There's still time to dry out herbs

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Gardeners should have their own 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 equanimity, "Oh, well, I'll do better next year."

There's also just enough time to dry some herbs before winter. It was a great year for mint, which is still green and unspotted in the wet ditch where it resides.

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, as 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 the string. Ten more minutes to loop a string through each rubber band and hang the bunches up.

I've fantasized about having a kitchen with rustic wooden ceiling beams from which to hang my drying herbs. 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, such as 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, for example, or an oven set to warm. 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 those of the water-loving mint.

The ideal drying herb is one like bay, which holds on to its shape, color and 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. When you need it for pesto, you can cut off chunks 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 in a greenhouse or cold frame and enjoy it fresh-picked. Rosemary, which I find a little too stiff when dried, is also easier to get fresh, provided I bring a pot of it indoors in time and remember to keep it watered.


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