It’s that time of year, fall in the Northern Hemisphere; the farmers around my house are out cutting their soybeans, while I’ve started to pick the last of my tarragon and oregano. My house smells lovely.
A month ago I brought in vast quantities of tarragon, mostly out of self-defense; the tarragon plant is huge this year, sprawling over everything else in the herb garden, and even though I have stepping stones out there I couldn’t make my way to the back, where a tomato plant had some ripe fruit I wanted. So I chopped tarragon, rinsed it off and piled it on my dining room table to dry. There’s still plenty more of it out in the garden, but I got four jars of the famous French herb packed up, the last of it cleared away just in time to have a friend over for dinner last week. Julia Child would say I’m rich in tarragon – too rich.
Yesterday I picked a smaller quantity of oregano, especially where it had started to go to flower. First I laid it out on my kitchen counter, but that’s working space, so I moved it onto a cookie sheet and then to the dining room.
If you look online about how to dry oregano you get advice that isn’t very practical; bunch it up, then hang it upside down, put it in paper bags with holes cut out, then hang the bags upside down, which would put the oregano back rightside up; huh? Then let it dry for a month, hanging somewhere. Or you can freeze it with a little olive oil; tastes good when you’re ready to use it, but doesn’t look appealing because the freezing wilts it. Obviously drying it is the most practical thing, which is how most cooks use it. Some people dry it in the oven or even the microwave, which saves time but halfway cooks the herb. So I asked my foodie friend Ed what to do, and I liked his answer: “Throw it on top of the refrigerator and forget about it for a couple of weeks.” Now that’s the Hoosier way!
I have two favorites among the herbs I grow, thyme and chives. Thyme is small and delicate, and last winter I actually ran out of dried thyme, so this year I bought two plants instead of one; thyme’s an annual so you have to replace it every year. I’m eager to get going on the thyme once this batch of oregano is done. Chives, meanwhile, fresh-snipped from the garden, are too fabulous, whether you put them on a baked potato with sour cream, in soups and salads or any other way you use them. They add that extra zing that makes herb gardening so worthwhile.
Last year I grew cilantro, which I really enjoyed; this year I switched to flat-leaf parsley, and it’s good too. I’ve used it fresh a bunch of times, whenever an extra taste of “green” seems to help. And of course when you’re decorating a plate, any bunch of leaves adds visual interest.
Here’s a simple recipe for a vinegrette that uses several of my ingredients. I just made a batch of this, and as I type I’m enjoying a salad. The recipe calls for tarragon vinegar, but the stuff you buy at the store ($3 for 12 oz.) is a waste of money, with almost no tarragon flavor. So make your own. I buy vinegar by the gallon ($2), and the dollar you’ll spend for one tarragon plant (which is perennial, year after year) means just a cup of homemade vinegrette has already paid for itself – no artificial flavors, no preservatives, no xanthan gum, no polysorbate 80.
Josh’s Tarragon Vinegrette
2/3 C olive oil*
1/3 C white vinegar
24 fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
1 1/2 t fresh oregano, chopped (1/2 t dry)
1 1/2 t fresh parsley, chopped (1/2 t dry)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t salt
1 t dry mustard
1 t paprika
1/4 t fresh-ground pepper
Dump everything into a cruet or lidded glass jar, shake well and let it sit for an hour to blend flavors.
* Soybean oil (“vegetable oil”) is good too, but olive oil tastes better and is three times higher in monounsatured fat – the good kind.
If you’re making a green salad or some soup, whip up a batch of croutons while you’re at it. I guarantee you’ll never waste your cash on those store-bought things again.
1 T margarine or butter
1 T olive oil
1 slice of bread
1 clove garlic, cut in half
pinch of basil, oregano, thyme or whatever
Heat a small, non-stick frypan on medium-low, melt butter and add olive oil. Sauté garlic for a couple of minutes to release flavor, then discard. (Or substitute a little garlic powder or garlic salt.) Cut up a slice of bread into inch or half-inch cubes. Toast 8-10 minutes, stirring once or twice, sprinkling herbs. Dry croutons on a paper towel. Leftovers will keep for a few days in a plastic bag.
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I’m pleased to report that my composting experiment is turning out well. Both bins have gorgeous-looking black stuff on the bottom, which I occasionally turn with a half-size pitchfork. If everything looks dry I’ll add a cup or two of water. But the holes I drilled in the lids (large plastic bins, 5 bucks each at the discount store) let in the rainwater, so I’ve only watered once. Now that it’s autumn, I’ll fill the bins with fallen leaves and evergreen trimmings, then bring them into the garage for the winter, continuing to add vegetable scraps and coffee grounds from the kitchen. After the spring thaw, I’ll dump one bin into the other and start a fresh round of composting in the empty bin. The finished compost I’ll work into the soil in my back garden, reclaiming that former wasteland so it will grow tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and flowers next year.
Food cooked from scratch tastes better. Cooking with ingredients you grew yourself tastes best of all.++
UPDATES: It seems the oregano doesn’t take long at all to dry; after just two days I’ve already stripped all but the youngest leaves and filled two jars. Plus I picked all of the thyme yesterday, filled a whole shopping bag and now have a gorgeous mound of this very versatile herb on my kitchen table. No running out of thyme this year.
Now I’m off to make some pumpkin raisin muffins, an ideal breakfast food when you’re on the run. Surely there’s a man out there somewhere who’d beat a path to my door if he knew about my muffins…