Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On Saving Money: Herbs

Hey, everyone! I'm back. I needed to take a break from blogging and rethink what my blog would encompass, thematic units, etc. Sorry for the lack of warning!

Doubtless that you've noticed the price of groceries going up. I read somewhere that they've gone up 10% in the last year. That seems kind of low to me, but maybe it's just the things that I use that really have gone up, like tomato sauce. I mean, I used to get an 8-oz can for a quarter on sale, now it's $0.59? Yikes.

Have you noticed the price of herbs and spices going up as well? What's a jar of rosemary these days? $5? $7? And the color! Palest gray-green. It doesn't look appetizing to me at all. They've totally over-dried it at such a high temperature, there are hardly any essential oils left in it. You have to use half a bottle just to get a taste.

For half the price, you can buy a plant. Sage, thyme, and oregano are hardy plants that can provide you with fresh herbs year-round. They make excellent bedding plants, whether in the herb garden or in a mixed border. No garden? No problem, they make fine potted plants for the balcony or windowsill. Give them lots of light, and not too much water. Oregano can take a little more water, and a little less light. When you need a sprig for your pot of soup, just snip a bit off the plant and enjoy.

Rosemary is trickier for those in cold climates. 'Tuscan Blue' is hardy down to about 20 degrees at my house. Every two or three winters it gets too cold and my plant dies. For colder areas, growing it in a pot and bringing it indoors for the winter would work best. Again, keep it on the dry side, or, if you're prone to over-watering, use very well-drained potting soil.

In May and June, just before the plants flower, my kitchen turns into a drying house. In the morning, after the dew has dried, I go out with a trug and cut down one variety of herb at a time. Leaving about four inches of plant, I shear down my oregano and thyme. Sage and rosemary I'll take individual branches of. A quick rinse in the sink, and a brisk shake to get rid of dead leaves and creepy crawlies, I bundle the herbs, wrapping the stems with a rubber band, making sure that my bundle of stems is no larger than 1/2 inch (too many stems leads to rot). I have a pot rack hanging from the ceiling, and making S-hooks from large paper clips, I hook one end into the rubber band, and the other over the pot rack. At my old house, I made hooks from straight pins, pressed into the joints under the kitchen cupboards. You could also hang them from an indoor clothes rack. Use your imagination! You just don't want them in direct light, or over something that produces a lot of heat.

In a couple of weeks, the herbs will crispy, but still green, and because no heat was used, still full of essential oils. Over a very large bowl, or towels laid out on the counter, strip the leaves from the stems. Usually it works best to rub it "the wrong way". Pick out any off-color leaves and stems. Then, pack in jars.

Honestly, go easy when you first use your home-grown, home-dried herbs. They are so much more flavorful!

Other herbs work well, too. Marjoram and basil are annuals, so you would plant, grow, and then harvest before frost. Basil is very watery, and takes forever to dry. Use small bunches here. I have chives from the garden from March until October. I don't care for dried chives, so I've never tried. If I wanted them in winter I could bring in a clump (they're bulbs) in a pot. I also grow caraway, fennel, parsley and sweet bay. The latter is best grown in a pot in colder climates than my USDA zone 7b/8a garden.

So a quick way to save money on your grocery bills would be to start growing your own herbs. I figure that I save at least $75 a year on herbs, and home grown herbs taste so much better, too!

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