Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Fall Herb Preservation

by Jean Schneider, Herbalist at Nativa Medica & HVF CSA Member

How did your spring herb packs do in your garden or pots this year?  If yours are like mine, the sage did pretty well if you could keep it dry enough this year!  Who knows when the frost will come, so it's time to preserve your herbs before it’s too late.  All of the herbs in our packs are Mediterranean herbs.  As a group, these herbs are pungent, aromatic, warming and many are anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral.  Sounds like the perfect thing for fall and winter right?

As an herbalist I like to recommend herbs that are inexpensive and easy to find.  I am not very prone to colds, viruses and flu but those around me are!  My husband gets a few colds and viruses every winter, partly from all the time he spends in our public schools getting exposed.  Over the years, adding more consistent use of culinary herbs seems to have helped reduce the number and severity of illnesses he suffers each winter.  Every soup I make in the winter has a good amount of thyme in it and we regularly use sage honey in our cooking and make lavender honey tea.

There are two uses we will preserve herbs for from our herb packs; culinary and medicinal.  All of the herbs in the packs are culinary herbs and several of them are powerful medicinal herbs too.  Let’s start with preserving some of the herbs specifically for medicinal uses for colds, flu and viruses.  My two favorite herbs from the pack for this are thyme and sage. 

Medicinal Herbs

Thyme Preservation

I prefer to gently dry thyme.  Cut the thyme off about an inch above the ground.  Make sure the herb is dry already (not after a rain or with dew on it).  Either tie the stems into small bundles with string, or separate the stems and lay them out on your dehydrator racks.  Slowly and gently dry at low, low temperatures and monitor closely if in the dehydrator.  Using temperatures that are too high or drying for too long will cause the volatile oils that are important in the medicine of the plant to be lost.  If you tied the bundles with string, hang them in an area that gets good air flow (not your basement).  I hang mine on my kitchen cabinet knobs or on a coat rack in my entryway that I am not using.  Leave them for a week or so.  Once dry, remove leaves from the stems using clean hands by gently rubbing them off.  Store in an air tight container, like a Mason jar.

To Use Thyme as Medicine
       As a face steam for cough or plugged sinuses - put 1” of water in a pot, bring to low simmer so it is steaming.  Add a tablespoon of dried thyme leaves, put a towel over your head and lean over the pot.  Be careful as you first do this so your face doesn’t get too hot.  Move your face away or closer based on temperature.  Breathe in the steam and feel the loosening and draining begin.  Do this up to 3-4 times per day, as needed.
       As a tea - 1-2 teaspoons dried leaves per cup boiling water, steep 10 minutes, covered.

Use Thyme For:
      dry or wet coughs
      congestion of sinuses or lungs
      intestinal spasms and general gastrointestinal problems
Properties of Thyme
       stimulates immune system
       relaxes tissue
       penetrates and loosens thick stuck mucus in sinuses and lungs
       anti-spasmodic (for coughs and gastrointestinal)

Sage Preservation

Sage is a really fun herb to preserve for the winter and may be dried using the methods described for thyme preservation.  Additionally, you can use sage to make infused honey.

Fine mesh strainer and bowl used
to strain the herbs from the honey.
Sage as Infused Honey 
and Leaves for Tea
       sage leaves (no stems)
       honey from farmer’s market
       clean and dry Mason jar and two-piece lid
       fine mesh strainer
       large light weight bowl

First, get some good quality honey from the farmer’s market and have a clean and dry Mason jar ready.  Cut your sage off about an inch above the ground, making sure you harvest when the herb is dry (no rain or dew).  Remove the leaves from the stems and compost the stems.  Put the fresh leaves in the jar, press them down and fill to about half full.  Choose the size of the jar based on how much leaves you have.  Cover the leaves with honey and stir well.  Once the leaves are coated in honey, fill the rest of the jar with honey, leaving about an inch of air space between the lid and honey.  Make sure the lid is on tight and place in a sunny window or countertop and flip the jar once or more a day.  Kids love to be in charge of this!  Flipping the jar upside down allows the herbs to mix into the honey.  The herbs will slowly rise to the top, and the jar can be flipped again helping it mix.  The sunny window helps keep the honey warm, but a countertop will do just fine too.  I let this go for about a month, then pour into a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and let gravity and stirring do the work of separating the honey from the sage leaves.  Do this in batches if necessary until done.  Store the infused honey at room temperature or in a warm place.  You can also keep it near your tea kettle so you don’t forget about it.  The honey is good indefinitely.  The leaves that are left will still have honey stuck to them, this is good as the honey will preserve the leaves.  Put the leaves back into the jar and then into the refrigerator where they will keep several months.
Herbs infusing with the honey. 
To Use Sage as Medicine
       sage infused honey - eat a spoonful or use in hot water as tea
       sage leaves coated in honey - use to make sage tea by adding several leaves per cup with hot water and steep for 10 minutes covered.

Use Sage For:
       sore throats
       runny noses
       wet coughs

Properties of Sage:
       dries moisture and brings up oil, soothing tissue
       a caution to nursing mothers - sage can dry up milk production
       not for use in pregnancy

Finished jar of herb infused honey!

Preservation of Tender Culinary Herbs

For the more tender herbs like basil, parsley and chervil this will be the best preservation method since they lose their flavor when you dry them.  You can use this method for the oregano and savory too, but both of those will dry well using either the hanging or dehydrator method from the thyme section. 

Easy Ice-cube Tray Preserved Herbs

       ice cube tray
       herb of your choice, stems removed, leaves chopped
       organic extra virgin olive oil

Place chopped herb leaves into a bowl, cover generously with olive oil and stir.  Place into as many ice cube compartments as needed.  Freeze until solid, pop out of the ice cube tray and put into labeled plastic bags in the freezer.  The herbs are already chopped and ready to use in any recipe.

I like to use these cubes in a variety of ways all winter long.  There is no need to thaw them out in advance as they take only a minute or two to melt in a pan or pot.  Most of the time I forget to add the herbs until the dish is almost cooked and I am looking for more flavor to add.  When sautéing veggies for scrambled eggs add the herb cube in.  For soups and stews you can either add the herb cube while you are sautéing veggies, or add it during the simmering time.  For Shepard’s pie or pot pies, add the herb cube in while the filling is simmering.

Don’t forget to use your dried thyme leaves in your cooking too.  Even though the medicinal uses are so important with thyme, you will get similar benefits from using thyme regularly throughout the winter.  Every soup, stew and roast I make gets a tablespoon or more of thyme added into it in addition to any other spices the recipe calls for.  I grow some in my herb garden, but it is never enough, so I buy it by the pound to make sure we have enough for the entire winter!

Using culinary herbs regularly gives our bodies and health a continual boost and support system.  I have always wondered if the main reason why the Mediterranean diet has resulted in healthy people actually has as much to do with regular use of culinary herbs (all the herbs from our packs are Mediterranean herbs)  as it does with fresh food.  The people of this area cook with fresh food and an abundance of herbs throughout the year.  Let’s follow their example.

It’s a great time to ask your friends if they have any herbs to spare from their gardens too.  Having a winter store of herbs to use not only makes our food more tasty in the winter, but also helps support our health.

Find me on Facebook: @NativaMedica

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