Preserving the Harvest & Putting your Herbs to Bed with Rita Heikenfeld
Rita Heikenfeld is a treasure trove of knowledge and I love speaking to her about herbs and food. You can find even more information on her website, abouteating.com
She joined me on Amy’s Table to chat about the end of the gardening season, how to preserve the harvest and how to prepare your herbs for winter,
Here’s a little Q&A with Rita:
Which herbs are cold hearty?
Woody perennials of sage, winter savory, lavender and thyme. Trim only a third of their growth back to give the plants enough strength for winter. Most annuals do not survive our harsh, Midwestern winters.
Can you pot up some of the herbs for winter cooking? Dig them out of the garden or carry the pots in the house to winter over?
Sometimes both annuals and perennials survive winter when placed in a light, airy, warm area with some humidity. I can’t guarantee success here, but it’s worth a try. Since we heat with wood and our house is very dry, mine winter over in my unheated, attached garage. The containers hold both annual and perennial herbs. Their flavors will not be intense since herbs need the right climate to develop their volatile oils. My bay tree lives all winter in the house, providing fresh leaves for cooking.
Before you bring any herbs in, let them adjust by leaving them outdoors in a protected place for a couple of weeks before bringing in. And turn the containers, if they’re not too big, upside down gently and pull the whole soil ball with the herb out – check for little creatures so they don’t hitch hike in.
If you dig herbs from the garden, transplant with a good potting mix, not ordinary garden soil which is usually too dense and may contain unwanted visitors.
What are your tips for drying herbs?
Cut leafy herbs like basil, oregano, savory, marjoram and dill to use during winter. Strip an inch or so from the bottom of the stem and hang upside down secured with a rubber band or string away from heat, light and moisture (or hang upside down in paper bag). You can also place them in single layers in a basket, on a cloth or screen. When they crinkle between your fingers, they’re dry. Strip leaves from stems and leave whole. Volatile oils stay intact until you crush them for cooking. To use dry herbs in place of fresh, use l/3 of the amount called for, since dry herbs are stronger. Herbs dried naturally usually turn a grayish green.
You can also take tender herbs and edible flowers like basil, chives, roses, nasturtiums and dill and chop them up, lay on a screen out of bright light and let them dry. They will dry much quicker than hanging and will retain their color better.
Can you save herb seeds, like dill and fennel?
Yes. Tie stems of herb seeds with a rubber band and hang upside down in a bag. Seeds will drop into the bag as they fall off.
How do you store dried herbs and how long do they last?
Store all dried herbs away from heat and light and they will last at least a year.
What about freezing herbs – can you freeze them dry or do they have to be put in water?
You can freeze herbs like basil dry: take a baggie and lay stacks of leaves in. When you’re ready to use, take some leaves out of the bag and while still frozen, take a rolling pin and roll over them to crush them. Now they’re ready to add to cooked foods and will have a nice color.
Or make herb pastes by whirling with a bit of water in food processor or blender. Pour into sprayed ice cube trays. After the cubes are frozen, store in baggies. They will turn dark but add a nice fresh flavor to cooked dishes.
Which herbs should we plant in the fall?
Perennials like lavender and sage along with other hardy perennials, do well when planted in fall. Hardy annual seeds such as dill, cilantro, and parsley do great when the seeds are tamped down in the ground in autumn. They develop stronger roots because they do not have to push their way up to support life above the ground.
What about herb butters?
Mince whatever herbs you have on hand along with some edible flowers, like roses, nasturtiums, petunias. Roll a block of butter around in all the herbs, coating all sides. Store in freezer and the herbs and flowers retain their color beautifully. You can make special butters for the holidays, like sage and lavender for Thanksgiving.
Dried fruit and herb vinegars: I have tried for years to replicate the fruit and herb vinegars. I was using fresh fruit, which just mushed up. Then I experimented with dried fruit. Bingo!
No real recipe here, but start with a quart white wine vinegar and some dried fruit. My favorite is mango or papaya. Cut up a couple pieces of mango, put it in the vinegar along with a a couple handfuls of tarragon or chopped lemon grass. Let steep, strain out and you have a wonderful, fruity vinegar. The lemon grass is particularly nice in Thai dishes. Try other dried fruits as well, like blueberries, cherries and cranberries. These all go well with basil, thyme and parsley.
Every gardener has tomatoes. Any tips for preserving them?
They’re in season now so it’s time to preserve them for winter dishes. Can you freeze tomatoes whole, without blanching?
Cherry tomtaoes fare well with this method. I have even frozen larger tomatoes without blanching. To thaw, I put them in a colander and run warm water over them. The skin slips right off. They are good in cooked dishes, but not eaten raw.
Here are a some of Rita’s favorite recipes- enjoy!
Roasted Herbed Tomatoes
When a recipe calls for canned tomatoes, you can use these. The color and flavor is amazing. And remember, tomatoes contain huge amounts of antioxidants, licopene (good for immune systems, lowering cholesterol and mens’ prostates). Yellow and orange tomatoes have the same good health benefits as red!
Cut tomatoes in half. Lay either cut side up or down (I laid mine cut side down but next time will lay them cut side up since I think that will keep more of the tomato flavor in). Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle on any herbs you like – basil, thyme, rosemary all work well.
Roast in preheated 400 oven until tomatoes start to look spotty and caramelize a bit. If you have them cut side down, the skin will inflate and get dark in spots. Let cool and if you like, remove skins. The first time I made them I didn’t remove the skins but when I used them in cooked dishes, they were a little tough, so my suggestion is to remove them or put them in the blender or food processor and the skins will process small enough. You will wind up with more of a chunky sauce or puree if you put them through the blender or food processor, but the bonus is you get the nutritious benefits of the skin.
Adapted from a reader. These are delicious with deli meat sandwiches and keep up to 6 months in the frig. Feel free to divide the recipe in half.
3 quarts thinly sliced cucumbers
2 cups chopped or thinly sliced bell peppers
2 cups thinly sliced onions
2 cups chopped or thinly sliced carrots
2 tablespoons celery seed
3 cups sugar
1/3 cup salt
2 cups white vinegar
Pour brine over veggies. Let sit several hours on counter, stirring every once in a while. Store in fridge.
Rita’s Amish pepper relish
If you go to an Amish grocery, you’ll find the shelves lined with this kind of relish. It’s pricey and sells amazingly fast. Makes a nice gift from the garden and is better than any commercial relish. I store my relish with my other home canned goods in my pie antique pie safe.
Relish: You can mix & match sweet and hot peppers. This recipe uses sweet.
Grind or process in food processor, blender, or chop fine by hand, enough peppers to make 6 cups and enough onions to make a generous cup, or more to taste. Put ground peppers and onions in a bowl and pour boiling water over just to cover. Let sit 5 minutes. Drain. Meanwhile, make brine.
2 cups vinegar, either cider or clear
1-1/4 cups sugar, or to taste
1-1/2 teaspoons each: mustard seeds, celery seeds and dry mustard
Let boil for several minutes, then add drained pepper mixture into brine and cook for 8-10 minutes, until onions are cooked through. Meanwhile, have 6-7 canning jars, 8 oz each (or 4 pint jars) washed and kept in very hot water. Ditto with lids and seals. Drain water from jars and fill to first rim, wipe jars with clean, wet cloth on top to remove any residual pepper mixture (any food on top of the rim will cause a faulty seal). Process in boiling water bath 10 minutes.
Even easier: instead of canning, let mixture cool and store in refrigerator for 2 months, or freeze up to 9-12 months.
About Rita: ita Nader Heikenfeld, CCP, CMH*, is an award-winning syndicated journalist, accredited family herbalist, author, cooking teacher, media personality and the founding editor of www.Abouteating.com. Rita writes a syndicated weekly column for Community Press Newspapers that reaches almost a quarter of a million people each week in Cincinnati, Ohio and Northern Kentucky.
Rita Heikenfeld is Resident Herbalist for Fox 19 Morning Xtra, Natorp’s, Earthineer and Granny’s Garden, and is listed in Who’s Who in American Women, Who’s Who in the Midwest and Who’s Who in American Education for her culinary and community achievements. Rita is a former adjunct professor at The University of Cincinnati and can be found on Sacred Heart Radio.
Rita lives “in the sticks” outside of Batavia, Ohio near Cincinnati with her family, where they heat with wood, raise chickens for eggs, and grow their own produce and herbs.
to you by Amy Tobin
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