Sweeten the Pot — and the Pitchers, Pans and Cookie Sheets — With Herbs

7/19/2014 7:00 AM
By Sue Bowman Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

LEBANON, Pa. — Just when you thought you’d used the fresh herbs from your garden to spice up your cooking in every possible way, Debbie Hartman of Lebanon County’s Penn State Cooperative Extension Cooking Institute is exploring the sweeter side of herbs. During a recent presentation, Hartman treated her audience to a variety of drinks, desserts and cookies made even tastier thanks to the addition of herbs that complement and enhance the flavors of these foods.

While herbs are most often used to add a savory flavor to the taste of main course dishes, Hartman talked about herbs that can be used in unexpected ways to bring out the best in fruits, dairy dishes, and flavorings like vanilla, chocolate and caramel. These herbs — some perennials and some annuals — range from florals like lavender and scented geraniums to citrusy lemon balm, lemon thyme, and lemon verbena, as well as more traditional cooking spices like basil, bay laurel, fennel, mint, rosemary, sage and English thyme.

Hartman began with a discussion of culinary herbs’ propagation. The lifespan of annual herbs such as basil can be extended during the growing season by pinching off flower buds before they set seed and the plant dies. Pinching back emerging flowers to the top of the plant’s main stem will push the plant’s energy back into the foliage, resulting in a bushier plant with a longer lifespan. If basil goes to seed, she said they can be gathered up and planted; warm soil and sufficient moisture will yield new plants, allowing a basil crop to last throughout the season.

Other herbs like lemon balm reseed so easily on their own that gardeners will need to corral their spread. Tender perennials like rose geraniums won’t survive wintry weather, so cuttings should be taken in August and the rooted stems should be planted in the spring.

Hartman also offered some general herbal pointers. For instance, those who like the aroma of an herb, will probably like its flavor, too. Nevertheless, with some herbs like lavender, she said a little goes a long way — there’s a fine line between pleasant accent and medicinal taste.

Whether annuals or perennials, most herbs grow best in a sunny spot suitable for garden vegetables. Hartman said the ideal time to harvest herbs is in the morning before sun exposure, when the volatile oils of these plants are at their peak.

Hartman also emphasized the importance of taking food safety measures with herbs. In addition to avoiding the application of manure as a fertilizer and not using pesticides around herbs, she said freshly harvested herbs may be sanitized using a mixture of 6 cups of water to 1 teaspoon of bleach. Herbs can be rinsed in cold water, then dipped into the sanitizing solution before being rinsed again in cold water and dried prior to use.

Hartman showed that many herbal recipes are as simple as marinating a favorite herb in a liquid to infuse it with flavor. For instance, placing rosemary sprigs into store-bought lemonade yields a refreshing summer cooler. Other herbal-infused lemonades can be made using 1-1/2 to 2 quarts of lemonade and adding either 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, 1/2 cup fresh mint sprigs, eight scented geranium leaves or 2 tablespoons fresh lavender buds. The herbs can be marinated to taste, then strained and refrigerated. Other combinations can be tried such as cranberry juice and rosemary for a pretty holiday drink, apple juice with sage, or grape juice with thyme.

Honey, as well as preserves, also makes a good vehicle for herbal infusions. To make herbal honey, place two to three sprigs of clean, dry herbs into 2 cups of honey and allow to steep at least five days before removing and discarding the herbs. The jar should be kept sealed in a cool, dry area. Honey-compatible herbs include lavender, rosemary, thyme and sage.

Similarly, herbal jelly or jam is a cinch to create. Just take a jar of store-bought preserves and melt it in a small saucepan over low heat before adding several sprigs of favorite herb(s). Cool and allow the herbs to steep for 30 minutes before removing them and refrigerating the preserves for up to three weeks.

Herbal sugars are easy to make by combining granulated sugar and the herbs of your choice in a food processor. Use the subtly flavored sugar for baking, in drinks, etc.

Hartman noted that drying herbs is an alternative to infusion for imparting herbal flavors to foods. An herbal flower mix can be created using a total of 1/2 cup each of dried lavender, rose geranium leaves and rose petals. Chop in a blender until fine, then keep in an airtight container. Add 3 tablespoons of this versatile mixture to a white or yellow cake recipe or any basic cookie recipe for some extra pizzazz. The mix can also be used along with tea bags to make a pot of herbal tea.

Sage applesauce can be used as a standalone dessert, or added to cake batter. Peel, core and dice three to four tart, crisp apples. Cook apples until soft over low heat with two sage leaves and 2 tablespoons maple or pancake syrup and 1 tablespoon of water. Remove the sage leaves before adding juice from half a lemon, then whisk the mixture until it reaches the desired consistency. One cup of this applesauce makes a tasty addition to many cake batters; the cake also can be garnished with apple slices tossed in apple juice to line the bottom of cake pan for a pretty upside-down cake.

Baked pineapple with basil makes another simple yet versatile treat. To make it, place pineapple rings from one peeled, cored and sliced pineapple onto a baking sheet (preferably lined with parchment paper). Sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of brown sugar and bake 20 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 350 F. When the pineapple is heated through and the sugar melts, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of minced basil leaves and serve as an appetizer, light dessert, fruity complement to ham or even as a tasty ice cream topper.

For other sweet herbal treats, try adding 3 tablespoons of minced fresh rosemary to cream cheese ice-box cookie dough. Or, cook two to three bay leaves along with rice pudding, being sure to remove them before serving.

Exploring the sweeter side of herbs is guaranteed to be a palate-pleasing adventure.

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