Sagging Sage? Blotchy Basil? Try These Herbal Remedies

By Nick Kindelsperger and Blake Royer
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Like most people, we buy baggies of herbs at the supermarket. It's not a confession -- there's no herb gardening guilt, brought on by pastoral scenes of Italian grandmothers standing at the stove. Without time or even access to soil, we rely on modern industrial technology that conveniently sends herbs from greenhouse to produce aisle. Their delicate flavors and burst of freshness can make a pedestrian Tuesday meal worth lingering over.

Unfortunately, they often come packaged in large bushels, apparently for those needing to garnish a large feast. Many recipes call for a mere teaspoon, leaving a bag (or at least a clamshell pack) full of fresh leaves that we never signed up for.

Cooking for one can be a frustratingly wasteful adventure, as we've both figured out the hard way. Even settled down with respective girlfriends after cooking-solo singlehood, we still find ourselves with the problem of herbs. One moment we're tossing heaps of beautiful fresh basil on pasta, and the next the refrigerator drawer (that alleged "crisper") has a large bag of unappetizing blackened slosh, which goes into the trash. Not only is it wasteful, but restocking the fridge every time a recipe calls for a teaspoon of parsley is expensive.

But for those who have experienced the fresh, there is no retreat back to the dusty spice cabinet, where one jar of crumbled leaves hides behind the other. That little shaker of dried basil might last a year, but is there anything further apart in the universe than fresh basil and its dehydrated counterpart?

Admittedly, buying and storing herbs is an inevitable slide toward Black Death -- but with a few tricks, you can delay it. First, rinse and dry herbs the day you buy them. Usually grown in sandier soils, herbs need a good shower. The extra 30 seconds it takes to wet a paper towel and wrap the herbs goes a long way, because the towel will both administer and absorb moisture as needed. Put them into a roomy bag with a punctured hole, keeping the leaves away from the interior surface of the bag (wrapped in the towel). You'll get at least a week with this method and can neatly label each bag, making sure you never confuse flat-leaf parsley and cilantro again (or wonder why your guacamole tastes like a French waiter made it).

But if you're like us, your nicely labeled bags still will be neglected and forgotten, just like the ones the store provided. Placing the herbs' stems in a glass of water and stashing the glass in the fridge will keep parsley and cilantro happy for just as long as if stored in the bag -- and in full view. You simply reach in and pull off a large hunk -- in the cold of winter, it's the closest you'll come to an herb garden. Cover loosely with a plastic bag (use the bottom of the one from the store) and pull off fronds as needed.

It is messier, and you might end up with bits of green leaf all over the fridge, but your herbs will stare you in the face every time you open the door. Just remember: As with cut flowers, the water should be changed every couple of days.

Although proper storage is a means of extending an herb's life, your best bet is to find recipes that are flexible, allowing whichever herbs are in your fridge to get along. Unlike their dried counterparts, fresh herbs aren't seasonings, like chili powder. Think of them as malleable components to a dish, like garlic. You've got a bushel of leftover mint, basil and sage? Stuff it all into the cavity of a roast chicken. The high heat will draw out what is still good in the herbs as the chicken meat picks up the delicate, pungent, fresh aromas.

Or, drain and rinse a couple of cans of white cannellini beans, cook them slowly over low heat with good olive oil and chopped garlic, and toss with lemon juice and your ailing herbs, serving warm. The broad, open taste of the beans will absorb the strong flavors.

But there are those desperate times. You've eaten out for four straight nights, come home exhausted, and remembered with guilt your neglected friends in the drawer. They're sitting there, half decayed, a day away from oblivion.

There is, for these dire circumstances, a saving grace. When the herbs' texture is less than appetizing, there is a simple solution: Throw them in a blender to make a pesto-style sauce. This method is quick and forgiving, and invites experimentation. Basil may reign supreme here, but parsley, cilantro, oregano, just about all things green can add unique flavor. And it's more than just replacing pine nuts with pistachios, or whatever else is in vogue at the moment.

You don't even turn on the stove; everything is easily thrown into a food processor to make a loose paste. There are two components when it comes to the herbs: the bulkier kind -- parsley, basil or cilantro -- and the more potent herbs such as rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage and mint. Use twice as much of the first kind (it's sometimes a good idea to buy a fresh bunch), a good olive oil, hard cheese and a handful of your favorite nuts. Our version adds a splash of balsamic vinegar to give it a more piquant taste and a roasted red pepper to help forgive the herb's blemishes and draw the flavors together.

A more complex option is to make Italian salsa verde (not to be confused with the Mexican sauce made of tomatillos), which enlivens the herbs with briny capers, gherkin pickles and anchovies.

Either way, you no longer have any excuses. However laughable the size of the bunch, it is possible to use every last leaf. Even so, sometimes you're just not fast enough: The Black Death comes, and you'll have to throw the herbs away. We just don't like to talk about it.

Nick Kindelsperger and Blake Royer write about food at They live in New York City.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company