Herbs – every cook’s real secret

To cook without herbs is to eat food that has no character. I remember how my grandma always looked keenly at the spread on the table and went – ‘where is the cilantro?’, in between disapproving nods to the cook in question. We Indians need our dhaniya patta (cilantro) in everything! Cilantro is to India what basil is to Italy. If fresh green sprigs of cilantro are not seen floating in our curries, yoghurt raitas and lentils, then the mood is instantly put off.

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There have been times when my mum runs to the refrigerator, gets the cilantro out, washes and chops it frantically while yelling at my dad to keep his hands off the food till she’s back. Classic dining table situation!

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So it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when I became the crazy herb lady. Finding paramount satisfaction in cooking for people and spreading love with food, I began experimenting with different cuisines and alternative cooking styles very early on. Consumed with the ‘locavore movement’ (eat local, think global), I always wanted to grow my own herbs. I tried but didn’t do very well. Living in a flat made it a huge challenge – controlling sunlight and weather conditions, and the obvious space constraints made it an impossible task.

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So I settled for the next best thing. Bought the freshest herbs I could find and dried them so I could use them anytime. The basic question here would be – why dry when you can use fresh? Unfortunately, fresh herbs (especially those that are not used in everyday Indian cooking) are not easily available in India yet. You find them in urban gourmet stores, but not in smaller towns (where I tend to generally reside considering my husband is in the IAF and we move every other year). Buying dried herbs off the shelves is absolutely insufferable to me. They lack flavour and that’s all you really want in a herb, right?

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I dry my herbs every couple of months (quarterly), just so I always have a fresh stash ready. I also tend to lend them to every possible neighbour, friend-learning-to-cook, or to amused family members. Drying your own herbs is dead easy and takes no time or effort. You simply need to ensure that you preserve the flavours, and allow them to dry rather than rot.

In a few simple steps, get pro at herb-drying. Here goes!

Cleaning

Wash the herbs very gently in room temperature water. Ideally, place them in a small bowl of water for 5-10 min , run your hands gently through the water and keep aside. Allow the mud particles to settle at the bottom and with a lot of TLC, take the washed herbs out and place them on a clean kitchen towel.

Folding the kitchen towel in half (with the herbs in between) gently press to remove excess water. Dry as much as possible. No wringing and squashing please.

If you are drying multiple herbs, you may have to repeat this step several times. Don’t wash all the herbs together, their flavours will mix with one another.

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Drying

Find a place in your home which receives bright, indirect sunlight through the day (like a window sill); and a place where there’s no breeze – natural or otherwise (fan, air-conditioning/heating vents etc).

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Lay some newspaper. Place the herbs on the newspaper, separating the sprigs as much as possible without tugging at the leaves. Place different herbs next to one another, without mixing them. Now, wait patiently while the sun does your job for you.

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Waiting

Keep a watch on your herbs. Ensure that they are drying not rotting. If some sprigs seem to be rotting, then carefully take them out. Turn the herbs around every couple of days so they dry evenly.

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Autumn (in India) would be an ideal time to do something like this. That way, you don’t have to worry about rainy humid weather, extreme hot temperatures or extreme temperature variation between day and night.

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Storing

Unless you live in a really humid place, you don’t need air tight containers for storage. In fact, glass jars are the best for storing herbs. Have your jars washed and 100 percent dried before you place your herbs in it. You could store herbs whole (along with the stems) or save the leaves alone. While doing so, don’t contain the urge to scrunch a tiny herb sprig in your palms and savour the fragrance. Then, place them in a cool, dry place.

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Use chalkboard stickers to label your herbs. Herbs are not only priceless in the value they add to your food, but can also serve as kitchen shelf eye-candy. Earthy and aesthetic, your guests are going to marvel at these babies sitting pretty on your kitchen rack.

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DIY projects are always a leap into the unknown – a great way to explore your skills, expand your horizons, learn and grow.

Until next time, DIY the hell out of whatever you can get your hands on. Send me inspiration in the comments down below. AND, Keep me in your thoughts when you are gorging on that home-made Caprese pizza with the dried basil. Amen.

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