By Melinda Myers
Special to the Observer
Add a flavorful boost to any meal with garden-fresh herbs. You’ll quickly discover the difference fresh herbs make when preparing any meal or dessert.
Harvest herbs whenever you need them for cooking or garnishing a favorite dish. Adjust the quantity of herbs used to allow for variations in flavor intensity and your family’s preference.
In general, you will need two to three times more fresh than dried herbs. So, if the recipe calls for one teaspoon of dried parsley use one tablespoon (three teaspoons) of fresh parsley leaves.
Use a pair of garden scissors or pruners for harvesting. Make your cuts above a set of healthy leaves. The wound will close faster, and the remaining plant will look better. Rinse off the clippings and remove tough stems and any discolored or damaged leaves and start cooking.
Store the extra, unwashed leafy herbs in a vase of water and loosely cover with a plastic bag. Keep basil on the kitchen counter and cold-tolerant herbs like parsley and cilantro in the refrigerator.
Wrap thicker-leafed herbs like sage and thyme in a paper towel, set inside a plastic bag and place in a warmer section of the fridge.
Don’t be afraid to keep harvesting. Regular picking encourages new growth for future harvests. Just be sure to leave enough foliage to maintain plant growth. You can harvest as much as 50 to 75% from established annual herbs and one third of perennial herbs at one time.
Clip off leaves and stems before the plant begins flowering to encourage more tender growth. You’ll get the greatest concentration of flavor when the plant has formed buds, but before they open. However, don’t discard the flowers if you’ve waited too long. Enjoy the beauty and added flavor of basil, lavender, lovage, monarda, oregano, Rosemary, sage, sweet marjoram and thyme blossoms in salads, soups and other beverages.
As the season winds down, consider preserving some of your favorite herbs to use all winter long and to give as gifts.
Drying is one of the easiest ways to preserve your herbal harvest. Collect large amounts of basil, rosemary, marjoram and sage just prior to flowering. Cut the plants back about halfway in the morning after the dew has just dried off the leaves. Rinse – do not soak – the clippings and then remove any damaged or dried leaves.
Gather the herbs into small bundles and secure with a rubber band. As the stems shrink, so does the rubber band. Use a spring-type clothespin to hang the bundles from a clothesline or hanger.
Store the bundled herbs in a warm, dry, airy place out of direct sunlight for drying. Some gardeners cover the drying herbs with a paper bag to keep them clean.
You can also dry herbs in the microwave. Remove the leaves from freshly harvested herbs. Evenly spread two cups of washed herb leaves on a double thickness of paper towel. Microwave on high for four to six minutes, depending on your microwave.
Fully dried herbs will be brittle. Store dried herbs in an airtight container for later use. Label the container with the name of the herb and date preserved.
Then add these flavorful additions to your meals throughout the winter. You’re sure to savor the flavor and memories these homegrown preserved herbs add to every meal.
Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio segments. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Myers’ website, MelindaMyers.com, features gardening videos, podcasts and tips.