HERBS IN THE PANTRY

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At this time of year, my garden and I both
nearly burst with excitement. Many of my burgeoning herbs look
downright giddy, and I find myself running through delicious herbal
recipes, crafts and remedies in my head all day long. What with the
spearmint spilling out onto the walkway, the basil begging to be
trimmed and the rose scented geranium threatening to take over the
entire northeast corner, it would be a shame to let all this
abundance go to waste. But even someone who loves herbs as much as
I do can have trouble keeping up with the prolific early summer
bounty. Luckily, there are many delicious ways to preserve the
garden’s flavors. One of the handiest and tastiest ways I know of
is to make a batch of herbal sugar syrups to sweeten delicious
desserts, add zip to sauces and flavor cold beverages in the hot
summer days to come.

EASY TO MAKE, EASY TO USE

Flavored syrups are popular sweeteners for cold beverages, such
as iced tea and lemonade, because the dissolved sugar doesn’t leave
clumps at the bottom of the glass, providing consistent sweet
flavor from the first sip to the last. Add a few fresh herbs and
you easily can flavor your drink with the sweet essence of your
garden. Chefs and home cooks love syrups because they can be used
to sweeten dessert sauces and icings without creating a grainy
texture. Or, use them straight from the bottle as a glaze to spread
on cake, drizzle over fresh fruit or brush onto pastries.

You can use any sweet herb, such as lavender, lemon balm, lemon
verbena, mint, pineapple sage or scented geranium. Many herbs
normally used in savory dishes, such as basil, rosemary, sage and
thyme, make wonderful syrups as well, adding unusual flavor to
sweet foods. Even flower blossoms, such as roses and violets, make
lovely syrup.

SWEET VERSATILITY

Herbal syrups will last up to six months in the refrigerator
before they begin to lose flavor. But you probably will find the
bottle empty long before your six months are up. There are just too
many delicious ways to use them! Try pouring mint syrup over fruit
salad or rich chocolate cake. Drizzle rose petal or pineapple sage
syrup over vanilla ice cream. Add a splash of lavender or rosemary
syrup to lemonade or use lemon verbena syrup to create a citrus
martini. Just about any syrup is delicious poured over pound
cake.

For a more complex flavor, you can add whole spices in small
quantities. Try one star anise, a cinnamon stick, vanilla bean or a
few whole allspice or cloves. If you are unsure of which spices and
herbs go together, hold a small amount of the herb/spice
combination tightly in your hand until you feel it warm up. Open
your hand and do a sniff test. If they smell good together, they
probably will taste great as well.

PAIR FRUIT AND HERBS

You can use our master syrup recipe to make a fruit syrup by
replacing the water with freshly squeezed citrus or bottled fruit
juice. Orange, lemon, apple and white grape juice work especially
well. Fruit syrup has all the same wonderful uses as regular syrup,
plus a few more. Pour it as a topping over pancakes, waffles or
French toast, use it as a base for sorbet or mix it with sparkling
water for a refreshing beverage. The hardest part is deciding which
herbs to combine with each fruit juice. You will find that just
about any combination works well. For starters, try pineapple sage
with apple juice, lavender with white grape juice or rosemary with
orange juice. Fruit syrup lasts about two months in the
refrigerator.

TIPS FOR MAKING SYRUP

In syrups, the ratio of sugar to liquid (water or juice)
determines the thickness of the syrup. A 1:1 ratio produces a thin
syrup, while a 2:1 ratio (two parts sugar to one part liquid) is
thick. Most people prefer the thicker syrup because it is more
concentrated and good for pouring, but you may adjust the master
recipe to your liking. A small amount of lemon juice is included
here to cut the sweetness and boost the herb flavor.

When measuring herbs, use the leaves whole and gently pack them
down into the measuring cup. If using lavender blossoms or other
edible flowers, add them whole to the measuring cup until you have
one cup. Fresh rose petals are one exception: Before measuring,
snip or pinch off the bitter white spot at the bottom of each rose
petal where it attached to the bud, then add the individual petals
to the measuring cup. Be sure that any roses, herbs or flowers you
use are completely chemical-free. Finished syrups may be tinted
with food coloring if you wish, but use discretion.

MASTER HERB SYRUP RECIPE

1 cup water
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup fresh herb leaves or flowers
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Whole spices, such as vanilla bean or cinnamon stick
(optional)

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat.
Bring to a boil and stir until sugar is completely dissolved, about
1 minute. Turn off heat, cover and set aside for 20 minutes. Strain
into glass bottles or jars. Cap and refrigerate for up to six
months.

Fruit Syrup: Use the recipe above, but substitute fruit juice
for water. Refrigerate up to two months.

Theresa Loe’s annual calendar, The New Herbal Calendar (Tidemark
Press) is illustrated by Peggy Turchette, who also illustrated this
column. For more information on her work, visit www.HerbCom
panion.com and click on “Contributors.”