Saturday, March 6, 2010

Debi: Making Things Last

This is a shot of my backyard picnic table during the summer, after a harvest of my herb garden. This was just the limit of what I could comfortably dry at one time -- possibly less than a third of what was available at the moment. On that table is spearmint, oregano, basil, anise hyssop, and an unnamed mint we've not been able to identify (though it sure is nice in tea). All except the basil were here when we moved in, and much of the oregano and mint has taken over large parts of the garden -- even the cracks in the cement patio. If you look in the middle of the right side of this photo, you'll see a patch of green growing along the fence. That's more spearmint. Sammi, my youngest, loves to chew it, and will regularly run over there while playing, just to get another bright leaf to pop in her mouth.

I didn't always know about herbs. When I was a little girl, the only herb I ever saw growing -- and is it really an herb, or is it an allium? -- was chives. My mother grew them in a little patch next to our back door, and they were also wonderful to snag and nibble on as we ran past. They made their way into salads and scrambled eggs and stir-fry dinners. Though my mom grew lots of vegetables in her garden, and our yard was home to an apple and a pear tree, the only ever fresh herb I had seen was dill, which she didn't grow. She bought it in super-pricey little plastic containers whenever it was time to make matzo-ball soup.

I just thought herbs had to be utilized dry, shaken from tiny little containers you bought in the cooking aisle at the grocery store.

Of course, I grew out of that knowledge when we started receiving a box from Angelic Organics several years ago. Herbs start arriving early, big bunches of green fronds and leaves and spiky things, and, thank heavens, instructions on how to use them. The first time I put fresh basil in my food, I could not believe I'd used dried for this long, thinking that it was good. Fresh mint was outrageously good, and made the most fragrant, refreshing iced tea I'd ever had. I'd never really used thyme before, hadn't known what it was good for, but sauteed with mushrooms, it was like magic.

However, you can't use huge bunches of fresh herbs all at once, usually, not before they lose their punch and their beautiful appearance. I had to learn to preserve them, and I'm still learning. The easiest thing to do is to dry them, and so, in summer, my kitchen becomes a witch's laboratory, bunches of things hanging from thumbtacks under every cabinet. I now have a beautiful collection of organic dried herbs: thyme, summer savory, basil, sage, parsley, oregano, dill, mint, anise hyssop, mint. Maybe it's just the work I put into them, but I feel like they taste better than those little vials from the grocery store. I know they make me smile when I shake them into our dinner.

With dried herbs, my favorite thing to do is include them in sauces. I use this basic roux recipe to mix into vegetables in a savory pie. Here's how we did it last night, mixed with cauliflower, carrots, mushrooms, and leeks:

Basic Herbed Roux
2 tbsp margarine
4 tbsp flour
2 cups unsweetened soy milk
2 tsp dried tarragon
1/2 tsp dried summer savory
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp mustard powder
salt to taste

Melt the margarine in a saucepan and slowly add the flour, stirring all the time. Let the mixture get dark and toasted-smelling, then slowly whisk in the milk. Add the herbs and stir while bringing to a boil. Boil 5-7 minutes, stirring/whisking regularly to keep from burning on the bottom. Turn off the heat when it is at the perfect consistency.

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