Herbs from the garden are seasonal. The season for leaves is just beginning. The thyme and sage are already leafing out. The savory will be strong enough to start taking clippings next week. The chives are already starting to form flower buds. Just cut those off and chop them up and drop them into an omelet.
This is the time to delight in the return of fresh herbs to the kitchen. Soon, we can start harvesting handfuls and drying them. The thyme, savory, oregano family are harvested and dried from April to August. Cutting them back after mid-August may cause them to winter kill. Cut back at most a quarter of the plant at any one time. Rosemary is tender, let it warm up more before you start harvesting. The mints are slow to get going this year. All the laminacae (square stemmed mint family herbs) are harvested by cutting just above the joint, where side shoots are forming. Then the side shoots will grow up to form new leaves. You want to get them in the leaf stage or bud stage, just before the flowers open. That is when they are the most flavorful. If you start with a four inch rosemary plant in the spring, you may not want to stress it by harvesting the first year. Just take off a few pinches from ends of the branches.
The basil is just going in the first week of June, when the harvest of perennial herbs is peaking. The fennel seed will be ready in September, when the fennel has grown into a huge shaggy bush and the seed comes off easily into a bowl. The seed also flies all over the place and it ripens unevenly, so you have to keep harvesting.
Wait a second, you're saying, how are you going to make your world famous Amy's plain cheese frozen pizza customized with canned olives, fresh tomatoes and fresh basil, now, in March, if the tomatoes from your garden ripen in August and the basil isn't even started indoors until May? What about that?
Good point. BC Hothouses grows some regional out of season tomatoes that are decent if you are desperate for a fresh tomato. Those cardboard winter tomatoes from California are a waste of money even if you get them free. If you must have fresh herbs out of season, look for locally grown ones (Haggen's, The Market, the Co-op, Terra Organica.) Brent, Nick, and the rest of our Whatcom County farmers need the money. Pizza crust recipe below.
If you are cheap like me, you will find that the rhythm of the seasons feels pretty good. Two people told me today that they are putting in their herb gardens, and they are all excited about it, too. Soon the smell of drying herbs will fill the kitchen.
If you are going to harvest your lavender for the fragrance and medicinal qualities of the flowers, cut off the heads just before they open. The flowers start losing intensity as soon as they open. You may get a second harvest as the frustrated plant tries to reproduce. For herbes de Provence, wait until after the blooming season and prune your lavender. Cut the new growth back almost to the woody stems. This was done to keep the plants compact and producing high quality buds instead of sprawling all over. Pruning generates a large quantity of lavender leaves, which are dried and used as seasoning.
The tarragon you babied is cut and packed into scalded jars of vinegar. That whole tarragon vinegar business is to preserve the tarragon. The flavored vinegar is a by-product. Use decent vinegar. White wine vinegar is traditional or use 100% apple cider vinegar if you are sensitive to sulfites. Cash and Carry sells Four Brothers brand of good quality vinegars and cooking wines in gallon jugs for a reasonable price, just the thing for putting up the harvest. Or, you could buy cute little 12 ounce bottles of wine vinegar, one at a time.
About that basil: eat it fresh, dry some, make Italian pesto or French pistou, freeze it in little blocks in ice cube trays, and pickle it in sherry. This last has an appealing effort level: chop basil into little pieces, and pack into scalded small jars with a pinch of salt. Pour cooking sherry to cover by a half inch and seal with a scalded lid. Keep it in the dark. If you are paranoid about food safety, refrigerate after opening. Otherwise just make sure you have plenty of sherry covering the basil.
Which brings us back to home French cooking. Your traditional French farmhouse is sans indoor toilets, running water, electricity, a range, a refrigerator, a telephone, and central heating. The next time that you see a glossy magazine spread on "Charming Country French Whatever", just try keeping a straight face.
Even though most farmhouses now have indoor plumbing, and many have been bought by city dwellers as vacation homes and tarted up with electricity, propane ranges, and other fripperies, French cooking comes out of intensely local and seasonal eating.
The wonderful jams, preserves, chutneys, cheeses, pickled this and that, sausages, cured meats, sauerkraut and other lacto-fermented vegetables and oh my gosh, fresh cherries preserved in brandy and sugar syrup, are all techniques for traditional food storage.
More on that later. If you haven't seen Keeping Food Fresh by Centre Terre Vivante, a compilation of traditional recipes and preservation methods, you might want to check it out. There are a multitude of gardening and preserving books in the library, on everything from how to put in your herb garden to how to make your own liqueurs.
And if you haven't put in your herb garden, now is the time to build it. It's still a little cold to put the perennial starts in. Herb starts are already available all over town.
Herbes de Provence:
Dried savory, fennel seeds, basil, thyme, and lavender leaves.
Start with equal proportions and adjust to your liking.
Myriad variations abound. Throw in a few lavender flowers for fragrance and drama, but too many will make it smell like an old lady's sock drawer.
Used to flavor poultry, meat, grilled vegetables, sausages and fish since Roman times. Amazing in potato soup. And you were thinking of paying $12 for a little crock of the stuff, eh?
Refer to previous post on Slow Bread. At the stage where you would form loaves of fast or slow bread, pull off a chunk the size of a man's fist (one pound on the kitchen scale) and roll it out on a floured board. If it feels stiff and hard to work with, walk away for a few minutes and do something else while the dough relaxes. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Sprinkle coarse cornmeal on a baking sheet and transfer the pizza crust. Drape it around the rolling pin to make the transfer. Pinch up the edges to hold the sauce.
Bake for 5-10 minutes, depending on whether you made thin or thick crust pizza, remove from oven and top. Return to oven and cook until the desired state of bubbly, cheesy goodness is reached.
To make your own frozen crust, allow to cool after the initial baking and slide the whole thing, baking sheet and all, into the freezer. When the crust is frozen solid, remove the baking sheet and wrap the crust in freezer paper. You may want a pice of cardboard as a support.