YORK, Pa. — It’s still a little too early to start thinking about harvesting herbs from the garden, but it’s not too early to start planning.
In fact, with a little foresight and some helpful herbs, a garden can yield a variety of homespun gifts, said Susanna Reppert-Brill, who presented the “Edible Gifts from the Garden” workshop at the Pennsylvania Herb and Garden Festival in York, Pa.
The festival, conducted April 12-13 at the York Expo Center, included a slate of nine speakers who gave several seminars during the event.
Reppert-Brill and her husband, David, are owners of The Rosemary House and Gardens, one of America’s oldest herb shops. Located in Mechanicsburg, Pa., the store was opened by her mother in 1968.
She began her presentation with an easy way to preserve herbs.
“My favorite way to dry herbs is to put them in a brown paper lunch bag,” she said. Put each herb —thyme or chives, for example — in its own bag and put it in a frost-free refrigerator. The fridge “is essentially a giant dehydrator,” Reppert-Brill said.
“The beauty of dehydrating plants is that flavor and color gets locked in,” she said. “When they lose color they lose flavor as well — try it in the fridge. Label it with whatever the herb is, along with the date, and let it sit in the back of the fridge for two weeks — shuffled and shaken periodically — and if it’s dried and crunchy take it out of the bag and bottle it up for your shelves.”
Reppert-Brill also made what she calls “cheater jelly,” a gift that starts with inexpensive jelly from the store. She pours the jelly into the top pan of a double boiler and adds herbs, preferably “fresh and on its stem so it is easier to pull out,” she said.
Mint or lemon balm work well in the jelly, for example, or garlic chives for savory jelly for bagels. Grape jelly, with its especially strong flavor, does not work well with this recipe, she said.
“Scented geraniums, pineapple sages — the sky’s the limit for combos.”
Reppert-Brill mixes the warmed jelly (don’t bring it to a boil) and herbs together until the herb “is more on the brown side than fresh green side, then pull out with a fork, and cool,” she said.
While it’s still hot, pour it right back in the jar, put the lid on it, and it will reseal itself.
Additionally, Reppert-Brill said that “herb-flavored sugar is a fun thing to do if you’re drying herbs.”
Dried herbs such as peppermint, lemon balm, lavender, rose petals, or an apple pie spice combination of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg are whirled in a blender along with sugar.
Reppert-Brill uses a cup of sugar and starts with a tablespoon of lavender, for example. She likes to “see how that looks, and then ... go up from there.”
To add a little extra sparkle to a gift, she said to “put in some food coloring so that your lavender sugar has a tint of purple to it, or your lemon balm sugar has a tint of yellow to it.”
“You can add lemon zest too,” she said. “You can use that sugar in your hot tea, or roll sugar cookies in and it will give a little flavor to your sugar cookies, or put it on top of your scones.”
Herbal vinegars are another welcome garden gift, and there’s no mystery to it, said Reppert-Brill.
“Vinegars are super easy to make. Usually I get a gallon jar with a wide mouth — something that I can fit my hand in and out of — and I harvest whatever I have available at the moment. Red basil vinegar has a pretty rose color, and rose petals do very nicely, but go out to your garden and harvest whatever you have and put it in the jar. It doesn’t have to be packed tight but it has to be stuffed full.”
Reppert-Brill recommended using use rice, apple cider or white wine vinegar, since she feels that balsamic vinegar already has an intense vinegar flavor on its own. She suggested adding things like peppercorns, garlic or jalapeno peppers.
“Then, let it sit together — two weeks is good, a month is best, and strain it out,” she said. “If you want a really clear product, strain it out through a coffee filter.
“Bottle it up in your salad dressing bottles and label it with a hang tag for gift giving so the recipient will know how to use it,” she said.
She recommended herbal vinegars for use as a salad dressing, to marinate meats, to make pickled eggs, or to make waffles fluffier and pie crusts flakier.
Mustard With A Kick
Making herb-flavored mustard was another suggestion from Reppert-Brill. She starts with inexpensive yellow mustard.
“Dump it in your bowl, then go to your kitchen cupboards and clean. Whatever you might have in there, you can dump into your mustard,” she said.
Granulated garlic, a dip mix, a dry rub, herbs turning yellow — “it doesn’t matter what you do, it will still be mustard. You will not alter the taste of the mustard,” she said. “It will be more flavorful, yes — maybe hotter — but it will still be mustard.”
She suggested using it as a dip with cheese, ring bologna, pretzels or as a glaze for ham.
Creating herb-flavored rice was another of her gift suggestions. She said to simply layer herbs such as basil, parsley or chives with rice several times over in a container.
“Add a lot of herbs because you’ll be putting the rice in all that water,” she said. In order for it to impart flavor to the rice, she said, a cup of rice would take three tablespoons of dried herbs.
Herb-flavored salts are, again, made with dry herbs. Reppert-Brill adds dry chives in a 50-50 ratio and mixes that together. “It helps to get people weaned off of the flavor of salt and onto the flavor of herbs.
“If you know your family likes pizza — oregano, marjoram, rosemary — start with those flavors in your salt,” she said.
Dried herbs can also be mixed into softened butter (also with a little oil mixed in) to make an herbal butter.
Reppert-Brill makes an herbal cake with a boxed cake mix.
“Grease the pan, then put in scented geranium leaves or rose petals or lavender, and pour in white cake mix, for instance,” she said. Lemon balm or mint are other ideas that can work with cakes.
However, she said to be careful how much you add, because she noted that “a little bit is delicate ... a lot tastes like perfume.”