The Perils of OHD: Herb Salts, Pestos, and Infused Oils for leftover fresh herbs

Jenny writes: Ok, this happens to me all the time.  I buy fresh herbs for a particular dish I’m making and then I’m left with all of these extra herbs that way too often go bad before I’m inspired to make another meal with them. Today, I have left-over fresh basil, mint and thyme.  The protein I have left over is plain uncooked chicken breast and also cooked, cold hot dogs and hamburgers.  I have 1 bag of brussel sprouts that I didn’t end up using at the BBQ and 3 large sweet potatoes. Any ideas?

Tony’s take: So I think this is a common problem. I, too, suffer from O.H.D. (Overlooked Herb Disorder) and I think there are a lot of others like us. We’ll pick up fresh thyme for a braise or some mint for lamb chops or basil for a pasta and then, after using them for their original purpose, through equal parts busy-ness and lack of inspiration, watch as they slowly wilt away. It’s a sad state because fresh herbs aren’t cheap and this waste can scare off many folks from buying them. Rather than long-winded recipes, I thought I would offer up a couple of simple ideas for how to use up leftover herbs. These things are all quick and easy, should keep for a while, and demonstrate fresh herbs’ wonderful versatility. Before getting to the ideas, it’s worth noting that herbs can be divided up into two camps: delicate leafy herbs like cilantro, basil, and mint which keep anywhere from 3 to 7 days in the refrigerator and tend to be heat sensitive so they’re best added towards the end of cooking; and hardier, woodsy herbs like thyme or rosemary, which may hold in the fridge for up to 2 weeks and are best added at the beginning of cooking so they gently infuse their flavor. No matter the herb, here is the best way to store them for maximum freshness: lightly dampen a paper towel, wrap around the bunch of fresh herbs, and then store in a zip-top plastic bag in the vegetable crisper. Change the damp paper towel every day or two. There are also some folks who like to store delicate, leafy herbs like basil, dill, or mint in a little water at room temperature (as you would with flowers) and this works, too, provided your kitchen doesn’t get too warm. Now on to some ideas:

Herb Salts: Culinarily, these seem like the next stop on our salt journey after flaky, sea salt (a trend that’s been around for many years now). Herb salts capture the bright flavors of fresh herbs, making them shelf stable in a sprinkling form for at least a week or two (if not much longer). More importantly, herbs salts are wonderfully versatile: sprinkle rosemary salt on grilled steaks, pair basil salt with roasted salmon, or rub lamb chops with a mint-tarragon salt. How to make herb salts? You could just chop up some herbs, mix them with salt in a mason jar, and let sit for a couple of weeks, though I prefer to speed things up by heating up the salt. Add about 1 cup salt to a large skillet with 1 Tbs. to 2 Tbs. chopped woodsy herbs (thyme or rosemary) or 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup chopped leafy herbs (basil, tarragon, dill) and heat over medium-low heat, stirring, until the salt warms and the herb becomes fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat, let cool to room temperature, mash in a mortar and pestle if you want to extract even a little more flavor, and then store in an air-tight container indefinitely. Use for anything on which you’d normally sprinkle salt.

Herb Oil: There are two approaches for herb oil. You can heat up a good splash of olive oil (let’s say between 1/2 cup and 1 cup) with woodsy herbs (like thyme or rosemary), some crushed red pepper flakes, and garlic until the aromatics sizzle steadily and become fragrant, about 2 minutes. Cool to room temperature, strain (if you like), and then hold in the refrigerator for up to 1 week for drizzling on broiled or grilled fare (steaks, chops, fish), pastas, or even to use as the base for a vinaigrette. You can also make a no-cook herb oil by pureeing (in a blender) chopped leafy herbs like mint, basil, or tarragon with some olive oil until smooth. Let sit for a half hour or so for the flavors to get infused, then strain if you want the oil to be refined and dressy.

Pesto: Yes, there is basil pesto, or pesto Genovese as it’s properly known, but there are a host of other types of herb pastes, all tasty and all which keep well in the freezer for up to a month (just freeze in little baggies or even in an ice cube tray for easy access on the go) . I did a large article on pestos for Fine Cooking a couple of years back and here are links for those recipes: a basil pesto, (on top of roasted cod), walnut-parsley pesto, and black olive-mint pesto.

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