Dried herbs make gifts to be savored year-round

Successful herb growers have always preserved their fragrant harvests to share at gift-giving time. Even if your busy schedule precludes your making traditional potpourri and sachet, you can still give collections of delectable cooking herbs. Such home-grown and -dried assortments, customized to the recipients' interests or situations, will make welcome gifts, to be savored throughout the year.

A basic assortment of sweet basil, dill, marjoram, parsley, and sage would be ideal for the young single or couple setting up their first kitchen. For the chef who loves to cook Italian, add oregano and rosemary to your sweet basil, parsley, and sage.

The whole project can be completed easily in the three months between harvest and holidays, and requires more planning and imagination than money.

You will need: (1) well-timed herb harvests; (2) careful drying and storing of herbs; and (3) attractive containers for packaging, with tight-fitting lids. Start right away to assemble collections of small tins or glass bottles or jars of the spice-rack variety. These might be recycled from your kitchen or storage area, selected at whatever prices suit your budget at garage sales, or found in the housewares department in variety or department stores.

You will also need jar labels, perhaps of your own design.

Warm, dry conditions are ideal for drying herbs. To harvest and dry herbs in quantity, start in late summer, if possible, before seasonal changes bring chill and dampness.

An early start will also allow time for several leisurely harvesting sessions , starting with tender herbs - sweet basil, for instance - which will not survive even a touch of frost. These can be cut back to the ground.

Harvest tarragon, rosemary, and sweet marjoram early, as well, before turning to the hardier plants, such as parsley, chives, oregano, sage, and thyme. Don't cut these back as severely, however.

The best time to cut most leafy herbs is immediately before flowering; that is, when the buds first start to open. This is when the flavor and aroma, which you want to preserve, are at their best.

Harvest herbs for seed as seed heads become ripe and start to dry naturally. Select a warm, sunny morning and wait until the dew has dried. It is important that you get busy with your harvest before the fragrant volatile oils evaporate. If the herbs seem mud-spattered, hose them gently with cool water the evening before.

To dry cooking herbs, tie the cut stalks with string loosely in small bunches and hang upside down, out of direct sunlight, in a warm, dry place with good ventilation - such as an uncrowded closet with the door left ajar, or the dark corner of a north-facing room. Suspend the bunches from coat hangers at varying heights for best air circulation.

To catch the falling seed of dill, etc., enclose the drying seed heads in brown paper bags. (You can also dry herbs in a dehydrator or microwave oven by following the manufacturer's instructions.)

After 3 to 10 days, herbs should be dry, crisp, and crackly.

Then it is time to strip the stems, crumble the leaves roughly, and shake off the seeds. Until you locate gift containers, temporary storage in clean, wide-mouthed mayonnaise jars will work well. During the first few days in storage, check to be sure that no moisture condenses on the inside of the jars or lids.

If it does, finish the air-drying by spreading the crumbled leaves in single layers on trays or screens for several more days. Or you can oven-dry them at a very low setting, watching them closely, and then cool thoroughly before storing again.

It may be easiest to tray-dry sprigs of small herbs in the first place, such as chamomile, sweet marjoram, rosemary, and thyme. Since they become discolored easily, oven-drying of basil, chives, and parsley is often recommended.

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