- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006

When the annual flowers are looking a bit sad and the tomatoes have long since become a tangled mess of vines, it’s time to get the garden cleaned up.

It was wonderful picking fresh herbs to combine with our favorite vegetables, but even though most of the tender vegetables will meet an untimely end with the first frost, our herbs can live on in a few different forms.

Annual herbs such as basil and dill need to be dealt with first. The basil has gone to seed, and the soft seeds can be used in concert with the leaves. One way to preserve the plant is by drying it. This works with most herbs.

For basil, pull the whole plants out of the garden, remove the roots and tie the plants together. Hang them upside down in a cool, dry place.

After a week or two, strip the leaves and store them in an airtight plastic bag or a glass jar. This won’t duplicate the taste of fresh basil, but it will still be very useful in the kitchen. It’s great for seasoning fish, meat, poultry, soups and stuffing.

To try to preserve that truly fresh flavor, freezing will get you as close as possible to the idea of the garden. Basil stems and leaves can be frozen whole in freezer bags, then thawed and added to dishes.

Another way to use wonderful basil is to chop the leaves and combine them with a little olive oil to form a paste. Freeze this paste in ice cube trays and use it as seasoning in a wide variety of dishes, including soups, stews, sauces and pasta.

Use the hanging technique to dry other herbs, including sage, oregano and thyme. Plants with seeds, such as dill and fennel, can be dried in paper bags to make sure everything stays together. Dried herbs can be stored in small, airtight jars and sprinkled on recipes as needed.

To keep the fresh taste coming, herbs that have been grown outside can be brought inside to survive winter on the windowsill. When choosing a pot for each herb, try to choose the largest size that will fit comfortably near a window.

The larger the pot, the less it will need watering. Fill it with a good planting mix, not garden soil, which is too heavy. The planting mix can be found at any good garden center or even in the garden department of a big box store.

Combine the mix with some water in a separate tub and get it moist but not soaking wet. When each pot is three-quarters full of mix, take it out to the garden so that it is nearby as you dig up the herbs. It’s important to try to limit the time plant roots are exposed to air.

Dig the herbs in such a manner that they will fit in the pot with room to spare. That way they will grow into the pot over the winter months. Push the plants gently down into the pots and make sure the planting mix covers the roots. They should be set in pots as if they were growing in the ground, no deeper. Water the plants and bring them inside to their new locations.

Windowsill herbs are most often killed with kindness, meaning too much water and fertilizer, so be careful with both. Water only when the soil is dry, and fertilize at half strength through the cold, gray season.

When the plants are first brought in, treat them with an organic product called insecticidal soap. It’s nontoxic and will kill insects and their eggs.

Once spring arrives, start fertilizing at full strength, but take your time when taking the plants back outside. Since they’ve been living in a dimly lit, arid environment, they will need a week or so to make the transition to the harsh world of the outdoors.

Start out by placing them outside in a protected shady spot and gradually increase the exposure to the wind and sun through the week, until they are sent out in the garden world to fend for themselves.

Don’t worry about empty nest syndrome. Like children who leave for college, these herbs will eventually return to the place where they get good meals and a comfy place to live. Even if their stay is only temporary.

Last of the basil and oregano pasta

1 pound bacon or pancetta

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 medium onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 14.5-ounce can chicken broth

1 pounds plum tomatoes, chopped

1 bay leaf

1 pounds pasta

1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped a little

1 teaspoon fresh oregano

3 ounces Asiago cheese

Salt and pepper

Cook bacon or pancetta in a skillet, adding about 1 teaspoon olive oil for pancetta, until nearly crispy. Drain grease. (Bacon is greasy and won’t need oil.) Add remaining olive oil and onion, and saute until onion is transparent and lightly browned.

Add garlic and continue cooking until garlic is tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Add chicken broth, tomatoes and bay leaf, and cook, uncovered, over medium heat for 20 to 30 minutes, until thick.

Meanwhile cook pasta according to package directions, until not quite cooked through. (It will continue to cook a little as it sits.) Drain and reserve cup cooking water. Keep pasta warm.

Add basil and oregano to tomato mixture, along with reserved cup water from cooked pasta. Cook 10 more minutes and toss with pasta and grated Asiago cheese. Add salt and pepper as desired. Makes 4 servings.

Pizza with fresh and dried herbs

Cornmeal

1 pound commercially made pizza dough

8 ounces sliced provolone cheese

3 teaspoons dried basil, oregano, tarragon, marjoram or a mixture of herbs

1/3 cup coarsely chopped (or small leaves) fresh basil, oregano, tarragon, marjoram

8 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese

Sprinkle cornmeal on a 12-inch pizza pan. Stretch dough out to fit and pat into pan. Place pan on bottom rack of preheated 500-degree oven and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until crisp and just starting to brown. Remove crust from oven and reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees.

Layer provolone cheese slices over crust.

Toss dried and fresh herbs with mozzarella and sprinkle over provolone. Return to oven and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until cheese is melted. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Dried herb butter

1 stick (4 ounces) butter, softened

1 tablespoon dried basil, marjoram, parsley, sage, tarragon or herb of choice

2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion

1/4 teaspoon salt

In small bowl or food processor, stir together butter, dried herbs of choice, onion and salt.

Refrigerate for 15 minutes to harden a little, then wrap in plastic wrap and shape into log. Return to refrigerator until needed.

Cut slices of herb butter over halibut or other seafood, chicken or meat to be grilled, broiled or baked, or even spread over hot pasta or toasted bread. (Butter will keep for 2 weeks in the refrigerator or 2 months in the freezer.)

Makes cup.

Doug Oster is a garden columnist and picture editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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