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Herbal Teas and Vinegars

The end of the summer gardening season is bittersweet, but has its own rewards. This is the month that almost all kitchen herbs are producing in abundance, ready to snip in big bunches whenever you feel like enjoying them in the kitchen. Here are some of the best ways to utilize their bright herbal flavors and perfumes.

Fresh Herbal Teas
If you like the pleasant soothing lift of a good herbal tea, late summer is a great time to start making your own blends. It's fun to experiment with different combinations of tea herbs and you're sure to find delicious mixes that suit your own taste buds perfectly. I also enjoy combining different blends of black teas with fresh tea herbs if  I'm in the mood for a caffeinated pick me up, especially in the late afternoon.  Good tea herbs include all the mints, chamomile, scented basils, bee balm, bronze fennel, anise hyssop, lemon verbena and lemon balm.

To make a good herbal tea, start with 2-3 tablespoons of coarsely chopped fresh herb leaf for each cup of tea. Put the leaves into a warmed teapot, then cover with freshly boiled water, figuring a cup is 6 ounces. Let the tea steep for several minutes to release the essential flavors from the leaves. Serve with honey. I also vary the flavors by adding 3 or 4 orange slices to the pot, 1 whole clove, or you can pour out the fragrant teas into tall glasses and serve with peppermint or clove or cinnamon candy sticks as sweet stirrers. Make great herb iced tea drinks by brewing extra strong hot tea and then pouring it over ice cubes made from your favorite fruit juices. Garnish with fresh strawberries or slices of pineapple or orange and lemon to make the chilled glasses even more inviting. Experiment with different tea leaf mixtures. I find a mix of peppermint and chamomile especially delicious and also enjoy fennel, lemon and candied ginger root steeped together. Tropical fruit juices are lovely combined with mint tea as are the leaves of scented geraniums.

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Try these great recipes from
Renee's cookbooks:

 

Scented Basil Vinegar Chicken
Herb Jellies

Herbal Vinegars
Mild, fragrant herbal vinegars are wonderfully versatile condiments to have at hand. Besides using them in salads of all kinds, I splash a little into the sauté pan after cooking chicken breasts or fish fillets and use them to deglaze a pan. These vinegars are also a great no-fat way to season steamed veggies like green beans, kale or brussels sprouts.  Mix it together with a good olive oil, or to brighten potato, rice, or pasta salads.

My favorite herbs for making vinegar are all the various basils, dill, rosemary, oregano, tarragon, lemon balm, lemon thyme, garlic chives and peppery bright nasturtium flowers.  I also relish vinegar seasoned with a combination of garlic cloves, rosemary, and little hot chiles. If put up at the end of the summer season, the bottles with their tinted contents make handsome holiday presents, especially if you make several kinds. I usually try to make different kinds of scented basil vinegars because their pretty colors compliment their flavor so handsomely; cinnamon basil vinegar is a soft pink, lemon basil vinegar is champagne color, and opal basil is a deep rich garnet hue. Similarly, nasturtium vinegar has a warm and brilliant bronzy-red color.

To make herbal vinegar, I prefer to use rice wine vinegar as a base to steep the leaves. Other vinegars including wine vinegars, plain distilled vinegar or cider vinegar are often suggested, but I find their strong flavors overwhelm the aromatic herbs. Be sure to use unseasoned rice wine vinegar. If you have a supermarket or discount store that stocks Asian style products, finding it in bulk should be easy. If you cannot obtain rice vinegar, use a mild flavored white wine vinegar in its place.

Pack a 1 quart to 1 gallon plastic or glass jar with rinsed and air dried leaves, stems, or branches of fresh herbs (stalks and flowers are ok--no need to separate). Fill up the jar with rice or wine vinegar that has been heated almost to a boil. Cover with plastic wrap and lid and store in a cool dark place to steep and infuse for 2 weeks to a month. Then uncover and strain the well-flavored finished vinegar through cheesecloth into smaller decorative jars or clean wine bottles. If desired and available, put a fresh sprig of the herb you made the vinegar from into each small bottle before you pour in the vinegar for a finishing touch.

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