Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Harvesting and Preserving Herbs

There is a romance around picking little snippets of herbs from one's garden and carrying them directly into the kitchen for that evening's dinner or that special Sunday morning's omelet. We use some of the herbs in our garden this way, especially in early spring when the chives appear as the first edible in our yard, and in midsummer when basil and parsely are at their best. Most of the herbs in my garden though get picked and preserved for year-round use.

Right now I am harvesting the perennial herbs. Last year Adam took a large raised bed from our back yard and rebuilt it into two small beds for the side yard. The side yard of the house is south-facing and, unlike our back yard, is free of trees whose roots compete for water and nutrients. I put several small oregano, thyme, and sage plants in last fall. This spring I added chamomile, savory, and mint plants. When I put them in the ground each plant was tiny, the kind of plant that costs $4 at the garden center. The plants love the new location and are now bushes, jostling each other for space. I've decided to cut them back pretty severely. I really put too many plants into the beds, as most perennial herbs are what my mother-in-law refers to as "dreadful spreaders" and they like space to spread out. I am hoping that by harvesting the majority of the leaves from each plant I can leave the plants with enough to winter over, but not so much that they try to spread too far. I don't have a lot of planting space, but would like to grow a variety of herbs.

There are many different techniques for drying herbs. I prefer to dry the perennial herbs. I am much mroe likely to use them dried than frozen, and I don't feel that they suffer much loss in flavor. Today I washed all the herbs I picked, wrapped them in a linen tablecloth and squeezed the water out, and then laid them out on another table cloth in my air-conditioned dining room. Tomorrow I will tie them into bundles and hang them in a closet to dry completely. Some people don't call for washing herbs before drying, but we live in an urban area. So I feel it's important to wash off the dust and dirt.

Today I picked sage, oregano, and savory. Once these are tied up I'll pick the mint, thyme, and chamomile. A little later in the summer I'll pick my annual herbs, basil, parsley, and scallions, and I'll freeze them.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Fermenting Vegetables, It's all the rage!

For years now I have made vinegar pickles like my mom did when I was little. Last fall my friend Jen was making a polish dinner, and so I decided to try fermenting saurkraut. She had a food-grade plastic bucket, and I had a book called The Joy of Pickling. I shredded the cabbage, salted and pounded it to release juices, and weighted it with a plate and a bowl full of dried beans. In fermenting the weights keep the vegetables below the surface of the water where bacteria on the vegetables are hard at work acidifying the water and transforming the vegtables. For two weeks I kept an eye on my plastic bucket. Bubbles started after about three days, and every so often there were signs of life on the surface of the water (at the time I thought it was mold, I now know it was probably yeast) and I skimmed it off. After two weeks, with some nervousness, I tried the cabbage which was turning a golden color. It was delicious, and with almost no effort on my part. It probably would have been even better if I had left it to ferment another week, but the party was the next day, so out of the bucket it came. We ate it with kielbasa and homemade pierogies. My friend Jen cooked buckwheat dumplings in the shredded saurkraut.

Spurred on by this success and in need of a new kitchen hobby, since dealing with food allergies means I haven't been baking much bread lately, I got a book The Art of Fermentation for Christmas and a proper fermentation crock for my birthday. There are all different kinds of fermentation crocks and jars and systems, and strong opinions to go with them. I'll let you do your own internet research, and just say that the crock I got is ceramic and uses water to create a seal to help minimize the growth of mold and yeasts on the surface of the water. It also came with ceramic weights to hold the vegetables under the water.

Since getting the crock I've made two mixed vegetable ferments. The first was cabbage with carrots and oregano. I fermented it for a week, again I could have left it longer but I wanted it for a dinner party. We ate it with sausages and rice. The second was slices of cucumbers with carrots, radishes, garlic scapes, and dill. The cucumbers I get in my CSA share are too big to either ferment whole or pickle in vinegar. Last year I made freezer pickles out of them. While you normally can't freeze cucumbers without them turning to mush, the sugar vinegar solution in these pickles keeps them very crisp. This year I decided to try to ferment them. I only fermented them for three days, as cucumbers soften very quickly in the brine. They are delicious. I've been chopping them into my fried rice at lunch, and Olivia can't suck them down fast enough.