Appalachian locals have long had a reputation for being thrifty and industrious -- and for good reason. Although the region is home to a wide variety of native plants and wildlife, the rocky soil and unpredictable seasons can make farming and gardening challenging. Determined to stay, people in these mountains learned to make do with what they had. They truly lived off the land, using as many native herbs and plants as they could.
Ramps, a pungent vegetable related to the onion, are still considered a spring delicacy by many locals, giving rise to Ramp Festivals. One way that ramps, wild onions, mint and other herbs can be used is by infusing them into butter and cooking oils. The oils also can be mixed with vinegar to make a tasty salad dressing.
A Little Goes a Long Way
Appalachian cooks knew that a little butter or fat could go a long way toward adding flavor to a meal, and that’s a lesson that modern cooks aren’t likely to forget. Today, chefs in both home and commercial kitchens are discovering the thrill of herb-infused butters, oils and salad dressings: they add a welcome and unexpected burst of flavor to even the most basic biscuit, baked potato or simple salad.
Gone are the days of drowning your food in butter or piling on the salt to enhance the flavor of your dish. Adding just a little herb-infused butter or oil to your meal either while it’s cooking or after it’s done can create a whole new experience for your palate. You might be surprised at how little time, effort and cost are involved in making the almost endless variety of flavors.
Garden-Fresh Goodness at Home
From big commercial farms to kitchen windowsills, herbs are popping up everywhere. It’s easy to grow your own herbs at home; you even can buy complete kits that come with pots, seeds, and soil. Most herbs grow quickly, and you often can have fresh herbs for infusing just a few weeks after planting the seeds. If you can’t wait that long, you can purchase potted herbs at many garden centers and grocery stores. And don’t forget the native herbs that grow wild in the Appalachians — try peppermint-infused butter on fresh biscuits, or sauté some greens in a ramp-infused oil.
Making your own herb-infused butter takes only a few minutes of preparation. Simply stir a small amount of fresh herbs, usually between two to three teaspoons, into a half-cup of softened butter. Keep it in the fridge for up to two weeks.
Herb-infused oils are just as easy to make. Add fresh herbs to a clean bottle, fill the bottle with your favorite cooking oil, and let it sit in a sunny window for two weeks. If you can’t wait, simmer the oil and herbs together over very low heat for five minutes. Before using, strain the oil through cheesecloth.
If your herb garden is abundant, combine your favorite herb-infused oil with vinegar for a quick and easy salad dressing your dinner guests will rave about. From front-porch suppers to hearty breakfasts with the family, herb-infused oils and butters make every meal an occasion. It’s one culinary trick the early Appalachian settlers can still teach us.
Photo credits: tastebook.com, webexhibits.com, eatboutique.com