Infusing with Extracts

My garden is producing the most abundant aromas with basil, oregano and mint taking over whole rows. I live alone and don’t cook as often as I’d like, but these restorative beauties can’t just go to the compost! What to do?

The ways to preserve plant flavors are as varied as traditions in cuisine. Alcohol, vinegar and oil are the time-honored vehicles for preserving foods, because they are all inhospitable to the growth of bacteria—as long as cleanliness and temperature are kept in mind (and thus the reason that simple refrigeration or freezing is usually the first option for preservation). The right choice to get the most from your abundance depends on what you plan to do with the preserved flavors and aromas. If you’re planning to make pesto all year, for example, you’ll probably want to freeze fresh basil in an oil suspension. And if you’re going to make mojitos, then perhaps you want to try an alcohol extraction for the lime.

The human tongue has taste receptors that have specialized categories of perception: saltiness, acidity, sweetness, bitterness and umami, as well as two enhancer-type receptors for MSG and fats. To preserve a flavor, think about the delivery mechanism and where the flavor will register. If you can multiply the channels of distribution, the overall effect will be increased. For example, I make an orange-infused olive oil by extracting the oil of the orange rind and infusing it into olive oil. I also make a white balsamic vinegar infused with orange. Either component, oil or balsamic vinegar, delivers a delicious orange aroma and flavor, but when they are combined—as in a dressing for salad, for example—many more taste buds get involved and the perception of “orangeness” increases dramatically. 

Alcohol extraction is also easy and very rewarding. When my oregano begged for attention, I packed a jar full of crushed, fresh oregano leaves, filled in the spaces with Tito’s Vodka, shook it several times every day for a week then removed the leaves. The resulting extract smelled heavenly, so I made a tomato-oregano sorbet. This alcohol extraction method is good for any fresh herb, fruit or spice, from mint to vanilla beans. 

And then there’s infused water to add to your culinary arsenal. A week after I made the oregano-infused oil, I had more oregano, more mint and more basil to use. I removed the leaves from the stems, blanched the leaves in separate batches (though I used the same boiling water) for 30 seconds each, removed the now-vivid greens to a strainer in an ice bath to stop the cooking process then pureed the individual leaf batches with some great Texas olive oil in a small food processor. I put the different mashes into the compartments of an ice-cube tray and threw it in the freezer to use for future recipes. When I was finished, I had an incredibly aromatic pot of herb-infused water, which I couldn’t let go to waste! I made a pot of farro using the herbed water instead of plain water. It was transcendental, served up with seared okra from the same garden.

By Karen Lee