Fresh Herbs, Part 2: Solutions to the Waste Problem

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed how using fresh herbs can invigorate your cooking. Today I'm going to share three solutions for one of the most frustrating problems with fresh herbs: the fundamental mismatch between the small amount of herbs you might need for a typical recipe and the huge amount of herbs you usually have to buy in the grocery store.

Years ago, whenever I'd break free from dried parsley mode and actually include fresh parsley in a recipe, I’d end up using at most 25% of what I bought. Keep in mind, this was back in my broke grad student days when things like Fried Rice for Under $1 were necessary staples in my kitchen.

I felt wasteful in two ways: I was wasting extra money on what seemed (to my salt-habituated palate anyway) like an unnecessary ingredient--and then I’d feel even more wasteful ultimately throwing most of away. Why blow an extra buck on something just to watch most of it decompose in my fridge?

Today we'll solve the waste problem once and for all, so you can guiltlessly include these fresh greens in your invigorated cooking.

1) Apply the Concept of Scale
My first suggestion for solving the waste issue is an application of my concept of “scale” in cooking (see #4 in my Seven Ways to Get Faster at Cooking post). There are two ways to apply this concept here.

First, if it's a scalable recipe, you can make a double or triple batch and right there use up all the fresh herbs you had to buy. Best of all, you'll have the added bonus of not needing to cook again for the next few days. The tradeoff, unless you have a big family or can freeze some for future dinners, is that you might be eating this same food for a week until you're totally sick of it. At Casual Kitchen, we solve this by making double or triple batches of two dishes and alternating them all week.

Second, you can apply scale to your recipe file box. Develop a diversified enough recipe collection such that you’ll always have multiple meal ideas that include fresh herbs. It's not that hard to find recipes that will fit the bill. For example, if you’ll look through the recipes of this blog, you'll find several recipes that use...

Red Lentils and Rice
Spanish Chickpea and Garlic Soup
Portuguese Kale and Potato Soup
White Bean and Black Olive Soup

Thai Pasta Salad

…or, in one of my favorite fresh greens dishes, parsley, mint AND cilantro:

...and these are all recipes from my little blog alone. There's a whole world out there of recipes to choose from. Make some extra time to look for ideas to expand your palate and your recipe collection. Elsewhere in this blog you can find some advice on easy ways to tell if a recipe you're considering is worth cooking.

2) Grow ‘Em Yourself
You’ll also find that lots of fresh herbs, like basil, rosemary, mint, chives and parsley, can be surprisingly easy to grow, either in your backyard, or (in our case) in pots on the windowsill or front porch. You can pluck out exactly what you need, rather than buying an entire bunch at the store. No waste here!

3) Use the Damp Plastic Bag Method
Also, I credit Laura with teaching me a surprisingly simple way to extend the “fridge-life” of fresh herbs by using the plastic bags the store gives you to carry your groceries. Place the herbs in the plastic bag, add a couple of tablespoons of water into the bag, and then tie the bag with a loose knot. Sturdy herbs like parsley, cilantro and mint will keep well for up to two weeks this way. Really sturdy greens like kale or swiss chard can keep for even longer.

Who knew there was so much to say about fresh herbs? I can't stress enough: try some new recipes that include them, stretch your cuisine, and de-habituate your palate to sodium. Your cooking will take a quantum leap forward in both artfulness and subtlety.


Mijo said...

Yay, I adore fresh herbs. Everything tastes better with them. I wholeheartedly agree with growing them yourself (especially basil - so delicious, so easy to grow, so expensive in the store) but a word of caution - think twice before planting mint. It will take over. Last spring I moved into a house where mint has begun to devour the yard; we had mint lemonade and mojitos all summer, which was lovely, but if I ever want to plant something else back there I'll be in for a fight.

Elise said...

This issue is why I rarely buy fresh herbs, even though they're amazing to cook with. My boyfriend showed me this link the other day, and if this gadget (a fresh herb 'savor' /saver) works, it would be brilliant!

MareMare said...

I recently read that you can chop your fresh herbs and freeze in ice cube trays to use later. I've bought frozen herbs similarly from Trader Joe's and they taste really good in various dishes, so I'm excited to try this, especially since I just bought 4 ounces of organic basil that I doubt I can use up!