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Herbes De Provence, Holiday Gifting from Your Garden

January 26th, 2009 by Temple City Tribune

Dear Garden Gal,
With the economy in the tank is it too late for an edible gift I can grow for friends and family this holiday season?

Yours Truly,
Careful in La Cañada

Dear Careful,
Even in the best economic times, this is a good way to think. You are being careful whilst being generous of your time and talents. And even if we’ve all heard it till we want to scream, giving a thoughtful gift shows you care and how unbeatably cool is that?
Try this on for size: home grown dried rosemary. It’s easy, it smells fantastic as you prepare it and each time it’s used. And with a couple of handy recipes you can encourage your recipient to use herbs liberally. Ideally, you want to use them up within six months as they lose potency after too long on the shelf.
Just today I was practicing my annual ritual. Not shaving, no matter what my husband tells you. No, The Cleaning of the Pantry, in preparation for the bounty of the New Year. This is a superstition that reinforces my speculation that if we use all the foodstuffs we’ve stockpiled over the year, well, we’ve planned well and not wasted. The chimera may be the hope that, therefore, we will have plentiful foods, condiments and spices in the coming year. So far the notion has worked, which probably has more to do with living in a developed country than any wishful thinking.
That said, today was the day to pre-cook barley for salads and soups for the week and rice pilaf for tonight’s dinner. My spice of choice: last winter’s rosemary. I was happy to note I’m down to ¼ cup after starting the year with 10 cups of dried, ground rosemary.
Rosemary is one of the simplest of herbs to dry and one of the most versatile for roasting, grilled, marinating, for soups, stews and the most awesome onion tart, one of the first recipes I learned as a young adult, this from a French Algerian friend. I dare you not to love it. It’s simple and delicious. With a green salad and a glass of white wine, it’s dinner.

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Cheese and Onion Tart

5 large onions, yellow or white, sliced thin
butter for browning the onions
2 cups grated Gruyère cheese or Monterey Jack if you must
2 T dried rosemary
1 T dried thyme
2 ounces cooking sherry or white wine if all else fails
1 deep dish frozen pie shell

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Brown the onions, rosemary and thyme in butter over low heat until the onions are soft and the herbs are fragrant, about 15 minutes.
3. Add the sherry and mix well.
4. Pour onion mixture into uncooked pie shell.
5. Add cheese to the top of the onion mixture.
6. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until crust and cheese are golden brown. Cool before serving.

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Back to our trusted friend, rosemary. Now that we’re close to the dead of winter (estimated in Southern California at January 15) our perennials have stored carbohydrates for their long nap during months of cold nights. It is now safe to cut upright or prostrate rosemary back, but no more than 1/3 of its height and width. More than that is stressful for plants.
Tip back, rinse your cuttings, and put the whole branches on cookie sheets into a very low oven, around 250 degrees. Keep your eye on them as they dry for an hour or two. You don’t want them to toast brown, just get a bit brittle while retaining their pea green cast.
When crackly, take them out of the over and run your fingers up and down each branch, scrunching the crispy leaves into a big work bowl. Pick over the dried leaves to remove obvious branchlets. Save the branches for barbeque kebab sticks, or add them to the firepit or grille for a smoky fragrance. They are resinous, so don’t use them in fireplaces with chimneys. You want clean burning hard woods in there so you don’t accumulate a lot of sappy gunk, and that’s the scientific name, on the inside of your chimney. Pain in the next to clean!
Grind your oven dried rosemary in a coffee grinder or the bowl of a Cuisinart. Package into Ziploc bags or into small Mason jars. A simple ribbon will dress up your herbs for holiday giving.
If you want to go all out, make your own herbes de Provence, a swanky Mediterranean France herb combination popularized in the 1970s. Little jars of these blends sell for almost $10 per ounce at Williams Sonoma. Truly. $16.50 for 1.75 ounces, in a cute little crock pot, but still, whoa, I can think of very few herbs worth $10 an ounce.

Make your own blend with the herbs you’re growing: marjoram, bay leaf, thyme, and it’s a bit late for basil so pick this up dried at the Good Foods Market. If you have any lavender flowers (leaves will do, too) left over from the summer flush add these, and use a light hand with sage. All can be dried in a slow oven, picked over by hand and crushed with mortar and pestle. Or with contents inside of a baggie or brown paper bag, crushed with a rolling pin. Or back into the Cuisinart or coffee bean grinder, depending upon how fine you like your herbs.
If you just don’t have it in you to do all this drying and crushing, you can always hot foot it to any Armenian market where grilling herbs are usually sold. Or try Nicole’s Gourmet Food Store, 921 Meridian Avenue in
South Pasadena. She has a jumbo bag of herbes de Provence ready for dividing into pretty little jars for favorite cooks and food lovers on your list.

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