Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: December, Week 2

At this point in the year, it's hard to believe there's any possible food preservation left to do. The farmers' market has closed, the garden is largely empty (save for the carrots I still need to dig up), and the local orchard has a little less produce for sale each time I go in for cider.

Still, if you're looking for a quick and easy food gift for the holidays that would please any friends who are keen on cooking, I've got just the thing for you.

If you planted herbs this summer, chances are excellent that you ended up with way more than you thought you could use. And if so, you may have wondered how to preserve that generosity of growth. Here are a few ideas:

--dry the herbs whole, then save them for seasoning dishes or adding to herbal tisanes
--combine fresh herbs with vegetables in purees to freeze
--add herbs to hot vinegar and let them steep before bottling
--add to a liqueur (NOTE: you have to be really careful with this as the flavors can be overpowering!)
--dry herbs for a day or two, then layer with salt or sugar, allow time for flavors to meld, then grind and use in cooking or baking

It's that last idea I'd like to expand on this week. I can't remember I stumbled across the idea, whether in an herbal cookbook or at a farmers' market stand a few years back, but for a couple of years I used some of my bountiful mint crops to make herbal sugars. Peppermint and especially chocolate mint worked well blended with sugar and added to brownies, cakes, and other desserts. One summer I even enjoyed a sprinkling of Moroccan mint sugar over fresh peaches for a surprising treat. Lavender and rose geranium have also found their way into flavored sugars in my pantry.

For some reason, it didn't strike me until this year to try the same process with coarse sea salt. After all, salting is an age-old method of food preservation that was used heavily before home canning was developed, and it still provides an excellent way to preserve meats and some vegetables as well as to pickle or ferment produce (think sauerkraut!).

Salt draws moisture out of the food, thus reducing the activity of micro-organisms that cause foods to spoil. To salt foods, you have to use nonreactive equipment such as stoneware crocks, glass jars, or unchipped enamel ware, to avoid drawing added substances from the containers in which the salted foods sit. And since many people need to avoid excessive amounts of salt, this isn't a method you would want to use as a first line of preservation.

However, herbal salts can add a nice finish to foods with just a pinch of salt. Using some of my Celtic grey sea salt, I layered salt with parsley (left) and dill (right) repeatedly in two small glass canning jars, then set the covered jars aside for a week or more to let the flavors blend.

When I thought they'd had enough time to mingle, I dumped the dill and salt (the larger container) into the mini food processor and whizzed it around. The salt didn't grind too finely, though the dill is chopped more evenly now.

The smaller jar of parsley and salt I dumped into my coffee grinder, and I ended up with a much finer salt blend. I enjoyed a bit of steamed kale after a cool and rainy walk home today, and with just a pinch of parsley salt sprinkled on the greens, I had a perfectly seasoned and savory snack.

The amounts are up to you. I like to start the jars with a thin layer of salt, add a thin layer of fresh herbs, cover the herbs completely with salt before adding more, and repeating until the jar is full and the salt is on top. (I'd do the same with herbal sugars, too.)

For gifts, you might put the herbal salts or sugars into fancy little canning jars or other decorative containers and add a card with suggestions for use:

--herbal salts: sprinkle on roasted vegetables, steamed greens, rolls or flatbreads to be baked, rubbed into meat or fish to be cooked; in short, anything that needs a little hit of salt and could also stand a pleasant herbal kick

--herbal sugars: substitute 1 or 2 T herbal sugar for sugar in a baking recipe, add to herbal teas, sprinkle on fresh fruit or cookies to be baked

I'm sure you can find other ideas and suggestions to go with your homemade herbal concoctions! And don't be afraid to give a small jar of any of these as most people will use the salts and sugars in small quantities (unless they get hooked, in which case you may be making bigger batches in future).

Don't forget to keep a little for yourself, too!

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At 12/10/2008 5:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I LOVE these ideas! But shoot, I sacrificed my entire rosemary plant to the Thanksgiving turkey...

At 12/10/2008 11:30 PM, Anonymous Janet said...

I read about the salt/herb thing for the first time this summer at http://mybricole.wordpress.com/2008/10/14/savouring-summer-all-winter-long/. I don't have anything left to preserve, I don't think, but it's an idea I'll remember next year!

At 12/11/2008 6:12 AM, Blogger M said...

Hey there, I've been reading this blog for soooo long, and I always find it interesting and beautifully written.
This is however not the reason for why I'm commenting. You've been writing about storing food without freezer and things like that, and I might have a tip for you (perhaps you already know it?) - baking in (and here I don't remember the corrrect english word, but I hope you understand anyway) glas-preserving-containers. You knew about that already? There's lots of recipes (atleast in German) on the net, about how to bake in containers just like the ones you use for your tomatoes, and they say that the cake will keep for a long while. I haven't tried it yet, though, but I know of places where you can buy bread baked and preserved like that.
Could be worth a try...

At 12/11/2008 7:04 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

I understand how that can happen, Emily! My rosemary plant did not thrive AT ALL this year, so any of the herb I bought at market this year is getting parceled out in very small amounts. My parsley, though -- that's another story!

Janet, thanks for the link! I hadn't seen that blog at all, but it's good to know that others have similar ideas!

Welcome back, M -- I've missed hearing from you! I have not heard about preserving baked goods that way but will have to see what I can find. Do you know if they have a certain amount of alcohol in them? I could imagine something like a traditional plum pudding, soaked in lots of liquor, would work, but perhaps not the usual baked goods.

At 12/11/2008 12:18 PM, Blogger M said...

Hey again, yeah - I know I haven't commented in a long time... But it doesn't mean that I stopped redaing!
Anyway - I looked around on internet, and I'm sure that you will find this site if you*ll have a look around for your self, but since I found the information so important I'll give you the link just for safety reasons. Seems like maybe baking in glass containers can be dangeroun, bacteria-wise.


But if you do try it - please tell us about it!

At 12/11/2008 1:05 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Yes, that's what I suspected, especially since putting a quick bread type batter into a deep baking container raises the possibility that some part of the interior wouldn't be fully baked -- and thus more prone to spoilage. Oh well!

At 12/11/2008 1:48 PM, Blogger Tara said...

This is a great post! The herbed salts have been popping up all over lately but the sugar I had never thought of before. Oh, the mint sugar sounds heavenly in some lemonade or lemon ice, or even hot tea. I could think of so many ways to use them. These are some great ideas. They certainly make me want to expand my herb garden plans for next year. Thank you!

At 12/11/2008 2:01 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Glad to give you a new idea or two, Tara! Yes, the mint sugar would be great in lemonade or tea, though you may get bits of leaves floating around. Sugar with lemon balm would also probably be pretty good for that.

At 12/14/2008 8:39 AM, Blogger Kelly said...

oh, what a great idea! If only I can remember it next year when I have some herbs left. I only have sage hanging on in the garden, and I don't think I'd like that combination.

At 12/14/2008 2:32 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Kelly, I think it could work with dried herbs, too -- maybe try a small batch with some herb you prefer?


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