Friday, June 30, 2017

Not too Early to Dry Out.

Dry out herbs and vegetables that is.  Fresh herbs, from the garden or produce section of your local market, adds a huge burst of flavor to cooking whether in the kitchen or outdoors.  However, what happens to all those fresh herbs if they’re not used immediately?  Left in the refrigerator, they lose scent, flavor, shrivel and rot; there goes good money into the compost heap, or the trash bin.  There is an alternative that will save money, and provide you with herbs in months to come; dry them!  You've seen them in every supermarket or health food store grocery section; whether in bottles or bags there is a big advantage to using dried herbs.  First off, when stored in an air tight container, they can last up to six months; so check the expiration date when buying.  Secondly, when used in cooking, the aroma and flavor is much stronger than fresh; especially helpful when using a slow cooker for a recipe.

When it comes to vegetables, have you seen the prices for dried mushrooms, peppers and tomatoes (bagged or packed in oil)!?!  Why buy expensive brands of "sun-dried" tomatoes or peppers when you can make your own, and always have them at the ready in your own pantry?  A Food Dehydrator is one method of drying herbs by using a system of heat (average temperatures of 130F to 160F) and vented air to draw moisture out of thinly sliced foods, or herbs.  I bet you only thought they were good for making jerky.  For example, take a carton of baby portabella mushrooms, slice them 1/8 inch thin, the dehydrator will extract all the moisture; just put them into a zippered food bag to be used at your leisure.  The mushroom slices can be easily reconstituted by soaking them in plain water before usage.  Red bell peppers and Roma tomatoes; just slice, dehydrate and store them in an air tight jar with olive oil, or simply in an air tight bag.  Want to make your own potato or veggie chips?  Lightly season the slices (flavor gets stronger during drying) before you place them in the dehydrator; no frying, no oils; just the tastes you want.

You don't have to go to the expense of a dehydrator to dry herbs.  Herbs that are on long stems can be tied together with string (butcher’s twine is best), making sure to leave a loop at the top.  A simple "s" ring, or even a paperclip opened up to give it two "hooked" ends will work well as hanging tools.  Remember to label your tied bunches of herbs for many will look extremely different dried than they did as fresh; smell might help tell them apart, but why take the chance?  Hang the herbal bunches in an area of the home that doesn't have a lot of foot traffic; don't know how many times I've had someone knock them down with a swinging coat sleeve.

Don't want them hanging around the home; another method is to remove the leaves as much from the stem as possible.  Lay paper towels on a tray (aluminum or plastic); place the leaves on the paper towels and leave a little room between the leaves.  Cover the leaves with another set of paper towels to keep dust and dirt from landing upon them; store the trays in a dry area and the herbs should be dried out within two to three days, depending on their sizes.  This also works for celery leaves; you buy that large bunch of celery full of leaves, pull them off, dry the leaves and you'll have them available to be added to stuffing, rice or pasta recipes.

 Herbs with small and abundant leaves, such as Rosemary, can be left to dry on their stems. When completely dried out, you can either shake the leaves off which can be rather messy; or grab the cut end of the stem, hold it firmly with one hand while using fingers from the other hand to gently slide the dried leaves off right into an open baggie.  Whatever method you use for drying your herbs, remember to label and date your air tight containers or bags, so you'll know which is which, and when your six month expiration is up.

Italian Herb Mix - Fresh Leaves

Italian Herb Mix - Dried Leaves

One more method for storing herbs, but this concerns a non-drying method; freezing.  You can take a single herb, or a grouping for a particular need, chop them up fresh and place a good pinch in the bottom of each section of an ice cube tray.  Cover the herbs with 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of water and place the trays in the freezer.  Once frozen, pop the ice cubes into a freezer safe bag; don't forget to label them; when you need those herbs for a recipe, they're ready and waiting.  Remember to take into account the measurement of water that will be added when you pop those ice cubes in with your other ingredients.

Whichever method you use, or perhaps make use of all of them, you'll be in control of your dried herbal or vegetable stockpile; you'll know where they came from, and what has, or has not, been added.

Mary Cokenour

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