Dry up, herb
Have a bumper crop of herbs? A few easy ways to preserve your harvest: First, rinse and then dry your herbs well or spin them clean in a salad spinner. To air-dry, fasten twine or rubber bands around the stems of small bunches of herbs. Punch a few air holes in a paper bag for ventilation, and place the herbs inside (the bag keeps dust and bugs off). Lightly twist the mouth of the bag closed around the herb stems with a twist-tie, and hang the bagged herbs upside-down in a dry, airy space. In a week or two, when the leaves are dry, gently strip them into the bag and pour them into clean, dry, airtight jars.
You can also microwave your herbs dry. Place one layer of herbs on a paper towel; cover with another paper towel. Run the microwave on high a minute at a time until the herbs are completely dried. (Watch carefully.) Store the same as air-dried herbs.
You can also make "herbal ice cubes," perfect for winter recipes. Simply blend your selected herbs with enough water to form a pourable puree. Then freeze the herbal mix in ice cube trays. After your herbs are frozen, pop them out of the trays and store in airtight containers marked with the date. (These are best used within three months.) Each cube should be equal to 1 to 2 tablespoons of fresh herb. Basil and dill are two herbs that work particularly well.
You can also make a basil pesto concentrate, a true winter treat. Place 2 cups of fresh basil leaves and a cup of parsley in a blender with 1 1/2 cups of olive oil. Add garlic cloves and ground pepper to taste. Blend into a puree. Pour the mixture into ice cube trays and freeze. Later, pop out the frozen cubes and store in a separate container. When you're ready to make pesto, thaw cubes and blend in pine nuts or chopped walnuts, more oil, and parmesan or romano cheese to taste. For a different treat, replace the basil with fresh cilantro leaves. Leave out the cheese; use cilantro pesto in oriental, curry, or seafood dishes.
A ton of tomatoes?
If you've got a late-season bounty of fresh tomatoes and want to process them quickly, here's a time-saver: Slice an "X" at the bottom of the fresh, ripe tomato. Drop it in boiling water for 30 seconds to a minute until the skin begins to wrinkle. Lift out the tomato and remove to an ice water bath. Once cool, you'll find you can peel the skin off easily.
The braid-y bunch
To make garlic braids, harvest bulbs when leaves are still slightly pliable. Here's how author Maggie Oster makes hers: Pick unbruised bulbs and dry for a few hours. Brush off soil and trim wispy ends. Cut a 6-foot length of twine. Gather three bulbs and tie the stems together near the stem base with one end of the twine. Begin braiding the stems like a three-section hair plait; cross one outside stem over the center stem, then the other. Work the twine as a unit with one of the stems. After making several crosses, work in additional bulbs. Each new stem will be combined with a previous stem or stems. You should always be plaiting only three sections. No one stem will extend for the entire length of the braid. When the braid is the preferred length, tie off the end and make a loop for hanging. Hang in an airy, dry, shaded place until completely dry or store unbraided bulbs in mesh bags.