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.”
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 able to can all that tomato puree and freeze that 10 pounds of English peas. I haven’t picked the winter’s apple supply yet, let alone made cider and applesauce, but, hey, I can still do it all if I hurry.
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. The oregano’s flowers have faded, but the foliage is in good shape, as is 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, 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, 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, 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.
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 dries 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 okay with that. I’m serene. I’ll just wait for spring. Dammit.