomatoes to slice for sandwiches, chop for salsa, and wedge for salads.

Black-eyed Susans are still blossoming out there along with the deepening pink of Autumn Joy sedum. Even the new female Winterberry is bejeweled with deep red berries!

Bread & Butter Pickles

Cucumbers were so abundant this year I was able to make a few pickles. Pickling was surprisingly easy and amounts to nothing much more than chopping and slicing veggies and herbs, making a brine out of salt, vinegar, sugar and spices, and pouring the brine over the veggies in glass containers. These Bread & Butter Pickles came out very crisp and white where I’d always been used to softer and more yellow, but the flavor was intense and delicious.

I found my recipe in a 1980’s Betty Crocker Cookbook, but Mother Earth News Magazine has a good starter article right here online plus a heads-up about a book outlining small-batch pickle production (say THAT ten times fast).

An excess of tomatoes from my parents’ excellent garden up n’oth became hot, spicy pasta sauce. The process for the sauce is simple. Boil water in a big pot. Dump in the tomatoes and wait 30-40 seconds. Lift tomatoes out with slotted spoon and dump into cold water in the sink. After a minute or two, slip skins off tomatoes and cut into fourths. Throw into large slow cooker pot with onions, garlic, chopped veggies like zucchini, hot peppers, green pepper. Add salt, dried herbs or fresh herbs to taste. Add cooked meat if desired. Let it simmer for about seven hours. You can also add tomato paste to thicken it if you like. The sauce can be frozen in freezer bags or containers.

Calendula in the Herb Garden

Perhaps the most successful of my garden experiments this years was the herb box. Along with the sunflower mentioned above, I planted fennel (see Grand Fennel-ly ), rosemary, and basil. In the front of one perennial bed, a French tarragon comes back and grows bigger every summer, and down at the end of the driveway beneath the forsythia bushes my friend Sandi kindly divided for me, a hardly little thyme comes back year after year after year.

This year, I decided, I would preserve a bit of these herbs to see me through a winter season of cooking. The basil were huge. I grew weepy just thinking about pulling them and throwing them on the compost as I’d babied them through the first rough month of transplant shock, daily watering, and Japanese beetles. One night seemed to be threateningly cold, and so, fearing frost, I gently pulled up the basil and placed each one its own plastic grocery bag. These I crammed into the mudroom until I could figure out when and what to do with them.

Poor basil in the mudroom

Friends, let me tell you, basil fresh from the garden has a powerful odor! Neighbor Debbie stopped by and thought the mudroom smelled like old shoes. Hmmm. Hopefully the basil doesn’t taste like dear daughter’s gym sneakers. I rather thought the mudroom smelled wicked “herbal” and prayed no-one dropped over and came to a wrong conclusion about my gardening activities. All legal, I promise!

Ingredients for Presto Pesto

A week or so later, those basil plants were still sitting in my mudroom and beginning to look a little wilty. The predicted frost never materialized, and I gritted my teeth wishing I’d left my herbs in the dirt until I figured out what to do with it.

I knew I had to come up with something and fast, or else the poor plants would end up on the compost pile after all. A mid-week visit to my good friend, Donna D, prompted me to share some garden tomatoes and a large sprig of the basil. Donna D, in turn, gave me a cube of her homemade basil pesto and–bless her soul–a recipe to go with it. Voila! I had the answer to my herbal error.

The recipe calls for using a food processor and blending ingredients very slowly and deliberately. I don’t own a food processor. I do, however, own a blender. After trying with no success to puree basil leaves, garlic cloves and walnut in the blender with no liquid, I gave up and dumped in the olive oil and grated Parmesan and turned the blender on to puree for about three minutes. Presto Pesto! was born.

Pesto in ice cube trays

The trick to keeping the pesto for future use is simple: ice-cube trays. Empty your ice-cubes into a plastic container in the freezer so your family doesn’t throw a hissy-fit when they are looking to cool down their apple cider/workout water-bottle/iced coffee/red-wine-that-really- shouldn’t-be-chilled-but-whatever. Wash the ice-cube trays and dry them. Pour prepared Presto Pesto into the trays. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze. When frozen, pop out of trays and store in zippered freezer bags (or leave in the trays if you have extras for actual ice-production).

The pesto can be thawed and used later. I made four batches of Presto Pesto! with my starting-to-wilt-and-wither basil plants, and these batches filled two ice-cube trays. I think it must be fairly economical as those little jars in the grocery store are quite expensive (local big-box supermarket has a 4.5 oz jar for $3.29.) I used only a portion of a bag of walnuts and one wedge of Parmesan cheese. Pesto does take a bit of olive oil, but it is cheaper if you buy it in those big cans unless you are a stickler for extra-extra virgin fancy stuff.

Following is friend Donna D’s recipe just as she gave it to me. But to make it Presto Pesto! simply ignore the persnickety instructions about careful and slow blending at just the right moment and just dump the whole thing together in the blender and let’r go.

BASIL PESTO

1 1/2 c. basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
1/4 c. pine nuts or walnuts
3/4 c. thinly grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 c. olive oil

Puree first three ingredients in food processor until it forms a thick paste. Add the Parmesan cheese very slowly. Then add olive oil and mix until the consistency of creamed butter. Put a film of oil over top. Cover and refrigerate or freeze in ice-cube trays.

That’s it, Dear Reader! Whether you are preserving the garden by pickling, drying, canning or freezing, it is so much fun to go shopping in your own pantry during the winter months…Outside the Box.

Drop me a line and tell us about YOUR preserving projects this year. It’s always fun to hear someone else talk for a change.

Grand Fennel-y

Fennel Seed Head


Dear Reader:

September is here. It is the grand finale of summer, of the harvest. I’ve been picking tomatoes, cucumbers, red chili peppers, and the last of the lettuce and yellow summer squash. A couple of the garden boxes are looking a little thin now that the zucchini and squash plants have been pulled. My herb box, however, continues to delight. The basil is full and fragrant (time to make pesto before the frost hits!), the calendula finally blossomed, the sage and rosemary are holding their own . . . and then there is the fennel!

Rich in phytoestrogens,Fennel is often used for colic, wind, irritable bowel, kidneys, spleen, liver, lungs, suppressing appetite, breast enlargement, promoting menstruation, improving digestive system, milk flow and increasing urine flow. Fennel is also commonly used to treat amenhorrea, angina, asthma, anxiety, depression, heartburn, water retention, lower blood pressure, boost libido, respiratory congestion, coughs and has been indicated for high blood pressure and to boost sexual desire.–http://www.herbwisdom.com/herb-fennel.html

Honestly, I had no idea what a powerhouse of a plant I had growing in garden box #1! Fennel tasted like licorice, I knew that much. I wanted to grow some new-to-me herbs in that box, and the fennel looked interesting at the greenhouse. So four fennel plants found their way into the herb box.

And they grew.

And grew.

And grew until they were huge white bulbs with offshoots springing from it looking somewhat like a white heart with ventricles and arteries and veins.

See . . .

Upside-down for comparison

When it became clear to me that I should cook the bulbs before they went to seed, I pulled up three of them, brought them inside, sliced them up, and roasted them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and sea salt until they caramelized.

The fennel petals were a bit tough…I really did leave the plants in the ground too long. Still, the roasted fennel lent a mellow, buttery-licorice taste when added to the top of a bed of greens for a late-summer salad. The remaining plant will be allowed to go to seed. I’ve been snipping off fronds here and there to use in vinaigrette, on top of roasted meat, added to soups, for cucumber pickles, whatever I can think of.

Going All To Seed

When the flower heads turn to seed and begin to dry, I will harvest them, put them into a marked envelope, and wait until next spring to try my hand at starting new plants indoors.

I’ll also be trying to find some herbal teas that include fennel to help boost my heart, lungs, and digestive system over the fall and winter. Mmmmm, a soothing cup of licorice-tasting tea while the watching the leaves turn color outside the window. I’m almost ready for summer to be over. Almost.

How about you? Are you a fennel fan? Or fennel-finicky? Cast your vote . . . Outside the Box.

Eggsellent Spring Supper

Spring Herbs

Dear Reader:

It may be hard to believe, but the garden, thanks to perennial herbs, produced ingredients for a wonderful, fresh-tasting spring supper before I even sent in my order to Johnny’s Seeds yesterday.

Perennial herbs are a gift of spring. Nestled up beside the first little feather fronds of yarrow and the recently divided rudbekia are the healthy clumps of reliable chives. The first grayish-purple flower heads poke up through the succulent spikes, and a few snips of the cooking shears yield a small handful of spicy, slightly oniony flavor.

Chives

Another unassuming, grassy-looking clump perfumes my fingers with the slight scent of liquorice when I roll a blade between thumb and finger. This is French tarragon–useful in soups, sprinkled on roasting chicken or vegetables with olive oil, or stuffed into a bottle of vinegar where it will impart its Mediterranean essence to that humblest of condiments.

French Tarragon

A short walk down to the perennial bed beneath the beech trees, my tiny but refuses-to-die thyme plant has put out new green leaves. I snip a few sprigs, roll a leaf between my fingers to inhale the woody aroma. Thyme is good, of course, in chicken soups and other stews. It is also remarkably yummy with eggs…and this is what I’m intending for this night’s supper.

Fresh Thyme

Bouquet in hand, I stroll to the house. From my ‘fridge comes a carton of locally-raised eggs; delicate shells in various hues indicate a mixed flock. The chickens that produced these eggs get plenty of protein from insects and plenty of fresh air and grass to scratch in. Their beaks haven’t been clipped. They have room to move. The yokes inside the eggs are golden-orange and plump, healthy, reassuring.

If only I’d thought ahead and purchased some local chevre, I think as I whisk a couple of eggs in a bowl and pour them into a buttered skillet on the stove. Instead I make do with some sharp cheddar and feta from the Limerick Market. I vow to try making my own mozzarella soon.

Sprinkling on the chopped herbs, I flip over one side of the set egg mixture. I pop a slice of my homemade bread into the toaster, tuck a handful of organic spring mix (Note to self: next year, use cold frames and start greens early!) onto a large plate, and slide the omelet next to the greens. A little butter on the toast and bon appetit!

Simple Dinner

If I’d started an asparagus bed, could I have added that to my meal, I wonder? Is Maine asparagus ready this early? Another note to self: create asparagus bed this year.

As for greens, I could have harvested all the dandelion any girl could want…wild food is even better than perennial food. (See “Not Your Grandmother’s Dandelion Greens.”) I have the store-bought greens, though, and the dandelions aren’t going anywhere.

Dandelions

Now, imagine some homemade hard apple cider to go along with this meal. Or some home-fries from local or backyard potatoes instead of the toast. Rhubarb pie for dessert. I wanted a quick meal, but the possibility for something more substantial is all right there–inspired by the fresh flavors of perennial spring greens. If you have even a small area in which to plant, these hardy and versatile herbs would serve you well.