We’ve been dreaming of homemade jams, juices, vinegars, oils, and herbs to share with our friends at the tastiest summer picnics. In addition, the array of homegrown drop offs for the food bank will be more varied and frequent with this year’s new garden plan. And there has to be something we can give the neighbor in return for the delicious smoked brisket.
By Marissa Sutfin
Colorado State University Extension Master Gardener in Larimer County
Excitement for the many flavor combinations and gift packs we could create overcomes the anxiety that comes with an abundance of produce already flowing over the kitchen counter. Then there’s the looming question, “Can we keep up?” We can for now, at least until the peppers and tomatoes start to ripen.
Let food sharing and preservation begin! The time is now and the joy of sharing rises like a river. One of the most heart filling share opportunities I can think of is the Plant It Forward program. Now in its third year, this combined effort between the Gardens on Spring Creek and the Larimer County Food Bank has fought hunger with a stunning 10,000+ pounds of donated fresh goodies from local gardeners. They make it so easy with weekend drop offs.
We gather pounds of lettuce pulled from the understory of the fruit trees, humongous stacks of rhubarb stalks, all the herbs we can manage to fit in a couple grocery sacks, thinned beet greens, kale, radishes, chard, spinach, and pea pods to take to the Food Bank. Our smiles are so big we can barely see. There’s nothing like offering what we have to provide fresh and nutritious goodness to our community. We can hardly wait to drop off the tomatoes, peppers, carrots, squash, melons, beans, potatoes, peaches, grapes, and berries. The Plant It Forward goal is to collect 5,000 pounds of freshness this season. Could you throw a couple extra seeds or plants in the ground?
For the produce we don’t donate, the dehydrator and pressure canner are dusted off while the extra ice trays and cookie sheets emerge from storage. The anticipation of the hot season veggies taking over every available surface sends eyes in to a dream-like state. Innumerable possibilities are listed on the refrigerator door. We start with the most obvious of choices—the one already being used more often in our daily cooking—herbs!
While most herbs can be dehydrated or oven-dried fairly easily, they often dry too fast and can burn. However, dehydrating can be a wonderful method if you don’t have a cool, dry, and dustless place to hang them. Be sure to turn your trays/sheets to maximize drying time. If you use the oven, always leave the oven door slightly cracked. It’s often best to dehydrate herbs when you can be home for a few hours to supervise their progress. Remove herbs as they dry for a steady preservation flow.
Hanging herbs is the preferred method among many gardeners and culinary artists. Hang them away from the kitchen where temperature and humidity is more apt to fluctuate. Our dry Colorado air is perfect for fast drying and they can be left for a few days before needing to jar them. Use a simple paper bag to cover the rubber band-bound bundles to keep undesirable flavors and appearance from dust and sun at bay. We hang ours in a dark and well-ventilated corner of the house. A rarely used closet with the door ajar would also be just fine.
Whatever method you use, it’s best to leave dried herbs whole until moments before adding them to your favorite dishes. The larger surface area keeps their flavor longer. If properly dried, stored in an airtight container and in a cool dark place, herbs should retain their flavor for about a year. For information on specific herbs:
Chives – Harvest tender and brightly colored chives before the flowers dry and they turn woody. Chives lose some of their flavor during drying but are a great addition to dressings, rice water, soups, stocks, and dips.
Oregano and Thyme – Harvest both oregano and thyme as their flowers are barely open. Be sure to leave some for the pollinators. When marinated with oregano and thyme, barbecue chicken finds a new friend.
Sage – The earthy flavor of sage is most alive about a month after the top blossoms bloom. Don’t wait for the holidays to use this versatile herb. Sage butter on grilled veggies will send your friends swooning. Add some dried leaves to a 50/50 mix of white vinegar and water with a little lemon zest for an inexpensive household disinfectant.
Basil – Harvest basil before the plant sets flowers and do so often to increase your harvest. Everyone loves basil and it makes the perfect gift for winter time festivities. Until then, use it in and on everything while reserving some for your homemade tomato juice and tomatillo salsa. It’s lovely frozen in ice cube trays and added to summer sun tea.
Dill – The delicate leaves are best harvested before dill flowers. The flowers can be harvested later before they seed. There’s no match for fresh dill in homemade pickles. Add dried dill to rice, fish, and veggies with any citrus.
Enhancing vinegars and oils are a fun way to be daring and do something different. They’re particularly awesome to have on hand for those last minute invites to potlucks. Fresh berries, tender peas, kale or cabbage, and slivered carrots tossed with chive oil and basil vinegar hooks even the youngest of picky eaters in the crowd and takes little effort. Enjoy your spring harvest and preservation while sharing with those you love and those in need! To learn how to do this, visit the CSU Extension website at www.ext.colostate.edu and read Fact Sheet #9.340 “Flavored Vinegars and Oils.” For information on drying vegetables, read Fact Sheet #9.308.
Plant It Forward
*The Food Bank for Larimer County accepts donations from 8-4pm Monday through Friday at 1301 Blue Spruce; www.foodbanklarimer.org
Contact: Karen McManus at 970-567-1643 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The Gardens on Spring Creek accepts donations from 9 a.m. to 4 pm on Saturdays and noon to 5 pm on Sundays at 2145 Centre Ave.
For a full list of the 2013 Food Preservation and Preparation Workshops visit: www.larimer.org/ext
Are you new to dehydrating? Don’t miss the Art and Science of Dehydrating Foods workshop on Wednesday July 24 from 6-8pm at the CSU Extension Larimer County Office. The cost is minimal at $20. Pre-registration is required; class size is limited.
To register, contact Edie McSherry, Larimer County Extension at 970-498-6000 or larimer.org/extension/food/