Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme1
Speak not - whisper not;
Here bloweth thyme and bergamot;
Softly on the evening hour,
Secret herbs their spices shower.
Dark-spiced rosemary and myrrh,
Lean-stalked, purple lavender;
Hides within her bosom, too,
All her sorrows, bitter rue.
From The Sunken Garden by Walter de la Mare
Autumn. The word conjures up images of warm, sunny days and cool nights, Apple Trees bowing under the weight of ripening fruit, fields filled with Pumpkins and Winter Squashes, gardens filled with Asters and Chrysanthemums, and Maple, Oak and Sassafras turning the hillsides into a blaze of colour. It's a glorious time.
Autumn is a busy time for gardeners. One of my favourite tasks of the season is cutting and drying herbs and flowers for winter use. In spite of the prevailing notion that fresh herbs are wonderful while dry herbs are inferior, I happen to like cooking with dry herbs. Perhaps it's because I'm accustomed to the flavours and know exactly how much to use. Or because it's a family tradition. Whatever the reason, I get a great deal of satisfaction from bundling herbs, tying them with string, and hanging them from the rafters to dry.
My garden contains a number of culinary herbs... English Thyme, Lemon Thyme, Curly Parsley, Italian Parsley, Sweet Basil, Sage, Rosemary, Tarragon, Sweet Marjoram, Roman Chamomile, Spearmint, Peppermint, Lemon Balm, Dill and Coriander, Chives and Garlic. A windowsill herb garden isn't practical for me, so I preserve the herbs for winter use.
Your dried herbs will be most flavourful if you pick them before they flower. I always gather my herbs in the morning as soon as the dew has dried. There are other ways to dry herbs than the traditional method of hanging them upside down. But that is the method I prefer and use whenever possible. You need to choose a place that is dry with good air circulation. Many people use an attic. I don't have an attic, so I use a garden shed and my back porch.
Don't wash the herbs unless they are particularly dirty. This will weaken their flavour. Instead, take a paintbrush, an artist's bristle brush is perfect, and brush off any soil. Gather your herbs into a loose bundle, tie the stems with string, then place a brown paper bag over them to shield them from the light and to catch any of the leaves that may fall during the drying process. Hang them from a rafter or you can string a clothesline wire near the ceiling and hang the bundles from it. It normally takes two or three weeks for them to dry using this method.
If you're in a hurry, you can dry the herbs in your oven, a dehydrator or even your microwave. Turn your oven to it's lowest setting, spread the herbs on a baking sheet and check often. They're ready when they crumble to the touch. It's helpful when using this method to leave the oven door ajar to encourage air circulation.
To dry herbs in a microwave oven, brush off any soil then layer them between paper towels and microwave on high for about three minutes. Turn every 30 seconds. If the herbs are not dry enough after three minutes, continue drying in 15-20 second intervals. Be very careful not to let the herbs burn. They are ready when they become brittle.
If you have a dehydrator, use the directions that come from the manufacturer. Herbs normally will dry in 6-12 hours in a dehydrator, depending upon the variety. And a friend tells me that she has dried parsley in the refrigerator. I've never tried it, but she says you can put the fresh parsley inside a paper bag, close it with a twist tie and forget it for 4 -6 weeks. The parsley will be dry when you open the bag, but will retain it's pretty colour. I intend to try it this fall.
Ok, you have dry herbs, now what? The best way to store them is in glass jars. Remove the leaves from the stems first. I prefer to grind them as I use them, so I leave the leaves whole. Store your jars in a cool, dry place. Near the stove is the worst place. You don't want them to absorb moisture. I have a mortar and pestle that I use to grind my herbs for cooking. You can also use a spice grinder or a coffee grinder.
If you customarily use the same combinations of herbs over and over, you may want to create your own blends. For stews I use Bay Leaf, Thyme, Cloves and Garlic together, for example. I make my own Italian blend by combining Italian Parsley, Basil and Thyme. I don't cook with Oregano because my husband hates it, but it is a common addition to Italian blends.
Finally, you can also freeze your herbs. Do not wash the herbs. Brush off any soil with a bristle brush. Remove the leaves from the stems, lay them on a baking sheet and freeze for 4-6 hours. Then place the frozen herbs into freezer bags. You may blanch them first if you desire. This will preserve the colour, but you may sacrifice flavour and aroma. Basil, however is better if blanched. Place the leaves into a seive and pour boiling water over them for no more than two or three seconds. Pat them dry between layers of paper towels and place on baking sheets and freeze.
When using dry herbs, use about half as much as you would fresh herbs. Frozen herbs are used in the same proportions as fresh.
This week's recipe is for individual meat and vegetable pies. They're easy because they use frozen bread dough for the crust. They're warm and filling - just right for a quick autumn lunch. For the vegetarians among us - just skip the meat and add whatever fillings you like. Potato and cheese, for example, or broccoli and cheese.
Hypatia's Meat Pies
- 1 package - 450g - frozen bread dough, thawed
- 1 cup cooked roast beef or roasted chicken, chopped
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 medium red potato, diced
- 1 medium carrot, diced
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup beef or chicken gravy
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 375ºF - 190ºC, Gas Mark 5. Grease 2 baking sheets. In a heavy skillet, sautee the diced vegetables in the olive oil until just tender. Add the meat, seasonings and gravy and set aside.
Cut the bread dough into 8 pieces. On a lightly floured board, roll the bread pieces into 6" circles. Place an equal amount of the meat filling in the center of each circle. Fold over to form a half moon, seal with a fork and cut a small slit in the top.
Place the pies on the baking sheets and bake for about 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Serve hot.