Herbs have been used in cooking for centuries, not only lending their distinctive flavours to foods, but their preservative qualities too. Thyme, for example, was valued for its essential oil called thymol, and was used to preserve meats before the advent of refrigeration.
Mid-summer through the end of September is the best time for harvesting and preserving herbs. In fact, if you harvest (and cut back) herbs mid-summer, you may enjoy a second harvest before the first frost. Here are some tips for some of Ontario’s easiest-growing and most prolific herbs:
Basil – By late August, Basil is often overflowing garden beds and planters. There are many varieties, such as lemon, cinnamon-flavoured and even vanilla. Regardless of the flavour, basil is one of the most versatile of culinary ingredients.
The variety of basil most commonly associated with Italian cooking is known as sweet basil, as opposed to the Thai basil popular in Southeast Asian cuisine. Most know it these days as the main ingredient in Mediterranean pesto. You’ll also find it on Pizza Margherita, which displays the colours of the Italian flag: red (tomatoes), white (cheese) and green (basil).
By fall, many are looking for ways to preserve basil’s wonderful flavour because there simply is too much of it to use! Two suggestions:
- Freeze whole leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet, and then transfer to a freezer bag, or
- Chop into fine pieces and preserve in the refrigerator in olive oil
Parsley – Parsley is another herb that reaches full capacity by the end of summer. Instead of picking a few snips as garnish, now you can harvest a bowl full for salad, or to make parsley pesto.
A Middle-Eastern favourite is tabbouleh salad, which calls for cooked grain (bulgur), lots of chopped parsley and tomatoes, all soaked in a lemon vinaigrette dressing.
- Parsley can be frozen in bunches. You can also dry it and use throughout the winter. Lay the bunches out on a screen in the sunshine until the plants crumble into dry flakes in your hand. Store in clean, dry jars.
Dill – The taste of fresh dill cannot be compared with dried. It is an essential ingredient in Ranch Dressing, and creamy dill sauce for salmon or Eggs Benedict.
During the growing season, you’ll want to harvest the leaves and pinch back the flowers so the plant keeps growing. Early fall, however, is time to let a few dill flower heads finish blooming and go to seed. These flower heads can then be picked and used for making dill pickles. You can also use the seeds for next year’s crop.
Sage – By the end of summer, garden sage creates a showy, silvery green foliage. This wonderful culinary herb flavours meat and bean dishes.
Sage definitely can be dried. If our weather isn’t too severe, you may still be able to find it growing in the garden by Thanksgiving, giving you a fresh supply of sage for your Thanksgiving turkey.