Friday, August 23, 2013

Interesting Bag of Herbs You Have There.

I admit it, I take pleasure in displaying my plastic bags filled with dried herbs; making sure the label side is out of view. I watch the reaction when folks visit, see the bags on the counter and typically do a double take.   Oh, another good one, is knowing someone is coming over, and an unmarked bag "accidentally" falls out of a cabinet.  You know, you know, what they are thinking; but what makes me laugh the hardest is when I explain they're my dried cooking herbs and I get this question, "Do you bake a lot of brownies?"

Anyway, I've already done a post on drying herbs individually, but this time I'm going to discuss making your own herbal mixture.  I do a lot of Italian based cooking, so an herbal mixture geared towards this genre is no stranger in my kitchen.  Containers of Italian Herbal Mix are available in basically any supermarket; ingredients are basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, parsley, dried garlic and dried onion.  In some brands you might also find savory, sage and marjoram.  The questions you should ask are, "When were they dried and packaged?", "How much of each item were dried together?"; and you're not going to get the answers.

Simple solution, make your own; you know exactly what herbs are being used, how much is being dried, when it was made, and that its freshness will last about six months as long as it's kept in a sealed container or bag.  Dried garlic and onion shouldn't even be in an herbal mix and I suspect they're used more as a preservative; they're better fresh anyway.  Of course, you can also dry each herb separately to create whatever mixture you need at the time of cooking; but for me, this is more convenient.

Whenever Bountiful Baskets has their "Italian Pack" offered, I usually jump on that deal because of the large bunches of fresh herbs you receive.   This last offer had rosemary, oregano, parsley, thyme and basil; sage, cilantro and Mexican oregano are usually in the "Mexican Pack", so each is dried on its own if I purchase that offer.  If you don't have Bountiful Baskets available in your area, take advantage of farmers' markets and stores that only concentrate on selling fresh produce, fruits and herbs. 

What I did this past time was simply line my large jelly roll pan with paper towels, pull the leaves off all the stems and mix them all up.  Don't worry if any small stems get into the mix; once dried, they'll be easier to spot and pick out.  Here in Utah, with the almost non-existent humidity, it only took five days for the herbs to dry out completely.  If you're unsure, check on them every three days, mix them around a bit; you'll be able to gauge the dryness and estimate how much longer it will take.

Once dried, pick out any stems and store the leaves inside an airtight container, or resealable plastic bag.  My mixture filled up a one gallon bag to a one inch thickness; simply lay the bag flat on a counter or table and carefully begin rolling from the bottom sealed side upwards towards the open end.  If you do this step too fast, the rush of air out of the bag will take dried herbs with it; why lose any of what you so dearly covet?  Seal the bag and slowly unroll; flat and air free just like one of those "space bag" commercials you see for clothing.

I know when this mixture was made, how long it will stay fresh, who made it and where, and exactly what went into the mixture.  Dried herbs concentrate their scent and flavor, so are wonderful for any recipe requiring a long period of cooking time.  They're easy to store and keep on hand for whenever they're needed; no disappointment that the local market doesn't have what you need. 

Mary Cokenour

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