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I am a wife, mother and grandma who enjoys the many aspects of homemaking. A variety of interests and hobbies combined with travel keep me active. They reflect the importance of family, friends, home and good food.
Cook ingredients that you are used to cooking by other techniques, such as fish, chicken, or hamburgers. In other words be comfortable with the ingredients you are using.
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Monday, January 26, 2009

Frugal Kitchens 101 - Herbs

Frugal Kitchens 101
Herbs! They are a must have for any cook. Herbs compliment meats and vegetables, they enhance flavours and add depth as well as roundness to many dishes. You really cannot cook without herbs but that doesn't mean you can't get herbs frugally.

In general, herbs are found in three forms:

  1. fresh - In most cases this is the preferred form for many cooks. If a recipe calls for a particular dried herb use 3X the amount in fresh form.
  2. dried - This is likely the most common form used for most cooks which is very unfortunate. Unless properly stored dried herbs lose both flavour and colour. Guess where a lot of people store their dried herb? Over the stove! Both heat and light causes the herbs to lose their aromatic flavours so by the time you use them you are really adding nothing more than filler. Dried herbs should always be store in a dark, cook location to preserve their flavour. Do not store herbs directly above any source of heat and keep them protected from humidity.
  3. frozen - Some stores are now carrying a small selection of frozen herbs and anyone who grows their own can easily freeze
By far the best way to get fresh herbs is to grow them yourself. Herbs are classified as perennials, annuals or biennials depending on your zone. They can be woody (eg. rosemary) or soft stemmed (eg. basil). In recent years bunches of fresh herbs have become available in some grocery stores. Consider though that a small bunch of fresh herbs goes for about $1.99. Established herbs can last for years in the garden. They tend to be relatively problem free. Some herbs especially those in the mint family (eg. spearmint, peppermint, lemon balm, etc) are very easy to establish but can be invasive. These are perfect for those small areas between your sidewalk and house where spreading will be confined to that space. You can get a package of seeds for about $1 and start several pots. Cell packs are another easy way to establish your herb garden. Grow some indoors and some outdoors for a year round supply. Harvest herbs just before you want to use them in the quantity you will use that day. Rinse well the place the sprigs in a mug of water, cut end down until ready to use. If you buy herb springs remove them from the package, rinse and place in a mug of water, cut end down until ready to use. Extra mint in particular can be left in a mug of water where they will form roots. They can then be potted and later transferred outdoors.

I think everyone is familiar with dried herbs. If you grow your own herbs dry by tying together in bunches then hang upside down out of the sun until the herbs are fully dried. Untie the dried sprigs, then crush or grind as desired. Pour into small glass jars and vacuum seal. Store in a cool, dark location. Both light and heat cause dried herbs to quickly deteriorate. The most commonly available commercial dried herbs are found in the spice aisle in small glass bottles or small metal cans. You really are paying for the bottle! Some stores have a limited variety of dried herbs available in plastic bags that are less expensive per gram than the bottled variety because you have to use your own container. Tone's produces larger containers of a variety of spices considerably cheaper than the small containers or the plastic bags. Consider Italian seasoning, the small glass jars cost about $3.50 in the grocery stores for about 20g or 18¢ per gram. A plastic bag at 40 g costs $1.59 or 4¢ per gram. A 171 g container of Tone's Italian Seasoning costs $3.88 or 2¢ per gram. Clearly Tone's is the best cost per gram and similar savings can be found in the rest of their line. Old Bay and French's also have larger sized containers. However, only those seasonings you use a lot of should be bought in these larger containers so they can be used up before losing flavour. Again store in a cool, dark location. The final way to save on dried herbs is to buy in bulk. Many herbs are available in bulk dispensers where you can choose the amount you want. This is an ideal way to buy just what you need for a particular dish if it an herb you seldom use or one you aren't sure you will use again. The price per gram is always cheaper than that of the bottled herbs and usually cheaper than any herb bought in containers or plastic. A good source for some smaller container packaged herbs can be the dollar stores but only if the store has a large turn-over. If it doesn't avoid this source as they are more than likely stale. An excellent source for dried herbs that you can't find locally is online.

Freezing herbs is another excellent way to preserve the bounty from your garden. The woody herbs tend to freeze nicely. Basil can be made into pesto then froze. Soft stem herbs can be blended into a puree with water then froze in ice cube tray. Once froze pop out of the trays and store in zipper style freezer bags to use as needed. You may be able to find frozen herbs commercially but they the variety is limited to mainly basil and garlic.

Before we leave the topic of saving on herbs, two additional ways of preserving herbs are in oil or vinegar. Preserving home grown herbs in oil presents the risk of botulism so don't use this method for long term storage. You can however, use fresh herbs blended with oil for immediate use so only make what you can use for that meal and as close to the meal as possible. Fresh herbs blended into fresh made butter or softened butter are simply wonderful so do try that but again only what you will use for that meal. On the other hand, you can make some very tasty herbed vinegars using your home grown herbs. Try using other vinegars besides white as long as they are 5% acetic acid.

Finally, make your own herb blends. Grow or buy the basic herbs then combine them in the way you want to get your own custom made herb blends. I mentioned the Italian seasoning above but if you have the basic dried herbs on hand, you can make your own without worrying about not having the blend on hand. One example posted before Christmas was poultry seasoning using basic herbs and spices kept on hand. So even if you buy your dried herbs you can combine them easily to make your own herb blends saving the costs of buying the blends.

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