Gardeners should have their own customized version of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer, which is about accepting the things you can’t change. At this time of year, especially, we might acknowledge all the upkeep not performed in our gardens and just let it go. If there are vegetables or fruits we had no time to dry, freeze or can before their time was up we must just say, with serenity, “Oh well, I’ll do better next year.”
In my case, attention to a profitable crop of cut flowers this summer distracted me from the Italian beans and sweet corn I’d vowed to put up for winter enjoyment. It’s surprising that I was even able to can all that tomato puree and to freeze those 10 pounds of English peas. Just barely picked the winter’s apple supply, but it’s been so warm that I might still make some cider and applesauce if I hurry up.
Last week there was just enough time to dry some herbs before winter. It was a great year for the mint, which was still green and unspotted in the wet ditch where it resides. The oregano’s flowers had faded, but the foliage was in good shape, as was that of the culinary thyme. And the sage? Glorious, as it always is in fall, and even into early winter.
Cutting and preparing herbs for drying is one of the simplest acts of garden husbandry. It took me only about half an hour to pick ample bunches of all four herbs, with stems as long and sturdy as possible. In a mere 15 minutes I removed any brown or yellow leaves, stripped the bottom few inches of the stems, and bundled them separately, since their drying times vary.
I always secure the ends with a rubber band instead of string, because the stems will contract as they dry and would therefore slip out of tied string that would not contract along with them. Ten more minutes to loop a string through each rubber band and hang the bunches up.
I’ve sometimes fantasized about having a kitchen with rustic wooden beams in the ceiling from which to hang my drying herbs, along with a few harvest baskets. It would look great, but in truth, the herbs would gather the dust stirred up by our active household, not to mention the vapors released in cooking. So off they go to the utility room, where the air is still and the fridge and freezer give off a bit of dry heat.
The end of a wooden shelf unit that holds the tomato puree and other stored items like jam and dried beans is a good spot. It’s easy to tie the strings to it, so that the herbs hang upside down for successful drying. The shelves are out of direct sunlight too —another plus.
There are other ways to dry food — in a dehydrator, or an oven set to “warm” for example. But hanging them is simple and effective. The herbs I’ve chosen to dry are easy ones. Their leaves have a firm structure, without excessive moisture — even the water-loving mint.
The ideal drying herb is one like bay, which holds on to its shape, its color and its flavor when dried. The opposite would be basil, whose soft, tender leaves are quick to wilt and even turn black, soon after picking. Better to crush or pulverize it with olive oil and freeze it right away. You can then cut off chunks of it as needed for pesto, with the tip of a sharp knife. Tarragon is also fragile and tricky to dry.
Herbs that don’t keep their flavor well enough for me to bother with include dill, cilantro and, to some extent, parsley, which is so winter hardy that I can keep a bed of it alive through the winter in a greenhouse or cold frame and enjoy it fresh-picked. Rosemary, which I find a little too stiff when dried, also is easy to have fresh, provided I bring a pot of it indoors in time, and remember to keep it watered.
My biggest regret is that I can’t dry any lemon verbena this year. Even fresh, it’s a little too firm to chew unless the leaves are very young, but it does dry very well, curling at the edges and then expanding into an exquisite, perfumed tea when it encounters hot water.
The reason I can’t dry it is that I never planted it. But I’m OK with that. I’m serene. I’ll just wait for spring. Dammit.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”