Friday, October 14, 2011
By early October most of my vegetable plants have stopped producing but the herbs are usually still in form, especially the hardy perennials like sage, rosemary, thyme and chives. The sage, a round-leaf, silver-green plant that my friend Bess gave me years ago, is so hardy that it usually stays quite healthy until the first heavy snowfall has smothered all of its energy.
The annuals are another story. The one annual herb I plant each year is basil because what would a summer kitchen be like without its sweet-spicy aroma? This year I also planted some coriander but by now it's long gone. And the basil too is beginning to wilt and turn brown.
So this past week I did what has become a ritual in my fall kitchen. I went out with a pair of shears to harvest all the herbs I could and find ways to preserve them for my fall and winter kitchen. Some, like the rosemary, thyme and sage, I will tie up in bunches and dry. Strong, savory herbs do really well when dried and, some might say, are even better dry than fresh because their flavors concentrate. I never dry mint, basil and chives because their flavors seem to vanish when they are dried and all you are left with is a dark green mess that I don't like adding to my food. Some people suggest freezing fresh herbs in ice trays, but I don't have room for a mass of ice trays in my freezer.
One herb-- or spice -- that I do preserve in the freezer is green chillies. Last year I started a few chilli pepper plants, including serrano, habanero and jalapeno, from seed. I got so many chillies that I started throwing them into a huge Ziploc bag that I then put in the freezer. This year I didn't plant any chillies because I still have a huge bagful left from last year that will last me through this winter. Be sure the chillies go dry into the freezer so they don't clump together. When you need to use them take as many as you need, hold them under running water for a couple of seconds, and you have fresh green chillies to throw into whatever your heart desires.
One more way I like to keep my summer herbs going for just a little longer is to blend them up into pestos and throw them in the freezer, ready for use on busy weeknights.
I love a traditional basil pesto, and my recipe for it is quite foolproof. But this Summer's End Pesto has got to be my favorite for flavor. Basil is still the primary herb here, but to it I also add savory herbs that would not, by themselves, be suited to a pesto, like sage and thyme. They enhance the basil and work a magic in this dish that's to be eaten to be believed.
Among my herbs I found hidden this year some garlic greens-- bright-green fronds that had arisen from some long-forgotten garlic bulbs I'd buried in the vegetable garden last year. If you've never had garlic greens, do. They are as easy to grow as burying a pod of garlic into the soil in the fall months. By spring, you will find these lovely green shoots that taste of garlic and make a great addition to soups, pestos, and just about any dish.
If you don't quite understand the flavors of various herbs, I would advise you to stick closely with my recipe. Like I said, some herbs like rosemary and thyme are too strong by themselves for a pesto, and adding too much can ruin it for you. But if you know what you're doing, feel free to play with the proportions. This recipe, however, is what works best for me.
Summer's End Pesto
3 cups packed basil leaves
1/4 cup packed sage leaves
1/4 cup packed mint leaves
2 tbsp thyme (strip the tiny leaves from the hard stems)
1 tbsp rosemary (again, strip from the hard stems)
1 cup garlic greens
1 cup chives
2 large cloves of garlic, crushed
2 green chilli peppers, like jalapeno
1/2 cup nutritional yeast (you can leave this out, but it has a great cheesy flavor that's perfect in pestos)
1/2 cup chopped, lightly toasted walnuts
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
Place all the ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend until you have a smooth paste (I prefer a smooth texture for this pesto as opposed to a coarser one for a basil-only pesto)