Last week I shared some tips on how to keep your herbs fresh for longer. It's all well and good to keep them around, but hardly worth it if they languish in your fridge for a couple of weeks. Here are my favorite tricks for using up those last couple inches of chives and that final sprig of basil that just won't go away.
Infuse, Infuse, Infuse
Sure, you can freeze herbs and put them in a time capsule. Or you can make them work for you by amping up the flavor of oils, vinegars, syrups, honeys, and alcohol. The process is almost the same for chile infusions. Just make sure your herbs have been washed and dried very thoroughly. Do note that there is a slight risk for bacterial critters to take up residence in these infusions, so either use them quickly or carefully follow sterilization instructions.
For alcohols specifically, neutral-flavored vodka is an obvious choice (just add your herbs to the bottle), but there's no need to stop there. Limoncello loves a hit of thyme, and bourbon does quite nicely with mint and basil.
If there's any downside to these infusions, it's that they can take up lots of room. Sure, that vial of tarragon vinegar is small, but wait till it's joined by basil honey and cilantro oil. But in terms of problems to have, it's a good one, and it'll reward your creative thinking later to use them up. Besides, huge, overburdened pantries—like bowties and fezzes—are cool.
Blend Herbs with Dairy
Dairy and herbs are a match made in heaven, and a little goes a long way. The easiest and most well-known trick is a compound butter, in which minced herbs are stirred into softened butter. Fresh herbs will keep for weeks this way, and a couple tablespoons per quarter-pound of butter is plenty.
Pastries are another great vehicle for herbage. If you have puff pastry and cream cheese (or fresh goat cheese in a pinch) lying around, this week's recipe is a cinch. Just roll out the puff pastry, spread on some cream cheese, and sprinkle on whatever herbs you'd like/need to get rid of (I'm partial to dill and chives here). The pastry can then be rolled and chilled, ready to slice and bake into pinwheels whenever you need them. I'm also fond of some herbs in savory scones and tart crusts—try slipping some finely chopped basil into the crust of a strawberry pie.
But by far my favorite dairy-herb combination is a cheese confit: cheese soaked in olive oil, steeped with herbs and spices. Chevre, mozzerella, and feta are the clear choices here. Cut the cheese into bite-size pieces and blend with a mess of herbs—anything goes here—and cover with stellar olive oil. If you're feeling daring, add some crushed dried chile, garlic, and cumin seeds to the mix. Let the confit sit overnight in the refrigerator, and serve the next day to an adoring public.
Herbs are obvious salad ingredients, but they get really fun when they become the main ingredient. My inspiration is a Chinese herb salad, lao hu cai, translated as "tiger vegetable salad," a pungent mix of cilantro, chiles, and scallions, soused in black vinegar and sesame oil. It's a punchy salad, but ridiculously refreshing, and is very kind to less-than-stellar herbs.
Herb salads are easy to put together. Try mixing parsley, minced garlic, and orange zest; or cilantro, mint, and paper-thin shavings of ginger. Dress them simply and pair them with powerful ingredients that can stand up to raw herbs. Whether eaten atop a main course or served as a side, they add considerable brightness to any dish.
These suggestions only scratch the surface of tricks to use up herbs. How do you finish off your surplus?