Preserving the flavor of herbs

Wednesday, August 13, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:10 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Herbs give both flavor and color to any meal. Chopped, sautéed or crushed, they are easily added to a favorite recipe. Fresh or dry, they are available year round, but “fresh is always better,” said Phyllis Spence of Terra Bella Farm.

“Herbs are more potent fresh. It takes twice as much dry herb to get the same flavor,” said Kimberly Griffin, co-owner of The Root Cellar, 21 N. Providence Road.

“More summer recipes call for (herbs),” Griffin said.

She and her husband have the luxury of owning a greenhouse where they grow their own herbs, such as basil, rosemary and parsley. Griffin believes herbs are more tender and have more flavor when they are out of the wind. To preserve that flavor, she and her husband dry their herbs to keep them through the winter.

Griffin suggests that people who want to dry herbs at home place the herbs on a flat screen, allowing air to circulate around them. It should only take a day and a half in the kitchen in the sunshine, she said.

Spence said it is the oils in the leaves that give an herb that original flavor, and when it is fresh, “the flavor pops more.” Once an herb dries out, it loses those oils and some of the flavor.

To keep an herb fresh longer, Spence recommends cutting off the tips and placing the herb in water. This technique, however, doesn’t work with basil, which turns black. Instead, she said, put chopped basil in an ice cube tray with water and freeze it. When you want to season a dish, such as spaghetti, just drop in the whole cube.

But with fresh basil, Spence opts for a summer favorite — pesto. She doesn’t measure the ingredients, but just goes by feel. She combines basil leaves, olive oil and pine nuts, adds a little lemon juice, salt, pepper and garlic, and adds a touch of butter at the end.

Mary Grigsby, a rural sociology professor at MU, has tended to her herb garden for nearly 20 years and uses herbs in just about everything from salad dressing to potato salad. For the past two years, she has been freezing her herbs over the winter, because “it really preserves the freshness, like a frozen vegetable.”

To freeze herbs, she chops them up, puts them in ice trays, pours olive oil over them, covers the tray in tin foil and then labels each herb before placing the tray in the freezer.

“When I do stir fry or pasta or make a sauce, I just pop out one of the cubes from the ice tray,” Grigsby said. “Just chop some tomatoes and squash and throw in a cube, and I have a sauce. I’m just going for quick.”

To get the most flavor out of an herb, Roger Loncaric, a chef at the Country Club of Missouri, says to avoid chopping them up too much. Instead, he briefly sautes fresh herbs, then adds them to something already warmed.

“You are intensifying the flavor if you cook it,” Loncaric said.

The Country Club recently started growing its own herbs, and the garden now contains basil, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, mint and chives. “Herbs go in anything,” Loncaric said, “as a garnish or flavor additive.”

Katie Jones contributed to this story.

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