A friend of mine, Bruce, innocently planted some mint in his garden. What’s the big deal? Well, let’s just say that mint is the playboy of the herb world. It grows like wildfire and takes over. So Bruce has found himself in a pickle—instead of having a few mint leaves to make a cup of fresh minty tea, he ended up having enough to make tea for the whole neighborhood for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
He also has purple Shiso or Japanese mint. Now that Bruce is sharing his wealth of herbs, I’ve been looking for ways to use them. I love to pickle vegetables and make fruit jams this time of year so the dreary months of winter are brightened by a reminder of how good the spring and summer are. But how can you preserve herbs to be enjoyed in the same way? Particularly basil. Basil just tastes like summer to me.
The answer is honey. You know you have some. Dig deep in those kitchen cabinets of yours. Next to the oatmeal, behind the oregano you bought three years ago on vacation, there it is: honey. You may not know how long you’ve had it. You don’t really know if it’s bad or good. Looks okay. But how many cups of tea can you drink to wade through that huge jar you bought? The key is to make herb-infused honey, which will retain those summer flavors. Plus, it’s one of the most versatile ingredients in your pantry.
To make the infused honey, I simmer honey in a heavy-bottomed skillet until it bubbles, froths and turns a slightly darker shade from it’s original color. Be careful, while this is a simple thing to do, it is also extremely hot! Stir gently with a spoon to part the bubbles and monitor the color. You want it amber but not super dark. If you let it simmer too long, the honey tends to get bitter.
Next, I took some of the mint (and some basil) from Bruce’s garden and drop the picked leaves directly into the frothing honey. I shut off the heat and allow the herbs to settle into the honey. You don’t want to cook the herbs. Then, I poured it into a jar and allowed it to cool and settle in the fridge for a few days. The result? Delicious!
I drizzled that honey over ricotta cheese with some tomatoes. I also poured it onto vanilla cake with fresh blueberries. I also love it on dark rye toast or over a whole roasted duck. It’s like the perfect handbag for that little black dress. You can experiment with different kinds of herbs, and different combinations of your favorite herbs as well.
Use a neutral type of honey for the above recipe ideas. When I get the chance, I buy the “single variety” (usually yielded from only one type of flower) honeys from a local producer. Darker honeys, like Chestnut and Fir varieties, have a stronger flavor and can over power the herbs. I use those on top of pancakes or to add sweetness to braised carrots or roasted squash. Lighter-colored varieties, like Acacia and Clover, are mellower, and are great for the above ideas. They add their honey “note” but don’t obscure the other flavors.
Another great place for honey? A drizzle with fresh tomatoes. I always add a pinch of sugar to my tomato slices. It just perks them up. Even better? Drizzle the tiniest bit of honey over those tomato slices as you are seasoning them with salt and pepper. To me, the honey brings out some floral notes in the tomatoes that I might otherwise miss. The goal is not a major sweet note. The honey should be more like the perfect assist to the vinegar and the salt.
Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef, Food Network celebrity chef, author of Old-School Comfort Food and the executive chef at New York City’s Butter restaurants. Read her PEOPLE.com blog every Tuesday to get her professional cooking tips, family-favorite recipes and personal stories of working in front of the camera and behind the kitchen doors. Follow her on Twitter at @guarnaschelli.
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