Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Herb-infused Oils

The only sad thing about having a summer herb garden is that summer eventually ends, and there is no way you can use up the profusion of fresh herbs that are doomed, but still growing. We managed to stave off the ravages of high elevation fall weather--like the six-inch snowfall in late September this year--by moving our tomato, pepper, and some herb plants into our living room. This allows us to keep harvesting tomatoes and peppers for a little longer, but the herbs are another matter.

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We could dry the herbs, but the result would really be not very different from store-bought herbs. The creative solution is to infuse oil with the herbs, preserving the fresh flavor and color.

Restaurant chefs use grapeseed oil for this, because it has virtually no flavor to muddy the background. I'm skeptical of the process used to produce grapeseed oil, and until I get some clarity on it, I'm sticking with oils I trust. I happen to know that the oils produced by Flora (the same company that makes Udo's Oil) are unrefined and undergo a gentle process that protects their molecular integrity. I chose Flora Almond Oil for our herb infusions, because it's very mild-tasting, so its impact on the flavor of the herbs would be minimal.

The infusion process is very simple. Roughly, for one cup of oil, use two (packed) cups of herbs. Blanch the herbs in boiling water and then immediately drain, quench in ice water, and drain again. Squeeze the herbs in a strainer to extract every last bit of water. Drop into a blender and add the oil, plus about 1/4 teaspoon salt. Process on high speed for about 2 minutes, until the oil turns a bright green color. Pour into a glass jar and refrigerate overnight. The next day, strain the oil through the finest sieve you have. Return to the refrigerator and leave overnight again. On the following day, decant, discarding the sediment. Pour into a glass bottle--preferably dark glass--and cover tightly. Refrigerate until ready to use.

I used extra virgin olive oil for the rosemary, because first of all, the flavor of rosemary is strong enough to override the flavor of olive oil, but also because I've been using this combination of flavors for decades, with excellent results in the food. It makes a delicious dip for bread, with or without the addition of balsamic vinegar. You can also add garlic to this infusion, or use the rosemary oil to saute potatoes (for example), and add garlic while cooking. Great stuff, seriously!

If you plan to use the oil up within a week, refrigerate. If you're not sure, keep a little in the refrigerator and freeze the rest, which will extend its life for at least two or three months. Later, warm the bottle in a bowl of hot (not boiling) water and pour out the quantity you want to use. Return the unused oil to the freezer.

So what do you do with these infused oils, you might ask? For the most part, I use them only for color and flavor when plating dishes.

A good example is on the cover of my first cookbook, Omega 3 Cuisine. After positioning the serving of "Vegetable Lasagne" (which by the way, is all-vegetable, with sliced of butternut squash for the "pasta" layers), I placed a gob of roasted garlic puree on top and surrounded it with diced roasted red pepper and little pieces of zucchini and yellow squash, gouged out with a teeny-weeny melon baller. Then I drizzled red pepper oil and basil oil for the final touch (along with a light sprinkling of chopped parsley).

Another way to use infused oils just before serving is to add them to a soup, as I did for my "Corn Soup with Roasted Peppers."

To get this effect, I used a squeeze bottle to pipe two concentric circles of scallion-infused oil. Then I used the point of a knife to "pull" the oil back and forth, forming the decorative pattern. For this one, I also added some diced roasted pepper. You have to work fast when you do this, to keep the soup from getting cold, but the effect is pretty impressive. People always make a kind remark when you set it down in front of them.

It takes some work to make infused oils, but the payoff is well worth the effort. If you keep your unused oils in the freezer as I suggested, you should have enough to do a lot of fancy plating--with delicious results--well into the holidays and beyond.


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