Posts Tagged ‘herbs’

Fresh Herbs Through the Winter

January 10, 2010

My brother in California has the luxury of a year-round herb garden.  For those of us in the Midwest, this is not a possibility.  Our short growing season leaves us either freezing and drying a crop of herbs in the summer for use throughout the winter months or heading to the grocery store once the snow covers the parsley.  These are not the only options, though.  With good timing and a few tricks, one can keep fresh herbs coming through a good part of the winter.  I still freeze ice cube tray after ice cube tray of basil pesto every August, but a few other herbs play a bigger part in my fresh winter eating.  I should note that I’m not a particularly sophisticated cook, so I’m only going to discuss the few herbs I use regularly; it shouldn’t take too much experimentation to apply some of these strategies to your favorite herbs.

Herbs as Houseplants
Though West Michigan’s sandy soil is ideal for most herbs, there are a number of major herbs that won’t survive our low winter temperatures.  The only solutions are to grow them as annuals or to over-winter them indoors.  I try to keep a rosemary plant alive every winter, and have made it as far as March, but I’ve got a good feeling about this year.  I started it as a seed in the early spring, and have it in a pot on the windowsill now.  It’s not too big, as you can see from the picture above, but it’s good for the occasional snip of piney flavor.  If it survives this winter, I’ll replant it in the garden, then re-pot it in the fall.  I’ve also heard of people growing bay laurels (for bay leaves) in pots, and over-wintering them indoors.

An ideal candidate for this sort of treatment is mint—in a yard as small as mine, I can’t just plant mint in a border—it’d creep across the yard (and the neighborhood) in a single growing season.  To prevent this, I keep it in a pot to contain the invasive underground shoots.  In the fall, the pot comes indoors for midwinter juleps or tabulleh.

A slight variation works for parsley.  It’s a biennial, so in its second year, the leaves get tough and it flowers.  It’s inedible the second year, so usually, gardeners dig up their parsley every year and start over the following spring.  You can get a few more months of production from your parsley by potting it up in fall and bringing it indoors.  If you wait until it gets too cool, you run the risk of your parsley going into second-year mode, so do it early.  Don’t bother saving the parsley to replant the next year—compost it when it goes dormant or sends up a flower stalk.

Herbs as Bulbs
The only bulbing herb I grow is chives, but I imagine this would work for any bulb.  I use the same method as you would to force flowering bulbs—pot up the bulbs in fall, subject them to a few months of “false winter” (cool weather, either in a garage/crawl space/attic or in the fridge), then bring them into a warm, sunny room to re-sprout.  The chives send up new shoots within a few days, and can be clipped for several weeks before the bulbs start to wear out.  I always have several pots waiting out in the garage to keep a supply going all winter.  In the spring, I usually give the potted bulbs to friends who are starting an herb or ornamental garden.  Of course, any landscape could always use a few more spikey purple chive blossoms.

Fresh Herbs, in Situ
Finally, some herbs retain enough of their flavor compounds through the winter to be dug up and used as it.  Thyme is especially good for this.  We have some along the house, and whenever I’ve got a pot of stock going, I can dig down to it, clip off a few stems, and throw it in.  Oregano will also put up with this treatment.  Think of it as “winter pruning” if it makes you more comfortable.  The flavor isn’t at its peak, but it’s probably comparable, if not superior, to home-dried leaves that are a few months old.

Whether you’re eating locally year-round (and getting sick of roots and squash) or just looking for a little fresh flavor to get you through the winter, coaxing your herbs into providing a crop for you in the winter is a great way to bolster one’s faith in the spring.  If you have success with any herbs not mentioned here, please let me know in the comments section.

Cooking from the Garden, 9-13-09

September 13, 2009

We had a very cool summer, so a lot of the stuff in the garden took a long time to ripen.  Tomatoes and peppers are just coming in now, about a month late.  On the other hand, I was able to harvest broccoli all the way through August, so maybe it’s a wash.

Tonight’s dinner featured a lot of vegetable produce, and I haven’t been posting much, so I thought I’d put it up.  I started with pizza dough in a cast-iron pan.  Topped it with sliced fresh tomatoes, green peppers, yellow Swiss chard, red onion, garlic, herbs, cheese, and turkey sausage.

Garden Pizza

It was really good, but as far as presentation goes, I should have put more of the vegetables on top–all those colors, and nothing to show for it.  The tomatoes kind of steamed under the cheese, rather than roasting, so they were wetter than I’d like, but it was still delicious.  The cheese, dough, sausage, and onion were store-bought, and all the vegetables came from the garden.

Home-grown Vegetables Hall of Fame III: Garlic

June 21, 2009

I covered the process of growing garlic last year, but recently saw the garlic flower buds for sale at the farmer’s market.  I had been putting them in floral arrangements (the pointy curlicue shapes make for a beautiful, if pungent, addition to bouquets), but didn’t know they were edible.

These flower buds, called “scapes”, come out in June here in Michigan,.  I cut them off above the top leaf.  The pointy, swollen flower head is too tough to eat, so it’s really just the stems that are edible.

The online recipes I’ve found for scapes advise that I “cook them like green beans”.  For my first attempt at cooking them, I just steamed them for a few minutes at ate them out of hand.  They were delicious–garlicky, but much milder.  They were also very difficult to eat, due to the spiral shape.  Since then, I’ve chopped them and added them to stir-fries or pizzas.  They were not quite strong enough to substitute for garlic, but they are good on their own terms.  I’m still looking for ideas for how to use them–send recipes if you’ve got ’em!

Inventory, Part Two

January 19, 2008

My hoop greenhouse was demolished in yesterday’s wind storm, so any local foods I’m eating these days will be things I put up last summer and fall. And so, inventory continues.

Purslane Pickles

Using a recipe from Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, I made a jar of Purslane pickles last summer. Using homegrown dill, peppers, and garlic with vinegar, I was able to fill one 16-oz jar with purslane stems and homegrown green tomatoes. I wasn’t sure what to do with them, so they sat at the back of the fridge for months, but I’ve been working them into sandwiches lately. They are fantastic. Purslane pickles add a tart crunch to a sandwich without the wet slipperyness of cucumber pickle slices.

Sun-dried Tomatoes

I don’t know if this is an innovation of my own, or if I read it somewhere, but it’s a great system. After picking homegrown cherry tomatoes dead ripe, I slice them, salt them, and put them on the dashboard of my car. Summer heat will dry them to the crispy stage within a day or two, at which point they are ready to be packed into jars, which are sealed but not processed. They will keep through to the next tomato harvest, and get tossed in with any sort of noodley casserole type dish.


I’m not sure where exactly the line falls on “local foods”, but sprouts are questionable. I’m growing them, but I don’t know where the seeds come from. I don’t have a large enough garden to allow plants to set seed for sprouting, so I don’t have much choice. The sprouts are “home-grown”, but only by a matter of a few weeks. I’m currently sprouting alfalfa and mung beans, using the alfalfa for salads and sandwiches and the mung beans for stir-frys. I’m a novice sprouter, but my loose and simple procedure seems to work:

Cover the bottom of a small, lidded jar with one layer of seeds. Cover the seeds with water, and allow to soak for a few hours, up to overnight for alfalfa. Drain the water. Every day that follows, rinse the sprouts off after breakfast and while preparing dinner. When the sprouts reach the desired stage of maturity (taste test to find your preference), stick them in the refridgerator.

They make special sprouting jars with mesh lids, but I just use the solid jar lid to hold back the sprouts, as if I was draining pasta in a pot. When my watering can is empty, I drain my sprouts into it to re-use the little bit of water that goes into sprouting.


When the snow isn’t too deep, I can still get thyme and parsley from the garden, and I have some basil–in pesto form–in the freezer, but the only truly fresh herb I have through the winter is chives. In the fall, I pot up a clump of the bulbs and sink the pot into the ground. Around the New Year, or whenever there is a convenient thaw, I pull the pot out and bring it indoors. The chive bulbs, which have gone through their required dormant stage, react to the warmth of the house as if it were spring, and they put on new growth. I’ve read that it’s best to have two pots going, so as to alternate and keep a steady supply through winter, but my single pot hasn’t given up yet.

Aside from a chunk of local venison in the freezer (given to me by the mother of an overzealous hunter), that is where I stand in the New Year on local food. Next month begins seed-starting season, so I hope to give some information on the shower-stall greenhouse I use to prepare plants for the summer garden.