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The Season For Herbs

One of the hallmarks of Italian cooking is making use of fresh, seasonal ingredients. In Italy the agrarian traditions of seasonal ingredients are so valued that festivals (sagre) and celebrations are centered around the arrival of seasonal foods. Zucchini flowers in late spring and early summer, lemons and tomatoes in July, chestnuts and fungi in autumn. 99% of what’s offered at the markets of Italy is seasonal produce and every village or town has food markets that are as important to the local culture as the art and architecture of the region.

Herbs are one of the easiest ways to take advantage of seasonal ingredients and some of the best plants to grow in the garden. A few well-tended pots or plants can yield a season of fresh ingredients for your summertime table. Our herbal garden is in full bloom and begging to be used so it's time to start cutting.

Cutting Herbs

Herbs love to be cut and grow fuller, lusher and more productive with regular pruning. Cut-and-come-again harvesting is the key to using herbs to their best advantage. Waiting too long to harvest results in herbs with less flavor while trimming encourages new growth. Cuttings have fresher flavors and aromas when harvested from younger stems so don't wait until the end of summer to mass harvest herbs for drying. By the end of summer the plants are tired and most of their flavor is gone as they get ready to shut down for the season.

If you don’t trim and use your herbs, the plants will grow tall and lanky and annual herbs will go to seed quickly. It’s been said that there isn’t a single herb that grows as well when left uncut. Rosemary grows fuller and bushier if it's snipped, with softer greener leaves. Basil can produce multiple crops over the course of a season if it's frequently trimmed. Pruning every couple of weeks will keep your herbs from getting overgrown and encourage growth of new leaves. In general, herbs are not too fussy about cutting. Check references for specific recommendations but in general snipping the stems about 3 to 4 inches down from the tops, just above a leaf node, and cutting the stems growing around the outside of the plant about ½ inch above the dirt is recommended as new growth comes up through the center. Bushy herbs like rosemary can be cut anywhere on the plant removing 1or 2 inches at a time but cutting back too far into the woody branches could result in a barren or dead plant. Make sure that scissors or pruning shears are sharp and clean. A blunt or dirty cutting instrument can result in ragged cuts that can leave the plant vulnerable to bacteria and pests. Remember to harvest your herbs early in the morning while the leaves are still full of flavor before the heat of the day has caused the essential oils to lessen and release into the air.

Herbal Vinaigrettes

One of our favorite ways to use fresh herbs is to add them to olive oil and wine vinegar to make an herbal vinaigrette to dress a salad, ripe tomatoes or garden vegetables. Store-bought infused oils and vinegars can taste artificial, overly pungent and rancid. Decorative bottles of garlic cloves and sprigs of rosemary, tarragon and thyme infused in olive oil and vinegars look lovely on the shelf but can pose problems if not used and conserved properly.Select a good quality olive oil and vinegar and add your own fresh herbs at the time of preparation. From a food safety standpoint, infused oils and vinegars require specific processing and storage to reduce the risk of food borne illnesses. Consult your local Agricultural and Food Cooperative State Extension for more information.

Here is a recipe we frequently use when our rosemary bush is at its peak for a salad dressing with a good balance of sweet and tart followed by a subtle bitterness that can be used in a variety of ways. Made with Aperol, an Italian liqueur often enjoyed as an aperitivo particularly when the weather is warm. Combine the vinaigrette with little gem salad greens, thinly sliced radishes and orange, garden herbs and walnuts. Complement the salad with an Aperol spritz with the addition of Prosecco and soda for a light and refreshing first course for dining al fresco. An Aperol spritz is usually served in a tall balloon wine glass with an orange slice. Serve salad on a chilled glass plate to showcase the colorful beauty of this summertime stunner.

Little Gem Salad with Rosemary - Aperol Vinaigrette

  • 1 cup sweet Italian red vermouth (Carpano Antica, Cinzano Rosso or Martini and Rossi Rosso)

  • 1/4 cup Aperol

  • 1/4 cup fresh orange juice

  • 1/4/cup red wine vinegar

  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves

  • 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • little gem salad greens or tender baby lettuce and greens freshly picked from the garden

  • coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper

In a small heavy saucepan, combine the vermouth, Aperol, orange juice, red wine vinegar and rosemary and bring to a low boil. Boil gently until the liquid is reduced to 1/4 cup. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and cool. Strain mixture and remove rosemary. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until emulsified and smooth. Adjust seasoning if necessary. Can be stored in refrigerator for up to a week. Bring to room temperature and shake before serving. Makes 1 cup of vinaigrette.

Grilled Vegetables with Lemon - Herb Vinaigrette

Summertime, grilling and fresh herbs all seem to go together. Here is an easy lemon-herb vinaigrette for grilled vegetables using your favorite herbs from the garden. Grilling the lemon before juicing adds sweetness and concentrates its flavors.

  • 1 large lemon (grilled) for 2 T fresh lemon juice

  • ½ cup mixed chopped fresh herbs

  • ¼ cup finely diced shallot

  • 1 large clove garlic, minced

  • 1 teaspoon honey

  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil

  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar

  • coarsely ground pepper

  • coarse sea salt

  • Pinch of crushed red pepper

Preheat grill to medium. Grill lemon, cut-side down, until grill marks form, about 4 minutes. Juice the lemon into a medium bowl. Whisk together the red wine vinegar, garlic, pinch of salt, pinch of red pepper, twist or two of black pepper, lemon juice, honey and fresh herbs. While whisking, slowly pour in the olive oil until the dressing is emulsified. Set aside until ready to use.

Make a packet of heavy duty nonstick aluminum foil to wrap vegetables or place vegetables in a grill basket. Baste vegetables with vinaigrette and grill over medium-high heat, about 450-500 degrees F. until tender, about 10 minutes, again basting vegetables with vinaigrette and flipping once as they cook. Season with salt and pepper if needed and serve.

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