If your household is anything like mine, fresh herbs are always in abundance. Especially basil, which come the summertime I put on just about everything. Unfortunately basil and herb stems are often overlooked and discarded but are just as flavorful as the leaves and arguably even more versatile as they tend to be heartier. Here are some creative ways to use your leftover basil and herbs stems to reduce waste and maximize flavor.
An infused oil, butter, vinegar, or marinade is an easy and effective vehicle for herb stems. Simply add your stems and whatever other additional aromatics you may have on hand (chilis, ginger, garlic, etc.), bring to a boil, and remove from the heat to steep. Use the infusion as desired.
An easy and versatile way to extract the remaining flavor from your herb stems is to make a simple syrup, which as its name suggests, could not be simpler. Just combine equal parts water and the sweetener of your choice (sugar, agave, honey, etc.). Add your basil stems, some aromatics (ginger and lemon work especially well here), simmer briefly until the sweetener has dissolved, then allow to cool and strain. Use as desired to sweeten your tea or coffee, lemonade, oatmeal, smoothies, and beyond.
Add your remaining basil stems to boiling water for a minute or so, then quickly shock in an ice bath to help soften and retain their beautiful green color. Blanched herb stems are a great way to pad a pesto or sauce and can also be blended into soups to add subtle flavor and color. If your basil is on its way out, blanch it whole (stem and all), puree it, and freeze it into ice cubes which you can use to quickly finish a soup or sauce with.
A really fun and delicious way to utilize a bunch of herb stems is to tie them up in a tight little bundle with some kitchen twine and use them to baste grilled meat, fish, vegetables, or tofu with an infused butter, oil, or marinade. It’s an excellent way to continue to impart flavor and you’ll feel like a proper chef doing it.
A properly cooked breast, steak, or chop has been properly rested. Resting gives the flavorful juices within the time to reabsorb into the fibers of the meat. A general rule of thumb is to rest your meat 1 minute for every 4 ounces (e.g., rest a one-pound chicken breast for 4 minutes). But instead of allowing your meat to rest passively on a cutting board, build a flavorful bed of herb stems and aromatics to impart a final touch of freshness.
It may sound ambitious, but an easy Thai-style curry paste is very much within your reach as a home cook and an exciting way to utilize accumulated herb stems. Simply combine your herb stems (stick to basil, cilantro, and scallion) with whole cloves of garlic, sliced ginger or galangal root, sliced shallot or red onion, lemongrass if available, green or red chilis, and some ground cumin, coriander, and turmeric if desired. Dry roast at 375°F until deeply caramelized (about 25 to 30 minutes) and blend into a paste in your food processor.
Raw basil stems can be sliced thin and easily added to a fresh salad or vinaigrette for an herbaceous pop of flavor. They are also great incorporated into a rustic condiment such as a Thai Nouc Cham, an Italian Salsa Verde, or stirred into a fresh poke or ceviche.
And if all else fails, rest assured knowing your composted stems will be recycled into the Earth to help encourage and foster new growth and healthy soil.