Herbs in olive oil, or how to empty the fridge

The hardest thing about preserving herbs from the garden in olive oil – what resourceful cooks do this time of year – may be finding the ice cube trays. (I can’t remember the last refrigerator I’ve opened that did not have an ice maker, an extra that I waved off the last time I was in the market for kitchen appliances. I’m glad I was talked into this convenience, because I use my ice maker constantly.)

Ice cube trays. Here’s where to find them: thrift shops, garage sales and in Mom’s basement. If you have a bumper crop of oregano, rosemary or thyme – and even sage – then you’ll love preserving these woody herbs in olive oil. Woody herbs tend to brown or freezer burn if immersed in water before freezing. If left to dry or freeze dry, often they lose their pungent aroma.

You do not need top-shelf olive oil, but don’t settle for anything less than extra virgin. Herbs frozen in this way are ideal for soups, stew and marinades, because these herbs will be cooked, often within the oil in which other vegetables will be sautéed.

Rinse, dry and chop fresh herbs. Drop a spoonful of herbs into the ice cube tray, then cover with olive oil and freeze. Some prefer to mix the herbs. I keep mine separate because I use them in sauces which call for one, but not all, of the above woody herbs.

Here’s one of my favorite autumn clean-the-freezercomfort-food menus. It’s standard fare when I’m picking squash, consolidating food in the freezer and clearing shelves for winter freezer restocking, a habit I got into when my husband used to hunt.

In the morning, take a whole chicken from the freezer and let it thaw in the microwave (or on the shelf of the fridge if you’re organized the day before). Remove the less than perfect vegetables from the refrigerator vegetable bin, including oversize zucchini, halved onions, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes that are overripe or shriveling.

Have celery tops or celeriac started to shrivel? Chop these and set them aside. Ditto onions, scallions and flat parsley.

Today’s menu will be stuffed, roasted chicken on root vegetables, served with ratatouille and a green salad. It will put to good use all the herbs and veggies you can get your hands on, and it will use up all the bread crumbs and extra croutons or stale bread ends lurking in the freezer. It starts with herbs preserved in olive oil, but you can always use fresh when they are available.

Take a cube of sage, thyme or oregano in olive oil and heat in a sauté pan. I use one cube of sage and one of thyme for this recipe. Add equal parts – a half cup or more – of chopped celery and onions. Add at least one tablespoon of minced parsley. On medium heat, brown these veggies. If you have a little breakfast sausage, crumble that, too, into the mixture. Ditto mushrooms. Remember, you are “cleaning” the refrigerator and freezer.

Remove the mixture from the sauté pan and pour into a large bowl. Add whatever bread products need adding – croutons, ends of loaves, even torn, fresh bread. The last time I made this, I found a handful of oyster crackers at the bottom of the box. Add it. It’s all good.

Now moisten this onion, celery and bread mix with chicken broth. Set your “stuffing” in the refrigerator until you are ready to coax the chicken into the oven.

I like to brine my birds in a mixture of brown sugar, salt, garlic and herbs in apple juice or cider. Look up a standard brining recipe and adapt it to taste. Drop your chicken into this brining solution. Make sure the salt and sugar are well-dissolved in the solution. I keep a half-gallon pitcher with a lid that perfectly holds enough brine to immerse one large roasting chicken. Keep the chicken chilling and brining all day, while you work on the ratatouille. Want to skip the brine? It’s your call.

Ah, ratatouille – have you ever NOT had it turn out well? It’s the single most nutritious go-to food that my family relies on hot or cold – even on Triscuits for an appetizer. Few treats are as nutritious.

The secret of all good ratatouille is keeping the eggplant from being bitter and getting some brown on your sautéed veggies before stacking them in the stew pot. The best advice I ever got from Julia Child is to sauté the veggies separately, then let the liquids combine in the gentle braise that finishes this French classic.

If you use good garlic, fresh parsley, quality olive oil and enough salt and pepper, the fresh squash and peppers, mushrooms, etc. will combine well, no matter the proportions, but consult a good recipe the first time you make ratatouille. No need to add cheese. If you make this correctly, the vegetables stand on their own. Cheese just adds calories and unnecessary fat.

Eggplant should be peeled, sliced and salted to “sweat” before sautéing. Dry it with paper towels once it is out of the colander. Sauté in very hot olive oil, then transfer to a stock pot. Sprinkle with pepper and minced parsley.

Now do the squash – yellow, zucchini, any comparable mixture will do. Brown it slightly, to bring out the sugars to barely caramelize. Add squash to the stock pot. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and parsley. Got fresh basil? Mince and toss it in.

Onions and garlic are critical. Dice and sauté over low heat. Low and slow on the onions. Green or sweet peppers of any kind add depth to ratatouille, so don’t leave these out if you can help it.

You get the idea. Last of all add tomatoes. Blanch, peel and seed the fresh tomatoes, or just chop them like I do, failing to remove the seeds or skin. Top the pot of vegetables with chopped tomatoes. Put a lid on the pot and slowly braise. The tomatoes will release their juices and you will create a Mediterranean delight. If you are short of tomatoes, add a cup of V8 or tomato juice to increase the liquids, but do not skip the tomatoes in this dish.

Ratatouille takes about 45 minutes on the stove top. It’s a lot of steps, but once to the simmer stage, it can be left alone for 20 minutes, then stirred. Keep the lid on. The olive oil and seasoning will combine with the braising liquid. Letting it cool slightly in its pot will marry the flavors.

About two hours before dinner, remove the chicken from the brine, pour the brine down the drain, rinse the bird and let it drip dry in a colander. Preheat the oven to 450 F.

Towel the chicken dry, then stuff. Rub the skin of the chicken with a clove of garlic , then liberally season the outside of the bird with black pepper and paprika.

In a roasting pan, melt a cube of rosemary and olive oil, or use fresh rosemary. You’ll need a couple of minced tablespoons for two pounds of potatoes. Cube potatoes, carrots, parsnips – whatever root veggies you have on hand. Toss in the olive oil mixture and add salt pepper and a minced clove of garlic.

Set the stuffed bird on the seat of root vegetables and put it on the center to bottom rack in the oven. It will stand about 8 to 10 inches tall.

Pull the bird out in a half hour and set it on its side, still on the bed of potatoes. The liquids from the bird will “self-baste” the root vegetables. Repeat the process, each time turning the bird and scraping up bits of potatoes that could stick to the bottom of the pan. If the bird releases too many juices – or fat – then pour these off, but the osmotic changes that occur when you brineshould pull the juices back inside the bird, keeping it moist. Every bird is different, so you need to judge for yourself. You’re in charge!

Everything in the stuffing is cooked before inserting into the bird . You do not have raw egg in the stuffing to increase the risk for food borne illness, but be conscious of clean cutting boards and the possibility of cross contamination when you are working with raw poultry. If you aren’t sure if the chicken is cooked through, use a meat thermometer.

By now you have finished a couple loads of laundry and poured yourself some wine. All you need to do is cut up a salad and you are good to go with your “freezer, vegetable bin” dinner that started with humble herbs and a mission to clear the shelves and bins in your freezer and fridge.

If you think this meal is grand, wait until you try the leftovers!!!

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