~ Northern California ~
Herbs, chard and salads greens are exerting themselves in an almost exponential fashion here, within my tiny urban garden. It is a sight unlike any other to simply walk–in the early morning light–past neat rows of boxes overflowing with crisp, new leaves and flowering herbs.
Most new gardeners find themselves in a quandary with all the over-abundance of edible greenery. It does not freeze or can very well, and after the staple paths of pesto and salad are exhausted folks tend to search out far-flung recipes like cold lettuce soup.
Getting your family–especially your children–to try unusual things may be less difficult if you incorporate the fresh greens in meals they already know and love. Arugula on sandwiches and hamburgers–instead of the ubiquitous iceberg–can use up the growing greens rather quickly in a large family. Arugula also adds fresh flavor to chicken soup and is delicious layered with ribbon-ed chard, chopped rosemary and fresh basil in the family lasagna in lieu of (or in addition to) fresh spinach.
I’ve even tossed handfuls of washed arugula, cilantro and chard (and also celery) into my slow-cooker when cooking pinto or red beans; the greens simply melt away without a trace, but leave a fresh flavor in the background, adding interest to an otherwise one-dimensional side dish and all without losing most of the nutrients.
Other ideas: Eggs Florentine–made with thinly sliced chard–is excellent. My personal favorite spring green dish is chard, spring onion & pancetta ravioli, topped with grated Parmesan cheese and ribbon-ed basil. These lovely hand-made pasta pockets can be frozen spaced well on a parchment paper covered baking sheet and then put in containers or zipper-bags for long-term freezer storage.
Those fresh herbs, however, the lovely bursting-with-life edibles, that make so many meals better (and are so costly in the store) are a bit harder to preserve. Certainly, you can dry them… and many folks do. Our french lavender buds will be dried and sewed into tiny cloth bags for use in place of perfumed dryer sheets. But, oh for those fresh herbs so fleeting in their springtime glory, so unspoiled by the heat of summer…
Mint is easy to handle, as we use it daily in our house: simply slice washed spearmint leaves into ribbons and soak it in a large container of cold tea in the fridge, along with honeysuckle blossoms, for a refreshing drink. At night, cut leaves can be soaked in boiling water–with a drop of vanilla–for a tesane comparable with high-quality store-bought infusions.
Fresh herbs can be used up quickly by offering fresh herb-filled yogurt cheese at gatherings or potlucks: spoon 4 cups of whole yogurt into a cheesecloth ‘sack’ and suspend it from your kitchen faucet–over a bowl–before you go to sleep. In the morning you’ll have approximately 2 cups of yogurt ‘cheese’, almost the consistency of mascarpone cheese, only healthier. Mix in chopped herbs, minced garlic and season to taste; serve in a colorful bowl decorated with herb springs, with crisp whole wheat or rice crackers.
My mother came up with a rather clever idea for preserving the most freshness in one’s springtime herbal bounty: she blends the leftover fresh herbs–by type–with plain olive oil and pours the gooey liquid into cheap plastic ice-cube trays. Once they’ve frozen, she pops out the little herb cubes and stores them in labeled zip-bags, ensuring an easy-to-extract burst of fresh flavor for future meals, whether in sauces, dressings, marinades or soups. The oil and zip-bags protect and preserve the herbs’ flavor surprisingly well, even months later, though you may want to double-bag.
Feel free to post your own ideas on using and preserving your spring-time crops & herbs.
L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books