From Tinctures to Pesto: Five Easy Ways to Use Your Herb Garden

Green thumbs everywhere know having your own herb garden is a culinary gem. If you don't have one and want to learn how to start your own garden, check out our past blog post about urban gardening.

Herbs can be used in endless ways. Here are five easy recipes to use the aromatics from your back yard every day. We know, it's very Martha Stewart of us.

5. Herbal oil infusions: Herbal oil infusions are great for marinades, salad dressings, and seasonings when used alone.

The first rule with herb-infused oils is to make sure there is no moisture on the plant, because moisture generates mold. Mold will also grow if oil isn't filled to the top of the container.

Now that we've taken care of the safety issue, let's get down to business. Using a light, tasteless oil (such as canola) is better than olive oil, which tends to go rancid faster. Take a good handful of whatever herb you prefer; if there is any dirt on it, brush it off with a dry brush. Plunk the herbs into an empty cruet (oil dispenser) -- we found some on Amazon for $12 -- and then fill it completely with oil. The flavor will peak at six weeks and will be good for two months (one month if using olive oil).

4. Simple syrups flavored by herbs: These syrups can be used in cocktails, fruit juices, or even on a choice cut of meat. The technique and ingredients are the same as the oil infusions, but instead of immersing the herbs in oil, use a simple sugar syrup instead.

Simple syrup is made of equal parts water and sugar. To make the simple syrup, place a cup of water and sugar in a medium sauce pan, stir until the sugar dissolves, and then allow it to bubble over medium heat for about five minutes to thicken it slightly.

With herb-flavored simple syrups, you can either add the herbs into the syrup while it's bubbling or place them in the container you'll use to store the syrup. Either way, you'll end up with an inspired ingredient you can use many ways. We love to make lemongrass syrup to drizzle on ginger-vanilla ice cream and to add to our lemongrass mint julep.

3. Bouquet garni (herb bouquet): A bouquet garni is French for "garnished bouquet" and is essentially a bundle of herbs tied with string and used in stocks and stews to add flavor, but removed prior to serving.

An excellent way to use a bouquet garni is in a consommé. Simply tie any variety of herbs you like and add the bouquet to three cups of your desired simmering stock, one pound of ground meat (any kind will do), and two cups of mirepoix (chopped carrots, celery, and onions). Allow to reduce by half and remove the "raft" that forms on top, leaving an intense broth that can be served on its own or used to flavor risotto, rice, pasta, and whatever else you can think of.

Out of all the easy ways to use the herbs from your garden, this is the most versatile. Don't forget to share the wealth -- these little bundles make nice gifts and plate decorations.

2. Herb medley pesto: Ah, yes, welcome back to the familiar. Pesto we've heard of, are in tune with, and have seen made countless times by Giada De Laurentiis. One thing we have learned from venturing outside the Food Network/Cooking Channel arena is the multitude of creative ways to make pesto unique with each batch.

Create any pesto following this simple guide:

Herb Medley Pesto
2 cups freshly picked herb(s)
1/4 cup cheese (whichever you like)
1/4 cup nuts
1/4 cup oil
3 tablespoons garlic (or chive, scallion, shallot, etc.)
1 tablespoon acid (citrus juice, vinegar, what have you)

Voila! You have a certified pesto recipe for whatever you have on hand.

1. Herb extracts (also called tinctures): We've used herbs to flavor oils and simple syrups. Now all that's left is to infuse them into alcohol!

The rules are the same: Fill a container with the requisite herbs and drown to completely submerge the plant material with a clean spirit (we suggest vodka). A good ratio for dried herbs is one part herb to five parts alcohol, and one part fresh herbs to three parts alcohol. Allow to sit in a dark place for four to six weeks. Then strain the herbs from the alcohol and replace into a pouring container for usage. We even have a nice recipe for a cordial.

Cordials are strong alcoholic beverages made with neutral spirits and flavored with fruits, culinary herbs, and spices. Now that we have our herb-flavored simple syrup, as well as our herb
extract, we can mix the two to make a drink!

Herb Tincture Tonic
2 fluid ounces (a double-shot's worth) herb extract
6 fluid ounces herb-infused syrup
1 ounce citrus juice
4 ounces seltzer or soda
crushed ice

Place all the ingredients in a glass, stir, and you are good to go.

Take from this list what you like, and use these tips to put your garden to good use. Now you know five new ways to use herbs instead of chopping them up and throwing them on top of pasta and calling it Italian. You know you're so much better than that.

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