April Herb Harvest
April and May are traditionally the months to harvest and preserve herbs.
While many of the bushy perennial herbs will grow through winter, tender annuals like basil, tarragon and chervil don’t like the cold. But there is more to preserving herbs than just ensuring a supply during winter. April is the ideal month for a herb harvest as plants reach their harvestable peak and flavour, it is a chance to experiment with many different herb mixes, rubs, sauces, vinegars and butters, which can transform ordinary meals in a healthy way
Processed herbs that have been frozen, microwaved or dried and bottled are a boon for busy cooks because they are so quick and easy to use. No more slushy stems lurking at the back of the refrigerator because you forgot to use them. When to harvest It’s not a crime to decide that today’s the day to harvest because that is the only day you have set aside. But here’s something to consider: herbs for drying are best picked during a waning moon, because the sap is moving down, which means that the stems and leaves are not as juicy and will dry more easily, with less chance of fungal infection.
Herbs for chopping and freezing, for sauces, vinegars, and pastes, are better harvested during a waxing moon because the sap is rising, and leaves will be of a better quality Another tip is to pick leaves and flowers for drying between 10:00 and 12:00. By then the dew on the leaves has dried, reducing the risk of fungus developing. Discard any leaves that are diseased or damaged.
6 ways to preserve herbs
Drying is suitable for strongly aromatic, perennial herbs with fairly tough leaves, such as oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage, lemon balm, lemon verbena, rosemary, bay leaf, dill, winter savory and mint. It preserves and concentrates their flavours. Drying herbs is easy. Tie the herbs in small bunches and hang them up in a cool, dark, airy room. Alternatively, spread the leaves and stems evenly on absorbent paper on a flat surface. This works well for bay leaves and dill. If you are handy, make a drying frame and spread the herbs over that. Depending on the weather, the herbs should dry out within 2 – 3 weeks. Once they feel brittle, crumble the leaves and store them in an airtight bottle or container. Label the bottle with the herb and the date. Most dried herbs retain their flavour for 5 – 6 months. Bay leaf and dill will be flavourful for up to a year. Don’t bother to dry parsley, coriander, chervil and basil, because they become tasteless when dry.
Try this: 5 ideas for using dried herbs
Za’atar is the Arabic name given to thyme. It is also a spicy herb mix that is sprinkled on meatballs, kebabs and vegetables. Dry-roast 60g sesame seeds for a few minutes. Cool them and mix with 30g ground sumac and 30g finely ground thyme. Store in an airtight container for 2 – 3 months. Mixed with olive oil it can be used as a paste.
Herbed pepper is a tasty seasoning for root veggies, chicken stuffing and soup. Grind 1 tablespoon each of dried rosemary, thyme, marjoram and lemon balm or sage with 1 tablespoon ground black pepper and 1 tablespoon ground mace. Store in an airtight shaker for 2 – 3 months.
Farcellets are the Catalan version of a bouquet garni. Sprigs of dried thyme, rosemary and winter savory or oregano are tightly bound in bay leaves and used in slow-cooked meaty dishes.
Herbes de Provence is a dried herb mixture of 3 tablespoons thyme, 2 tablespoons marjoram, 1 teaspoon rosemary, 1 tablespoon savory and 1 teaspoon dried lavender flowers that are ground together and stored in an airtight container. Good for slow-cooked dishes that contain red wine.
Chilean aliño is a herb seasoning for rubbing on meat and fish, or to flavour soups and casseroles. It is sold in little packets at markets. Combine one tablespoon each of dried thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage, mint, lemon balm, marjoram and tarragon, and crush. Store in an airtight container.
Freezing is best for soft-leaf herbs like the many basil varieties, parsley, coriander, chervil and tarragon. Lemon verbena, mint and chillies can also be frozen. Wash the herbs, dry completely and chop the leaves quite finely. Put the chopped leaves in small containers or ice cubes with a little water and freeze. Once frozen, pop the iced herb cubes in a container or plastic bags. Another way to freeze basil is to purée the leaves with a little water or olive oil and freeze in ice cube trays. With a bit more effort, make a pesto from basil, rocket or coriander. Divide the pesto up into usable portions and freeze. Add the frozen herbs to soups, sauces, stews and braised dishes.
Garlic and herb paste is used to coat gammon or pork chops. Crush four cloves of garlic to make a paste and add 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, salt and 4 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh herbs. Mix with one or two tablespoons olive oil and refrigerate or freeze.
Bajan seasoning from Barbados is hot and sour. In a food processor, combine chopped spring onions, 4 chopped garlic cloves, handful of parsley leaves and stems, 1 sprig of thyme, bunch of chives, and one hot chilli, chopped and deseeded, with four tablespoons lime juice. Add more lime juice to taste. Refrigerate for 4 – 5 days or freeze.
Green masala is used to add oomph to fish and chicken. Chop together 60g fresh, peeled ginger, 2 cloves of garlic, 4 – 6 fresh green chillies and a large handful of coriander leaves and stems. Whizz up in a food processor with salt for taste and some water to make it into a paste. Freeze for up to three months.
Microwaving can also be used for soft-leaf herbs, and this method preserves the colour of the leaves. Evenly spread two handfuls of cleaned leaves on a double layer of kitchen paper and microwave at 100% for 2½ minutes. Bay leaves can be microwaved a bit longer.
Herb-flavoured vinegar is made with a single herb or a mix of complementary herbs like basil, parsley and garlic. Push washed and dried herbs into a sterilised bottle and cover them with vinegar. For delicate flavoured herbs, use a white wine vinegar, and use apple-cider vinegar for robust herbs like rosemary. Keep in a cool place for 4 – 6 weeks, shaking occasionally If the flavour is not strong enough, replace with fresh herbs and leave a little longer. Use in salad dressings.
Source: Herb and Spice Jill Norman (Dorling Kindersly) For more information on herbs visit www.healthyliving-herbs.co.za