Too much thyme on my hands

My herb garden grew like crazy this year and, unwilling to see all that fresh fragrant beauty go to waste, I decided to try my hand at drying some of the more prolific plants. Namely, thyme and rosemary.

I tried to oven-dry some herbs a couple years ago, which ended up being a lot of effort for very little result. This go-round, I’m taking the lazy route and just hanging the herbs in my kitchen to dry organically.

drying thyme

It’s a pretty easy process, really. Rinse your herbs and dry them completely, then strip the lower two inches of the stems and tie together in small bouquets. Hang in a dry, airy spot out of direct sunlight and wait for the magic to happen. When they’re completely dry (10 days to two weeks from what I reckon), crumble them free from the stems and store in an airtight glass jar. Penzey’s Spices sells them in several sizes if you’re looking.

rosemary bundles

The online how-to guides I found were split on whether to cover each bunch with a brown paper bag or not to keep them free from dust. I decided not. We keep our house clean and, with any luck, the herbs won’t be hanging around long enough for spiders to nest in them.

My little bundles already smell yummy and they look adorable in my kitchen, adding a nice rustic touch. I’ll keep an eye on them and in a couple weeks, should be stocked up with enough seasoning to see us through the weekly Sunday roast tradition we’re planning to initiate this winter.

Garden variety

Nothing says summer like a just-picked vine-ripened tomato still warm from the sun, sliced, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with a little coarse salt and dressed up with a few leaves of fresh basil. To my palate, this simple pleasure tastes like sunshine on a plate.

Yesterday, I got my tomato plants into the garden and am crossing my fingers that they “take.” Each year around my birthday in March, I start getting antsy to get my hands dirty and get some seeds going. By the time the last frost date rolls around, my starts have usually gotten so big, they’re taking suicide leaps off the windowsill.

windowsill tomatoes

This year’s batch is a little leggy, but I think once they get outside for some fresh air, sun and rain, they’ll be just fine. My garden tomatoes have been hit or miss the past few years. The first year I planted them, they were GORGEOUS. Seriously, they were so pretty, my neighbor said they could have been used in a magazine layout. And they tasted great. The next year? The few late bloomers I was able to harvest didn’t have much flavor, I’m sad to say. Not sure what makes such a big difference in them year to year when I use the same starting methods and the same garden patch.

For my 2011 crop, I’ve got beefsteaks, cherry tomatoes and something called German tomatoes. One of my dad’s friends in Richmond got me hooked on those last year – he’d come across them somewhere and cultivated them in his own garden because they are a low-acid variation. They’re kind of strange to look at (they’re actually kind of ugly, truth be told), slightly bigger than Romas and almost square in shape. The first one I sliced into almost resembled salami inside, and I thought “Hm. Okaaaaaay…” My expectations weren’t high, and then I took a bite. For as weird as they look, these little gems pack a mighty punch of juicy summer tomato flavor. My dad and I went back several times for more, and I kept some of the seeds to try for myself this year. So far, so good. Can’t wait to see how they get along in my own backyard.

In addition to tomatoes, I have a ledge at the back of my driveway that has turned into a pretty kick-ass perennial herb garden. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, and then some. One of my favorite things to do in season is to stroll out there, specially devoted herb scissors in hand, and cut a veritable bouquet of sprigs to use in my cooking. Not to brag, but I make a mean mixed-herb pesto.

the ledge o' herbs

Here’s what I’ve learned about herb gardening – oregano, parsley and chives grow like crazy without much attention. I love fresh dill and cilantro, but they’re really not worth the effort it takes to garner a small useable amount. Still trying to figure out what it is that keeps eating little holes in my basil.

So, plants are in. Now we wait. Bring on the Caprese.

Crocks rock

Have I ever mentioned how much I love my crockpot?

After years of being relegated to shelves and pantries, crockpots are coming out of the closets and seem to be experiencing a resurgence in popularity, with good reason. You put some meat and veg in there, pop the lid on, turn it to high and leave it alone. Several hours later, you open it up and voila. Dinner. It’s like magic!

My dad gave me my crockpot years and years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, I believe. I never used it. It sat alone and forlorn, gathering dust in a cupboard for ages. Oh, I may have used it once or twice for BBQ cocktail weenies at parties and such, but certainly not with any regularity. It wasn’t until after I got married that I decided to haul it out and do some experimenting. I could have kicked myself when I quickly realized what I’d been missing out on all that time.

Hubby and I were living in Sonoma at the time, where there is certainly no shortage of delicious meat and produce year-round. The first thing I recall making in the crockpot was a boneless leg of lamb for one of hubby’s work colleagues and his wife who were coming over for dinner that night. We had a huge rosemary bush growing just outside our back door, so I snipped a few sprigs to throw in, along with a few slivers of garlic tucked into the meat and a drizzle of olive oil. I turned the crockpot on and we went out to run errands.

When we got back to the house several hours later and opened the door, the aroma coming out of the kitchen was absolutely intoxicating. When I later went to lift the lamb out of the savory jus, it was so tender, it fell into chunks as I laid it ever so gently onto the serving platter. Needless to say, it was delicious. The meal even inspired our guests to unearth their own crockpot and rev it up.

Over the next few months, my crockpot saw a lot of action as I played around with various recipes. I even put it to use for Thanksgiving – Cornish game hens stuffed with orange wedges and more of that delicious rosemary.

Now, when the weather turns chilly and I’m trying to decide what to make for dinner, my thoughts immediately turn to my crockpot. It’s the perfect vessel for comfort food on a cold snowy night – pulled pork, turkey chili, beef stew and pot roast are all ideal crockpot meals. Most recently, I used it to turn out a yummy pepper steak/goulash recipe courtesy of hubby’s cousin Noreen in Canada.

Seriously, crockpot cooking couldn’t be easier, and it all but guarantees that any meat you use will come out meltingly tender and juicy. The secret for the best flavor is to brown your meat first before you put it in the pot. Take a tip from Julia Child – dry your meat very well with paper towels, then brown it quickly in a pan with a little nearly smoking-hot oil over high heat. Transfer it to your crockpot, then deglaze your pan with a little bit of wine, stock or even water. Make sure to scrape up all the browned bits stuck on the bottom of the pan; that’s the good stuff. Pour all that yumminess into the crockpot as well. Your stews and roasts will thank you, trust me.

If you’ve got a crockpot languishing away forgotten somewhere in the depths of a closet or on a basement shelf, I urge you to wash it up and get reacquainted. I’ll even get you started – here are a few of my fave crockpot recipes to try for yourself:
Pasta e Fagioli

3 or 4 slices of bacon or proscuitto
2 Italian sausages, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 bay leaves
½ tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. dried basil and/or oregano
a few sprinkles of hot red pepper flakes
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ medium onion, chopped
1  14.5 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup water
1 cup of your favorite small pasta (ditalini, orzo, mini-farfalle)
1 wedge of parmesan cheese for grating

In a skillet, brown the bacon or proscuitto and sausage slices in a little olive oil and then transfer to the crockpot. Add the beans, tomatoes, seasonings, onion, garlic, chicken stock and water. Grate the parmesan cheese, save the grated cheese for garnishing and add the rind to the pot for extra flavor. Cook on low for about 4 or 5 hours or high for 2 to 2 ½ hours. Add the
pasta, stir into the pot and cover for another 20 to 30 minutes on low. (Can add another cup of water here if it’s too thick.) When pasta is cooked, the soup is ready to serve. Remove bay leaves and parmesan rind before eating. Salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil, top with grated cheese and serve with crusty bread for dipping.

Crockpot Roast Lamb

4 to 5 pound boneless leg of lamb, or whatever size will comfortably fit in your crock pot
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
about 5 cloves fresh garlic, cut into slivers
olive oil
salt and pepper

Open up the lamb and cut small slits throughout, stuffing with alternately garlic slivers and small pieces of rosemary. When lamb is sufficiently stuffed (use as much or as little garlic and rosemary as you like), rub lightly with olive oil and salt and pepper both sides.

Fold lamb up to fit into crock pot. Pour in about ½ c. of water. Cook on high for 3 to 4 hours or low for 6 to 7 hours. It will smell awesome and literally fall apart into tender chunks as you take it out of the crock pot.