Notes from Regional Herb Gardeners
RIVERTON, Wyoming—Summer visitors to our home are frequently greeted by the pungent aroma of vinegar. Gallon jars filled with various herb combinations and vinegar line the kitchen counter. For years, I’ve been practicing making small batches of flavored vinegars but in recent years have quadrupled the quantities so I can use them for birthday and Christmas gifts. Friends save me interesting jars and bottles, and I pick up corks and pretty labels when we travel.
Vinegar making starts in late spring with chive and chive blossoms. Years ago I planted a chive hedge around my rose garden; box hedges don’t survive Zone 4 winters. Volunteers have popped up in every border and bed of the yard, making it our most abundant herb. The blossoms make a beautiful mauve vinegar with a hint of onion that is good with both meat and salads.
Tarragon, parsley, thyme and chervil are also ready to harvest early. I love the anise flavor tarragon adds to salads and salsas. One plant of French tarragon grows to giant proportions and is adequate for sharing with friends, family and the rest of the neighborhood. Chervil surprised me by transforming from a well-behaved row of an herb I wanted to try into a giant, perennial hedge. By lucky coincidence, I planted it at the end of the garden where a hedge is welcome. I like to mix it with a combination of herbs such as parsley, thyme, rosemary or oregano. I also have used it as a tasty substitute for celery.
Basil and garlic are favorite combinations — excellent in a good vinaigrette with mustard, olive oil and a dash of sugar. Vinegar made with purple basil turns a lovely pink. Fruit vinegars are probably my favorites, and we are lucky to have both cherries and raspberries growing. Their vinegar is a clear rose-red, and both are delicious splashed on fruit or green salads. Nasturtium flowers and leaves make a pretty, peppery vinegar. Borage adds a slight cucumber flavor and is an interesting shade of blue. Mint vinegar is great with lamb or salads. Freely volunteering dill works with both fish and potato dishes. Combinations are only limited by taste appeal and what is available in the garden or farmer’s markets. .
I prefer to use white wine vinegar or rice vinegar for the base of my flavored vinegars. White vinegar is too harsh. Cider vinegar works well for stronger-flavored herbs such as basil or dill, although the color is not as pretty. Citrus peel is often featured in the pretty but expensive mixes of herbs sold in kitchen and specialty shops, so this summer I added strips of lime, lemon and orange peel to some of my mixes. They provided fresh flavor and a lively visual appeal.
I make 1-gallon batches and use the glass gallon pickle or condiment jars that are generally free for the asking from delis or sandwich shops. I like to use about 4 cups of fresh herbs to a gallon of vinegar. I place the herbs, rinsed and loosely packed, into the jar, then heat the vinegar in a stainless steel pan until it simmers. I then pour the hot vinegar over the herbs, cover the mix with plastic wrap, then the jar lid and let it sit on the counter for about a week. Occasionally I will give the mixture a shake. The hot vinegar wilts and discolors the herbs, so after letting them steep, I strain the now-flavored vinegar through cheesecloth and bottle it in pretty or interesting bottles with one or two sprigs of fresh herbs and citrus peel, if desired. Sometimes I add one or two hot chile peppers.
Adding a pretty label that describes the herb, fruit or mix in the bottle, I now have a large supply of vinegars, for my kitchen use and to give as gifts. Sometimes I will include a recipe or two, a good olive oil or some fresh garden produce to use with the vinegar. Cooks are always appreciative, but I also have given vinegars and recipes to those who consider themselves kitchen-impaired or beginner cooks. A delicious vinegar with a good vinaigrette recipe can lead to an unexpected kitchen adventure.
Using the abundance of fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables available from the garden in summer makes this one of my favorite times of the year!
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