Using and Preserving Herbs

Wasting food is a huge pet peeve of mine. I will sit up at night plotting out meals based on what is getting old in my refrigerator. One my biggest food wastes are herbs.

With the exception of oregano, which is quite strong when fresh, I do not use dried herbs. If they have any flavor at all, they taste… dried.

Unfortunately, herbs are generally sold by the bunch (I know, you can also get single sprigs, but the packaging is so wasteful I just go for the bunch), but rarely does a recipe require an entire bunch of cilantro, or more than a few sprigs of mint.

I also grow herbs on my roof deck garden and can attest that many of them grow like weeds because they are weeds. If you have a sunny spot for basil, you can cut it back three times a month and still have more than enough basil for your own kitchen, and can even stock the kitchens of your friends and coworkers.

So how do I avoid tossing all these flavorful greens into the compost bin?

Here are 3+ hacks for using up and preserving herbs.

Wash, Dry, and Store: 1-2 Weeks

First, you do need to wash your herbs and the best way to do that is with a salad spinner. A salad spinner will easily double the length of time herbs and other greens will stay perky and fresh in your crisper. The best way I have found to wash, dry, and store your herbs is this:

1. Scrub and rinse your kitchen sink, then fill it with cold water.

2. Dump herbs in the water and gently swish them around, making sure to knock any dirt or grime off the top and bottom of the leafs, and the areas where the leafs meet the stems.

3. Working in bunches, dry the herbs completely in the salad spinner. I spin, then shake the herbs loose of each other before spinning them again to ensure that moisture isn’t being preserved between leafs that are stuck together.

4. Unroll a length of 2-3 paper towels onto a dry counter. Place dry herbs on the paper towel in an even layer. Gently roll up paper towel and herbs.

5. Place roll in a large plastic storage bag and keep unsealed in the crisper.

Pesto: 1 Week to 4 Months

When someone says “pesto,” they are almost always referring to pesto alla genovese, which is made of basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan, and olive oil, but pesto is so much more versatile than that. Whatever herbs you have, I encourage you to enter them into google with the word “pesto” and try something new. Depending on your ingredients, pesto can last in your fridge for up to 2 weeks. Using ice cube trays to freeze them into individual serving sizes, then storing them in an air-tight freezer bag, they last for up to four months.

Here are some of my favorite pestos, all of which are made in a food processor.

Thai Peanut and Cilantro Pesto

1/4 cup peanuts

2 cups cilantro, leafs and tender stems

1 tsp crushed red pepper

1 piece lemon grass, discarding tough outer leafs

2 tsp salt (skip if using salted peanuts)

2-4 tbs olive oil, to desired consistency

Budget Pesto

1/4 cup nuts or seeds (whatever you already have because almost all nuts and seeds are less expensive and come in larger packages than pine nuts)

2 cups basil leaves

1 clove garlic

1/2 cup olive oil

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Almondine Pesto

1/4 cup almonds

2 tbs lemon juice

2 cups parsley leafs

1 tsp cracked black pepper

1/2 cup clarified butter

You get the idea. Think of pesto as a vessel for housing complimentary flavors suspended in olive oil or other fats, and you will not go wrong. Herbs, oils, nuts, seeds, juices, fruits, veggies, and spices all have a place in pesto.

The trick is to think about what you commonly use herbs for, then building from there. If you love making tacos, cilantro, garlic, hot peppers, and lime are probably a great pesto for you! Just toss a frozen cube of your pesto into your pan with some cumin when you’re making taco meat, and you’ve eliminated your need for those taco seasoning packets. Ricotta with dill, garlic, and walnuts is great over pasta with a runny poached egg! I use the almondine pesto for trout almondine, but it’s also amazing with green beans or carrots and a little garlic.

The possibilities are truly endless!

Herb Salad

The Art of Simple Food and The Art of Simple Food II, by Alice Waters, taught me so much about cooking and eating seasonally in my own kitchen. They are my favorite cook books because they focus more on techniques for making delicious food with what you have, and not so much on specific, individual recipes.

One of the best things I took from these books is herb salad. Tender herbs like cilantro, parsley, and tarragon are perfect additions to lettuce in a salad, but are also equally good on their own, dressed with your favorite vinegar and olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper. The same salad, tossed in a food processor, is equally good as a dressing for veggies and meats alike. Mixed with yogurt, it makes a flavorful and healthy dip.

I am not going to give you a recipe here, because herbs can be very divisive and what might be a delicious salsa delle erbe to me, could taste like soap to you. Buy Alice Waters’s books or just play around with the herbs you have. Likely, if you bought them, you like how they taste and it will be hard to fail. In the unlikely event that you make something inedible, the ingredients are inexpensive and the recipe is so simple that you can always start over.

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