I believe in year-round gardening and farming, fingers crossed. Even though I live in a climate on the east coast of the U.S. where we get hard freezes and snow, I am always optimistic about the possibilities. In previous years, when winters were mild, I was able to keep kale and sometimes chard going all year round in the ground, in good enough shape for an occasional harvest. This year, they’re out there but buried under a foot of frozen leaves, hoping for a head start in early spring. So now I am relying on pots, some inside and some outside in a protected area. (Maybe we’ll try low tunnels next year.)
Before we dug up the only partially sunny part of our lawn to make a potager or kitchen garden, I grew food exclusively in pots. Mostly herbs, but also hot peppers, and climbing peas and beans. This is the first year that I brought the pepper plants indoors and they’re loving their sunny window, producing flowers and more hot peppers than we can use fresh. (Canning and pickling from indoor plants would be a novel idea.) The potted ginger came in too and I’ve been digging out little hunks of ginger root all winter.
But then there are the perennial woody herbs that stayed outside and became freeze-dried: rosemary, several varieties of thyme, sage, and an oregano-like herb called zaatar (not to be confused with the spice mix), among the most hardy. Some of the thyme turned bronze and is beautiful, especially when it snows. As soon as the weather warms, I will trim them all to spur new growth but I’m already betting the rosemary’s done. Our local NPR garden talk show host is always pessimistic about winter hardiness of rosemary in our area, so I use it liberally even in winter.
What can you do with these woody herbs besides tossing them into soups and stews? How about making herb salts? I usually make rosemary-sage salt with garlic, but this year I branched out to make rosemary salt with lavender, and thyme salt with fennel pollen, both winners. I know they sound like something to bathe in, but trust me, they’re make amazing transformations to ordinary dishes.
To make salts with woody herbs, strip the herb leaves and toss them with coarse salt and dry them before adding the “special” flavorings. Illustrated here is Celtic grey sea salt, which is pretty large-grained. The other salt I like is flaky Malden sea salt, which has a slightly better texture. Since I used whole rosemary leaves in that salt, I ground the Celtic grey salt, rosemary and lavender in a small food processor to achieve a more versatile texture. To make the salts, I mixed the thyme (or rosemary) with salt and spread it on rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper and dried it for a day in my gas oven. You can start the oven, but not let it get up to 150-degree heat, shut it off and let it cool a little before placing the tray in the oven. If you use higher heat, the herbs could become brittle and of poor texture. When done (meaning thoroughly dry since you don’t want to encourage mold), add the flavoring herb, in this case fennel pollen for the thyme and lavender flowers for the rosemary.
So what do you do with these salts? Sprinkle them on all kinds of dishes. Here I used them on cooked scallops and shrimp (tossed with salad for her and with pasta for him). I’ve also used them on fish, chicken, pork and eggs. And on potatoes and squash. They’re a welcome change from ordinary salt and pepper and impart an unexpected spark of flavor that is great in the winter and a reminder of what lies ahead in the garden.