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Raspberry Jam Winner + Frozen Basil

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Three cheers for Whitney, who’s number came up in the Raspberry Jam giveaway last night. She’s a lucky girl, as it’s very, very good stuff.

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Last Friday, I had the day off from work, and so my friend Shay and I took a drive out to Lancaster, to look for jars for my wedding (we’re planting tiny herb plants in a variety of jars as gifts for our guests) and visit her parents. I found an amazing cache of jelly jars (the ones that you can’t really use anymore, as they were designed to be sealed with wax) for $.15 each at the thrift store in Mount Joy, which got me much closer to the needed 60 jars. I also returned home with a 2 1/2 gallon ziptop bag, stuffed absolutely full of basil from Shay’s mom Ty’s garden.

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Ty hasn’t had the greatest tomato year because of all the rain we’ve gotten, but it’s been a stellar year for basil production. Her herb garden is absolutely bursting with fragrant, vividly green basil. No matter how much I cut, it was nearly impossible to make a visible dent. So Friday night, I made an improvised pesto. I used lots of garlic, olive oil and parmesan cheese, but skipped the nuts (I didn’t have any pine nuts, and determined that I wanted this basil sauce of mine to be as flexible as possible). I ran my food processor for nearly half an hour and came away with more than four pints of pesto (that’s a hell of a lot). I packed it into 4- and 8-ounce jars (leaving plenty of headspace) and tucked it into the freezer.

I’m so looking forward to adding it to pastas, soups and eating it spread on bread all winter long.

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Quick-drying fresh herbs

drying oregano

The house I was born into was a tiny little thing. Built in the early 1900s, it was just shy of 1,000 square feet. However, what it lacked in indoor space, it made up for in an amazing yard. The backyard was particularly roomy, starting with the brick back patio and rising in several tiers up to a two-story garage and back alley. We had several plums trees, as well as a vegetable garden and a long planter overgrown with Italian oregano.

The yard was often more than my parents could handle, especially with two little kids, a dog and a music production/distribution business rapidly expanding in the basement (offices) and garage (shipping department). However, they did what they could to keep nature from totally reclaiming the space, focusing the bulk of their efforts on the garden spaces closest to the house. The oregano was a particularly enthusiastic grower and had to be regularly trimmed (otherwise it would tumble out of it’s planter and take over).

destemmed oregano

Instead of tossing the oregano trimmings onto the compost pile (which was an action that could have been forgiven, given how much oregano was back there), my mom would spread it out on cookie sheets and put them in the oven to dry. The kitchen in that house had an big old white enamel gas stove, with a pancake griddle in between the burners. Left overnight, the heat from the pilot light was enough to gently dry out the oregano. The next day, she’d carefully pull the leaves from the stems and store the dried oregano in airtight containers.

These days, I don’t have a highly productive oregano patch at my disposal. However, I do have a membership in a CSA which includes at least one bundle of fresh herbs each week. And when a recent box contained a rubber-banded bunch of oregano (the scent of which took me flying straight back to childhood) I knew I was destined to dry it.

oregano in canister

In the past, I’ve hung herbs to slowly dry in my kitchen, but often found that in my tiny galley, they get bumped and banged, leaving crunchy bits all over the floor. I also worry that in the course of their hang, they get dusty and splattered with the scents and particles of daily cooking. For all those reasons, I much prefer the quick oven dry.

To do it, you simply spread a bunch of fresh herbs out on a cookie sheet (no need to destem at this point). I put them in the oven, set to the very lowest temperature and leave them for one hour. After the first hour is up, I turn the oven off, but leave the herbs in overnight. The next day, I destem them and pack the now-dried herbs away in jars. If you have a gas stove, you could follow my mom’s method and just use the heat of the pilot light. Sadly, my electric oven precludes that practice.

This method works wonderfully for leafy herbs like oregano, thyme, mint and even basil. Rosemary doesn’t fair as well and dill gets crispy too fast (that’s one that I still hang to dry, I just do it in a closet instead of my kitchen).

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Israeli salt from my sister

Israeli salt

Back in January, my younger sister Raina went off on one of those birthright trips to Israel. Before she left, she asked if there was anything she could bring back for me. Never having been to Israel and uncertain about the specialties of the country, I asked for the first thing that popped into my head. Salt. I’m not exactly sure why I thought Israel was a destination for good salt, but off she flew, determined to bring me back some salt.

Raina’s been on tour lately and pulled into Philly late Saturday night, with another musician named Rebecca, a car full of dirty laundry and a plastic take-out container filled with salt, tied up in a small plastic grocery bag. As she handed it over, she apologized, explaining that she didn’t think it was particularly good salt, but it was the best she had been able to find. On one of the last days of the trip, they had gone to an open air market. One man had a table, set with various containers of spices, herbs and finally, salt. The merchant hadn’t spoken any English, but a couple standing next to her helped with the bargaining and she ended up spending the equivalent of $3 American for the squat tub of salt.

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Even before I opened it, I told her that more than anything, I appreciated the simple fact that she had kept me in mind while traveling and had added weight to her suitcase with my request. Then I pulled the lid off the container and encountered the most gorgeous, moist, perfect grey salt. I ran to the kitchen and pulled down the jar where I’ve kept my stash of precious grey salt, purchased in a 12 ounce bag for a ridiculous sum. Showing them to her side-by-side, I explained just how well she had done by her foodie sister. She grinned and gave me a hug. I love both my sister and my new supply of Israeli grey salt.

side-by-side-salts

I’ve done some internet searching, and haven’t been able to find out much about salt production in Israel. For all I know, this is French grey salt, imported to the Middle East and then repackaged for sale. If anyone knows more, I’d be happy to be informed!

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