Saturday

Merry Christmas from the Herb Gardener


Well, after most of the planning, shopping, worrying, cleaning and baking are out of the way (we probably all have wrapping left to do), Christmas is nigh -- as they used to say.  As hectic and demanding as the holidays are, I still love them. Sometimes I love them more in hindsight, it's true. Luckily for me, after the hoopla dies down, memories of a handful of delightful, touching and profound moments make the madness worthwhile.

Whether you live in a charming stone cottage in the woods with the perfect family or are dealing with grief, health problems or financial woes, I wish you a peaceful, life affirming Christmas. By visiting my blog this year, you've made my days more interesting and rewarding. Many of you have expanded my knowledge of herbs as well as my curiosity about more topics than I can mention here. Thank you -- thank you all.

Sara

Wednesday

The Best Hot Rum Toddy Recipe Ever

If you like rum and only try one new recipe for the holidays, make it this one.  This little beauty will make you tolerant of discarded wrapping paper, glasses off their coasters and uncovered goodies littering the shelves of the refrigerator.  Let me put it this way: A rum toddy or two can be positively medicinal during the holidays -- in the nicest possible way.

I've made this concoction many times, adding my own refinements to a basic recipe I discovered online.  It's my favorite. If you try it, I'm pretty sure it'll be your favorite, too.  When you consider your aching feet and the incipient headache that always comes with a surfeit of family fun, is it too much to ask for one beverage that puts a twinkle back in your eye?  Absolutely not!

So here's to a good night's sleep and the lingering aroma of butter and spices on the air.

Hot Rum Toddy Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1/2 lb. brown sugar (I like light because that's what I usually have lying around.)
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom (This one's important - but it's so worth it)
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • Pinch allspice
  • 2 tbsp. honey
  • 1 stick of butter (salted is best)
  • Rum (Dark rum adds flavor, but I usually serve light.  Hey, why not try both?)
The idea here is to make a butter batter you can use later.

Combine brown sugar and spices. Stir to incorporate.

Add butter and honey. Blend well.  I usually do this with my hands.  

Place the mixture in the fridge (in a resealable container because you'll be dipping into it often). It'll have the consistency of clay or a stiff dough.

The honey and sugar are both preservatives, so the batter will last until Valentine's Day. And isn't that a nice bonus.

To Serve:

Put two rounded tablespoons of batter in a 12 + oz. mug.

Add 6 ounces of boiling water (It really has to be boiling.)

Add 1 1/2 to 2-1/2 jiggers of rum (depending on how strong you like your beverages)

Stir thoroughly (until the sugar dissolves).

Serve with a cinnamon stick for quick DIY stirrer. A dollop of whipped cream is a nice touch, too.

This recipe will make about 8 servings

Special note: Last year I was fooling around and added hot apple cider instead of water.  It was delicious.

Saturday

The Secret to Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies and Other Holiday Baking Tips

Christmas Cookies
My husband and I used to make well over a hundred dozen Christmas cookies every year. The process grew from our early successes until we became a kind of amateur cookie factory operating from a residential zip code. Santa's elves had nothing on us. We worked diligently over two weekends in December and invested in all the pretty wrapping, ribbon and tins to decorate our projects. We tested new recipes throughout the year and lusted after the secret of a perfect chocolate chip cookie.

After about five years, the project became so enormous and daunting that we scaled back and eventually stopped cookie production. We were ahead of the cookie making craze somewhat, so by the end we were receiving almost as many cookie presents as we were giving -- way too many to eat ourselves or leave for Santa and his minions.

I still have some recommendations for holiday baking projects, though. The articles below are getting on in years, but they still offer some sound advice on how to prep a pie crust, make bulk cookies and put together a fun-filled gingerbread house project. There are also a few cookie making secrets I've been hoarding:

Chocolate chip cookie secret - If you like a cookie that's moist and chewy on the inside but slightly crunchy on the outside, here's the secret: Prep the cookies up to and including dropping the dough onto the cookie sheet -- then freeze the cookie sheet with the raw, formed dough right on it. Once frozen, bake cookies as you would normally, but check carefully for doneness. They may need to cook an additional three minutes or so. You'll end up with the perfect, chewy chocolate chip cookie.

Cool cookies on elevated racks -
For years we skipped this part, cooling t cookies right on the cookie sheet. When you let cookies cool on racks, they'll firm up better and are much less likely to crack and crumble.

Drain cookies on brown paper bags - Most cookies contain quite a bit of butter, margarine or shortening. You can lose some of the grease after baking by letting the cookies sit on cut pieces of brown paper bag for a couple of hours. You'll be surprised at the grease slick they leave behind.

Nestle cookies in cupcake papers - You know those fluted cupcake papers you can buy at the market. They make very nice individual holders for a stack of cookies, too. If you're putting together a decorative platter or tin, they help corral your cookies and keep them safer for transport -- just a thought.

Here are the articles I promised. The tips are sound. I've used them for years:

Christmas Cookie Baking
Tips for Making the Perfect Holiday Pie
Making a Gingerbread House

This is a big holiday baking weekend, so put on some Christmas music and make yourself some spiced cider. While you're elbow deep in cookie making it can seem like an incredible hassle, but after the flour's cleared and the cookies are all nestled in their containers, you'll know Christmas morning is just around the corner.

Oh, for some background on a few traditional favorites:

Homemade Sugar Plums
Candy Canes and Peppermints
Perfect Homemade Eggnog

Have fun!

Friday

How to Make Spicy Mustard

Mustard is a bit like wine. Everyone has a favorite. Good mustard can enhance the flavor of everything from salmon to salad dressing, so sticking with the same old imported mustard (or selecting standard ballpark yellow mustard) is just unimaginative. If the idea of spending a fortune to expand your mustard repertoire doesn't appeal to you, give mustard making a try. It's fun and pretty easy.

Homemade mustard will last for months in the fridge. You can keep it chunky or grind it down for a smooth, creamy base with just enough mustard bits to add interest. You can also spice it up for big flavor in every bite. I love a good mustard, and one nice thing about making your own is that your handcrafted recipe can rival the best mustards out there.

Here's a basic recipe that straddles the fence between bland and zesty. Oh, and since we're in the middle of the holiday countdown, homemade mustard makes a very tasty gift. This recipe yields two to three cups, so there's enough for a couple of small jars (and a pot to keep for yourself, too).

Homemade Mustard Recipe

1 cup beer (Using a dark beer adds flavor.)
1-1/2 cups vinegar (I like Champagne vinegar best, but apple cider vinegar and wine vinegar also work well.)
1/2 cup plus one tablespoon mustard seeds (yellow)
1 small white onion (chopped)
4 Garlic cloves (chopped or crushed)
2 oz. dried, ground mustard
2 tbsp. cold water
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. cumin, ground
1/4 tsp. allspice, ground
1/4 tsp. white pepper, ground


Instructions

Combine beer and mustard seeds and refrigerate over two nights in a glass or ceramic container.

Simmer vinegar, sugar, onion and garlic in a non-reactive pan for an hour on medium heat. The liquid should reduce by more than half. Set aside to cool. Once cooled, strain the mixture through two lengths of cheesecloth.

Combine water, mustard powder, salt and other spices. Stir thoroughly to incorporate and let stand at room temperature for an hour.

While the powdered mustard is rehydrating, run the beer mixture through a food processor to grind the softened mustard seeds to the desired consistency.

Slowly add the strained vinegar mixture to the spice mixture, stirring constantly.

Combine the beer mixture with the vinegar mixture in a heavy saucepan.

Simmer for 20 minutes or until the mustard thickens.

Cool and seal in a jar with a tight fitting lid.

Let the mustard cure in a cool, dark location for 10 days to two weeks (the longer the better).

Thursday

A Few Tips and Tricks as Christmas Approaches

I'm in the middle of so many Christmas Projects that it looks like Santa's sleigh exploded in my living room. I have to admit, the chaos looks pretty nice, actually. I have some quick miscellaneous tips and suggestions that may help with your holiday planning -- and hopefully with less mess than I've gotten myself into:

Wrap Your Presents with Fabric

Consider wrapping some presents in fabric this year. Festive cotton fabrics are available for as little as $2 a yard. With a pair of pinking shears (to help eliminate raveling) you can cut custom sized fabric pieces for wrapping with double sided tape and ribbon. For family gift giving, you can use the fabric from year to year and avoid adding all that paper wrap to your nearest overflowing landfill. This year there may be some expense involved in making the changeover, but next year and the year after the shift will be pretty painless. The bigger your stockpile of cut fabrics, the less you'll waste on paper wrap. If you want a nice crease when wrapping with fabric, just eyeball where the fold will be and use the edge of your scissors to pre-crease a line.

Your presents will look pretty and unique, and the process will be more eco-friendly. (Yes, cotton production uses more pesticides than almost any other crop, but you'll save some trees by using fabric as wrapping, eliminate waste and show your kids you care about the environment.)

Scent Your Pinecones, Decorative Logs and Cloth Ornaments

Those amazing cinnamon scented pinecones that cost a fortune make for an easy DIY project. Better yet, you can scent infuse just about anything that will absorb essential oil. From decorative hearth logs to plush display toys and rustic ornaments, just brush or spritz on some cinnamon, clove, pine, or vanilla essential oil on them and you'll have instant Christmas cheer -- from a bottle.

You can find essential oils (with directions for use) in most craft stores and many variety stores, and they'll be a lot less expensive than buying scented holiday accessories every year. Oh, and if you have scented accessories from last year that have lost their olfactory oomph, just re-charge them with a little oil. Scent is one of the most memory-evocative of the senses, so make your Christmas smell amazing with essential oil.

Travel Bug Safe

Bed bugs are rampant in hotels across the country. If you're concerned about bringing bed bugs home from your travels this holiday season, essential oils can help. Spray your luggage with diluted lavender essential oil to make your belongings less appealing to bed bugs. After you get back home, place you luggage in the bathtub for 24 hours. Check at night by turning on the light in the darkened bathroom. If you see any bugs scurrying around the bottom of the tub (the tub sides are so slippery they can't get out), you have a problem. Remove your luggage to the outdoors for further treatment, and wash the visible critters down the drain. If you're concerned about being bitten while traveling, try spraying your nightclothes with lavender water. You'll be a less appealing target for a quick meal.

I'm off to bake a batch of oatmeal scotchies -- and probably eat a few. Have a great evening.

Friday

Giving Meaningful Holiday Gifts

My family has always been heavily invested in giving gifts at Christmas. It's the biggest outlay of cash we spend all year long. The gifts themselves are sometimes practical, occasionally silly and always carefully planned to please. Finding the right present and watching the happy reaction when it's opened is pretty darned satisfying, even if it can get pricy. I have to admit that in the past I've spent more on holiday gifts than I could comfortably afford. When I started making herb and cooking related gifts, that stopped to a degree, though.

Taking Some of the Commercialism out of Christmas

This was around the time I began to consider the possibility that Christmas was becoming too commercial -- for my taste, anyway. It's funny, because I recall my mother expressing this same sentiment a few decades earlier. That was in reaction to seeing community Christmas decorations going up the day after Thanksgiving. Nowadays, they're up before Halloween. Some internal reckoning changed my perception of Christmas. I'm not even sure what brought it about. Maybe waiting in line behind surly Christmas shoppers and dealing with overworked sales clerks made me feel sad and discouraged. I know that watching mall visitors raging at one another over parking spaces made me question the virtue of a holiday that can make some people (good people, too) so uncharitable, while espousing the virtues of joy, faith and fellowship. Well, this is all old news -- the commercialization of the holidays.

Christmas Gifts to MakeThat's when I decided I wanted to make gifts instead of buy them (mostly). Once I began preparing herb wreaths, flavored vinegars, scented candles, soaps and other homemade crafts for gift giving, I realized that for a few years I'd just been going through the motions. Most of the delight was absent -- smothered by all the commercialism and silliness. It's hard to imagine any reasonable person feeling anything but chagrin at the prospect of spending hours wrapping presents only to have the paper ripped off in a frenzy and summarily discarded. (I'm an advocate of reusable fabric wrapping.)

Making Christmas

This is my way of saying that sometimes 'making' Christmas instead of 'buying' Christmas is the best solution to the holiday blues. It'll put you in touch with your inner merrymaker. It'll remind you that "made by hand" is still the most intimate and touching way to give a gift. If you start now, you'll have time to make some great holiday gifts this year. You might decide you really like the handmade-homemade approach and start using it for year round gift giving, too. I hope so.

Over the years, I've posted lots of craft projects that make good gifts. Most use herbs, but even if you don't grow and dry your own herbs for winter use, you can buy dried lavender, vanilla beans, calendula and others on the internet or at your local craft store. In almost every case, you can create a batch of homemade gifts less expensively than you can purchase them. Think of the task as employing the economies of scale to buy the raw materials for multiple gifts. You'll be making presents, enjoying the process (I am certain of it), and saving money -- all at the same time. It's a Christmas miracle.

Christmas Gifts to MakeChristmas Herb Projects to Make

These past posts will give you some ideas, but there are thousands of ways you can make Christmas more personal and satisfying by crafting gifts yourself. One year long ago, my Godfather gave my family a miniature fence he'd made of interlocking twigs designed to go around the base of the Christmas tree. It looked rustic and perfect corralling a big pile of presents. That little fence was one of the first homemade gifts I'd ever seen. I found it mesmerizing that one could pick little twigs up off the ground and fashion them into something useful. Who knew? It was an Aha! moment for me, and one you can share with your own family.

A simple way to start is to mix homemade spice or sugar blends. Add some matching jars (and maybe colorful labels) and you'll have a gift that will provide good value and tasty meals for months. These recipes will get you started:
If some people on your Christmas list think cooking is for fools who don't appreciate the value of takeout, try putting together a lavender sachet or try these other options. They make pleasant gifts and go together pretty quickly:




If you start now, you'll have time to mix together a tasty dill vinegar too. In a decorative decanter it will make very nice hostess gift.

I'll add more suggestions as I recall them, but a couple of these will help to get you in a holiday mood.

Saturday

Rosemary Tree Maintenance Tips

Rosemary Tree Care
Those petite rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Christmas trees you see at the home improvement store, in the market and at your local nursery are charming to look at, but can be a bear to maintain.

Rosemary Tree Maintenance

Because they look and smell so wonderful, they're almost irresistible. If you just have to adopt one of these seasonal beauties, make sure to take a look at the tips below.

Rosemary Tree Care
  • Consider the future. Rosemary can't tolerate a hard frost. There are some exceptions -- cultivars designed to survive to, say, U.S. Zone 5, but the rosemary varieties typically employed for topiary trees won't survive outdoors in the snow -- ever. If you live in a cold climate and plan on keeping your rosemary tree after the holidays, you'll have to maintain your shrub indoors until the weather warms up in spring. Next fall you'll have to bring it back inside, so be sure to keep it in a pot. Overwintering patio plants indoors is a common practice. You may even come to enjoy it and consider your plant commuters part of your extended family.
  • Don't repot. Rosemary doesn't like to be repotted until it is root bound. If you like to give your houseplants a great start in life by repotting specimens as soon as you get them home, resist the urge. Wait until mid-spring or early summer.
  • Watch the heat. Keep rosemary away from heat sources like warm electronics and heat registers.
  • Find good light. Although you can place your tree in a decorative spot like on top of your coffee table or on your dining table, if there isn't much sun in your preferred location, the tree will suffer. Ideally, you want to provide around six hours of light for your tree every day.

    It should be good light, too. That means light bright enough to cast a shadow on the floor when you hold your hand in a sunbeam. An unobstructed eastern exposure is good. A southern exposure is probably better in most areas. Light is important for the plant, but you can cheat by placing it in a decorative low-light location for a day or so and then putting it back in a well illuminated area for a couple of days. Rosemary Christmas trees are typically small, so moving one around isn't much of a hardship -- but it may mean life or death for your plant.
  • Rosemary Tree CareBe careful when watering. If you've killed rosemary trees in the past, the problem was probably with watering. Indoor rosemary is persnickety about water. You might have concluded that the dry indoor conditions warranted frequent watering, but this is deceptive. Rosemary will rest over the winter and doesn't really need much in the way of water or nourishment. It does need humidity, though. Water once a week, but mist the plant a couple of times a day. Maintain a layer of mulch at the soil line. It will hold the misted moisture and release it slowly.

    Another good idea is to keep your rosemary tree with a group of houseplants when you're not using it as decoration. The combined humidity created by the plants produces a favorable microclimate your rosemary will like.
  • Remove the decorations. Those cute decorations wrapped around the branches of your rosemary are not the plant's friend. Remove them if you can bear to. Otherwise, loosen them, and hopefully they won't cause too much damage to adjacent needles and supporting stems.
  • Remove the paper wrapper. The cheerful gold, red or green wrapper around your rosemary tree's pot can create a dangerous condition by trapping water. When the roots of rosemary sit in water, they die. When the roots die, the plant starves to death. You can handle this a couple of ways: Remove the wrapper; always dump any residual water a half-hour after watering the plant; place a tray outfitted with a layer of marbles (or stones) between the wrapper and the pot. The water will drain down to the tray away from the plant's roots and you'll still have the decorative benefit of the attractive wrapping.

Caring for Rosemary Christmas Trees and Choosing a Rosemary Tree - Final Words (Really!)

Rosemary trees sold as Christmas decorations have a beautiful triangular habit like real Christmas trees. This isn't natural. This isn't close to being natural for rosemary. Immature plants whacked and tortured into this shape are likely suffering from shock and need pretty favorable conditions in which to recuperate. Watch for drooping or dry needles that may indicate trouble ahead. If you follow the recommendations above, you will probably be able to salvage the plant and have a viable specimen after the holidays are over.

If you haven't purchased a rosemary Christmas tree yet:

Look for a bright green, vigorous plant.

Run your hand along its stems to make sure the needles aren't shedding (an important sign of problems).

Check the decorative wrapper (if you can) for standing water under the pot, and reject any plants that have been sitting in water.

If you do find a specimen you like and plan on transporting it in cold weather, protect the plant by placing it in a protective bag for the trip home. A paper bag provides the best insulation from the cold. Don't linger for a nice lunch out.  Even an hour in a winter cold car can hurt the survival prospects for most houseplants.

Good luck.

Tuesday

Homemade Spicy Cranberry Sauce

If you like canned cranberry sauce, you'll love the taste of your own homemade version. Homemade cranberry sauce has a sweet-tart flavor that is the perfect foil for mild tasting fowl like turkey. It has a fresher and brighter flavor than the canned varieties I've tried. It's also super easy to make. I have four variations on basic homemade cranberry sauce that amp up the taste and add a hint of exotic (or fresh herb garden) goodness.

Don't let another holiday go by without making your own cranberry sauce. In fact, try all four variations and package them in small jars to give away as hostess gifts. You can easily make enough for all your holiday visits -- or dinners -- in an hour or two.

Making a holiday classic from scratch, whether it is spice cake, fruit cake or cranberry sauce, is one way to revitalize your feelings for the season. It's hard to stay grumpy or depressed when your kitchen smells so good.

You can use apple juice, cranberry juice or orange juice as a base for cranberry sauce. All work well, but the apple juice makes for a less tart (and slightly less interesting) sauce overall. I've provided a basic recipe below and then added my favorite variations. This is an easy recipe, and I've tried lots of different ingredient pairings with it over the years. Once you know the ropes, experiment. Adding orange liqueur is nice. Homemade lemon vodka works well too. Just substitute about a quarter of a cup for the liquid requirement. Sometimes I even add stevia juice for a low calorie option.

Basic Homemade Cranberry Sauce
  • 1 cup juice (apple or orange is traditional, but you can probably add just about anything that can tolerate boiling)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups fresh cranberries
Directions for Basic Cranberry Sauce

  • Wash berries thoroughly and remove stem pieces. Set aside.
  • Combine juice and sugar in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil.
  • Add cranberries and bring back to a boil until berries pop. This should take five minutes or less.
  • Mash berries lightly. (I use a wooden spoon.)
  • Cool and refrigerate.
This is about as basic as it gets, so add some zest with these interesting variations. I like them all:

Cranberry Sauce with Lime

Orange is pretty traditional in cranberry sauce because it works well. Lime seems to be the citrus fruit of choice in cooking these days, though, so I've added it as an alternative option. It does seem to add a nice bite that's naughty but nice. For this one, all you need to do is add 1/2 teaspoon lime zest to the basic recipe along with 2 tablespoons of lime juice and another tablespoon and a half of sugar. Prefer orange juice as a base.


Ginger Cranberry Sauce

Add 2 teaspoons of grated ginger to the boiling berries just before removing them from the heat. Stir to incorporate.

Cardamom Cranberry Sauce

If you haven't tried cardamom, it's hard to describe. It has an old world, spicy flavor that's a real treat and works well with cranberries. It's a bit expensive, but if you plan on making rum toddies (I'll share an amazing recipe later), it's worth the investment, so buy some ground cardamom now and include it in your cranberry creation. Include 1/2-teaspoon grated orange zest and 1/4-teaspoon ground cardamom with the berries in the basic recipe above.


Mint Cranberry Sauce

Add 1 tablespoon of minced fresh mint leaves. I prefer apple mint or spearmint, but just about any mint will do. Incorporate the leaves into the berry mixture during the last couple of minutes of cooking. If you don't like the look of little green bits in your sauce, you can add eight large, whole mint leaves to the juice and sugar mixture (for this one, apple juice is best), simmer for 5 minutes, cool and strain out the mint before proceeding to the basic recipe. Add back a couple of teaspoons of water to make up liquid evaporated off while you simmered the leaves. The juice may turn slightly green, but that won't spoil the bright ruby look of the finished dish.

Well, that's it for now. This year I'm trying a honey, allspice and cinnamon version. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Whether you make cranberry sauce or not, if you celebrate the U.S. version of Thanksgiving, have a wonderful holiday.

Friday

Homemade Spice Cake Recipe

I'm not usually a cake fan, but spice cake is an exception. A good spice cake can bring out the wonderful aromas and complex flavors of exotic spices in a tantalizing burst that's worth a turn in front of a hot oven. Many spice cakes start with a moist base. Carrot cake is a variety of spice cake that takes advantage of the wonderful color and natural sugars in carrots to add moisture and texture. Pumpkin cake, zucchini cake and persimmon cake are other examples.

My all-time favorite spice cake is made with applesauce. It's hard to beat apples for flavor and texture. Applesauce is also easy to find and already prepped to ladle into the batter. When I was a kid the bakery on the corner sold a killer "applesauce cake" that was just about perfect. I've been trying to duplicate the recipe ever since. The version below comes close, and it makes for a great autumn treat or holiday gift. I make it in a loaf pan, and serve it toasted or warm from the oven. It's a holiday indulgence I look forward to every year.

Spice Cake Recipe
  • 2 cups flour (all-purpose)
  • 2 tsp. fresh baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 8 tbsp. (1 stick) softened butter
  • 1 cup tightly packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. honey
  • 1-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs plus one egg yolk
  • 1 1/2 cups applesauce (prefer unsweetened)
  • 1-1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ginger (I use finely grated ginger, but you can use 1/4 tsp. ground ginger instead)
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg (fresh ground is best)
  • pinch ground cloves (1/8 tsp. should do it)
  • 1/3 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
  • 1/3 cup dried cherries or golden raisins (optional)
Directions for Spice Cake

Blend flour, spices, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl.

In a separate bowl, cream butter, sugar, honey and vanilla. Set aside.

In a third bowl, combine eggs and applesauce. Whisk to incorporate.

Add the egg mixture to the butter mixture slowly. I try to combine about a half-cup at a time to make mixing easier.

Add the flour mixture to the eggs and butter in half-cup increments until fully blended.

Pour batter into a greased and floured pan. You can use a loaf pan, cake pan or cupcake tins. Bake in a 325 degree F oven for about 45 minutes. (For cupcakes, reduce cooking time to about 20 minutes.)

When done, the edges of the cake should pull away from the pan a little, and a toothpick inserted into the center will come out clean.


I usually don't bother with frosting, but when I do, I prefer a homemade cream cheese frosting. With an apple sauce cake, the addition of a little cheesy bite seems only fitting.

Tuesday

Thanksgiving Planning Tips from the Herb Gardener

Thanksgiving is a special time, but getting ready for the big day can be a hassle. We cooking mavens are notorious for biting off more than we -- and others -- can chew, which means turkey day marathons, lots of leftovers, and plenty of prep and cleanup. Along with the very nice recipe for spicy pumpkin pie from my last post, I have compiled a list of articles that will help make Thanksgiving more fun and foolproof.

If you've been visiting my blog for a while, you probably know that I also write for a number of Discovery Channel websites like TLC.com, HowStuffWorks.com and DiscoveryHealth.com. I've written quite a bit of food content for TLC that can make Thanksgiving meal prep easier. If you like herbs, enjoy cooking and adore the holidays, we have a number of things in common. These suggestions are my personal cheat sheets for the challenges ahead. Consider them my way of encouraging a few chuckles and helping you triumph over one of the biggest cooking days of the year:

10 Tips for Thanksgiving Newbies 

How to Cook the Perfect Turkey

Scrumptious Thanksgiving Tablescapes

Which Holiday Food Is the Worst for My Body?


Perfect Homemade Eggnog

5 Autumn Apples (pick one for pie)

Apple Cider 101

10 Reasons Why You Should Keep a Clean Kitchen (no insult intended - there are just some really good tips here)

Spicy Pumpkin Pie Recipe 

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Photo 2: By TheKohser (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOven_roasted_brine-soaked_turkey.jpg

Monday

Spicy Pumpkin Pie Recipe

To me, a creamy, spicy pumpkin pie is the quintessential autumn dessert. It may not be fancy, and it isn't a beauty to look at, but there's something about the aroma and texture of a good pumpkin pie that puts me in a holiday mood every time. I don't buy frozen pie because I like to add additional spices to give my pies some zip. If you want to create a pumpkin pie that will make a few squash converts at your house, the following recipe is the first step on a spice filled baking adventure.

Spicy Pumpkin Pie Recipe
  • 2 cups canned pumpkin
  • 1 cup prepared eggnog
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tbsps flour
  • 1 3/4 tsps ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • pinch ground allspice
  • pinch of ground cardamom if you have it
  • 2 large eggs

  • 1 prepared 9 inch pie crust

Pumpkin Pie Directions

I usually buy frozen crust, but you can certainly make your own. I always go the extra step of placing a film of room temperature butter on the crust before baking. For wet recipes like pumpkin pie and quiche, it keeps the crust from getting soggy or doughy.

The filling directions are pretty easy:
Combine all the ingredients except the eggs, and blend thoroughly.

In a separate mixing bowl, beat the eggs until well incorporated but not frothy.

Add the egg mixture to the pumpkin and spices. Stir to incorporate.

Pour into a prepared but unbaked pie crust.

Wrap the edges of the crust with aluminum foil to prevent over-browning.

Bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees F and then drop the temperature to 350 degrees for another 45 to 50 minutes -- or until the center is firm.

It's also a good idea to turn the pie 180 degrees about a half-hour into the cooking process. If your oven isn't spotless or perfectly calibrated, this will help insure even cooking.

Cool on an elevated rack, if possible.

    If you like your pumpkin spicy and love the aroma of baking pie permeating your kitchen, this recipe is for you.

    Thursday

    Lemon Vodka Recipe and Suggestions

    Lemon vodka has a strong, bright flavor that perks up mixed drinks and can work very well in lemon cake, as a frosting ingredient, or even added to tea. It makes a radically delicious lemonade, too.

    One really nice thing about this recipe is that you can use any citrus fruit as a base. If you prefer making lime vodka to use in your Tex-Mex marinades, or orange vodka to add a little bite to your fruit salad, I've listed the substitutions below. Flavored vodka makes an interesting ingredient in cooking. It's a nice homemade hostess gift, too.

    Lemon Vodka Recipe


    Half of a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka (59.2 fluid ounces)

    1 cup white granulated sugar

    The zest of 5 lemons (or four medium sized oranges, or six limes)


    Directions for Lemon Vodka

    Combine the ingredients in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid.

    Shake well to dissolve the sugar.

    Set aside for four weeks in a room temperature cupboard.

    Drizzle the seasoned mixture through a large coffee-filter lined funnel to remove the zest.

    Special Notes:

    For this recipe, I like to choose organic fruits because I'm not sure how much pesticide is typically used on citrus. Employ your best judgment.

    For presentation, it's nice to peel and curl narrow strips of zest to include in the bottle.

    If I have lemon balm, I like to add a sprig to the mix. It gives the vodka an elegant aroma -- well, it seems that way to me, anyway.

    Battening Down for Winter in the Herb Patch - Are We There Yet?

    You may not have to tie many of your herbs in place to help them survive the winter, but there are a few things you can do before the first killing frost to help make winter -- and next spring -- easier in the garden.

    I love spring and fall -- but I also really like winter. It can be a cruel time, but it scours the landscape clean in some ways. We can start fresh -- or at least fresher -- in a few months, because a generation of insects has died off, and sickly plants have lost their place in the relentless cycle of life in the garden.

    Before you say goodbye and keep cold for the season, review your winter checklist -- and not just to make sure you've turned off the water to exterior faucets.

    Tips for Winterizing Your Herb Garden


    Harvest seeds (and possibly stems) from annuals for spring starts. Label them well first, though. There's nothing like thinking you've planted pickling cucumbers only to discover you've cultivated 20 birdhouse gourd plants instead.

    Trim back hearty perennials by about two thirds. This will help keep them warmer, safer from insects, and it will also make the best use of their root systems to sustain and later nurture topside foliage.

    Remove dead growth and put down a nice layer of insulating mulch. I like to use dead leaves as a mulching medium because it's natural and inexpensive. Just run leaves through the mower to shred them into smaller bits that will breakdown easily, and layer them onto your herb patch and flowerbeds. By spring they'll be soft and ready to turn under.

    Rinse vacated pots and take them indoors for the duration. This is especially important for any porous pots that may crack in a hard freeze. Your lawn decorations (and furniture) will fare better in a garage or shed, too. Those mirror globes or lawn sculptures may have been marketed as all-weather, but they'll look better longer if you pamper them a little. If you have room for them in a protected location, move them now.

    As you work, check foliage for insect activity like egg sacks. This is the time to get rid of any overwintering pests you see.

    Bring old friends indoors. Whether it's the rosemary on the deck or the aloe vera by the front door, don't risk killing your frost sensitive plants by leaving them out too long. We've all made the mistake of thinking we could postpone moving day to the weekend by just draping a protective covering over plants when a light frost is expected. It's probably best not to risk it, though. If your beauties are still outdoors, bring them in today. (To make sure you aren't bringing spider mites or other insects indoors with your plants, spray them one more time before transporting them.)

    If you plan on keeping plants indoors during the winter months, take an afternoon to trim the shrubbery around your windows. This will let more illumination into light challenged rooms and make your home winter friendly to plants, pets -- and humans.

    Take a peek into your gutters. If there are leaves on the ground, chances are that a few are clogging your gutters and downspouts. If you don't have those nifty gutter guards, check out the condition of your home's gutter system before the temps get too brutal to pluck leaves out of your gutters without risking frostbite.

    Disconnect and stow the rain barrel. Rain barrels can freeze, too. So dismantle yours and put it away for the winter if it isn't insulated or buried underground. If you modified your downspout, switch back to the longer one.

    Take a minute to look around. The minimalist aspect of your fall garden is likely a far cry from its July glory; mine certainly is. There's winter wisdom in the machinations of its lean grasses, trees and shrubs, though. Putting everything to bed is sad -- no doubt -- but it's good, too -- like cleaning out the closets or donating the kids' old clothes to a worthy cause. Time marches.

    By January we'll have our curious noses buried in spring seed catalogs, raring to go for another year of sprouting seedlings and drawing battle lines against squash beetles and leafminers. That's just the way of it.

    My next few blogs will be about holiday matters, from special herb based recipes to a few inexpensive, homemade gifts. Stay tuned.

    Make an Easy Homemade Herb Wreath

    Frost is on the pumpkin or very close to it for most of us, so now's the time to put together an herb wreath. It sounds difficult, but it really isn't. In fact, making herb wreaths can be among of the most rewarding of fall herb projects. If you have lots of herbs, make a number of wreaths and give them away as hostess or holiday gifts. This is one project that's as impressive to look at as it is fun to create.

    You'll need five, six or more herb varieties, a base, wire and wire cutters. Once dried, you can use the herbs all winter in your recipes. I've even taken to adding a little pair of scissors on a ribbon to my wreaths for easy snipping.

    Last year around this time, I outlined the steps for making wreaths in the following blog posts. These blogs are longish, but that's just because I wanted to be thorough. Making an herb wreath is pretty simple, and the slideshow in the second blog will help give you some ideas. My wreaths are usually round, but you can go for oval, square or heart shaped varieties, as well as arches or swags.

    Bringing Herbs Indoors for the Winter


    It's almost time to say goodbye to your outdoor herb garden for the season. If you planted your herbs last spring thinking fall would be a welcome relief from weeding, pruning and insect control, you might be surprised at how sad it can feel to abandon your pampered annuals and perennials for the cozy comforts of the indoors. There may be another option -- for some of your herbs, anyway. Bring them indoors with you.

    Wintering Herbs Indoors

    Before you grab a trowel and some pots, there are a few things to consider.

    If you live in an area that experiences harsh winter weather, your perpetual outdoor herb garden will be restricted to winter hardy varieties like the mints (mint, catnip, lemon balm), some sage varieties, oregano and others. Plants like aloe vera, rosemary, pineapple sage and lemon eucalyptus won't overwinter outdoors, but they may survive inside.

    Before you think about relocating or propagating herbs for an indoor garden, though:

    Read up on the herb varieties you have, and know your growing zone. There's a handy herb listing at the left of this article that should help. If the herbs in your garden are hardy for your area and are nicely planted in the ground, your best option is to leave them where they are. Just give them a nice pruning and put down a layer of protective mulch. If you like the idea of keeping some winter herbs on your windowsill, consider taking cuttings to start in water. This won't work for all types of herbs. (Read on for more information.)

    If you have herbs in pots on your deck or patio, freezing temps will kill their roots. To get them through the winter, you have a few options:
    • Bury the pots in the ground and dig them up again in spring. This will work for winter hearty herb varieties.
    • Replant the herbs in the ground. It's getting late in the year for this, but it may still be doable.
    • Bring the pots indoors. This can work for most herb varieties if you have a sunny window in which to stow them. By sunny I mean around six hours of light a day (bright enough to cast a shadow). You can supplement with grow lights if you have to.
    If you do bring plants indoors:
    • Prune them first by removing a half to two thirds of the top growth (this varies from variety to variety, remove less for slow growers).
    • Spray plants with insecticidal soap before you relocate them and check again for insect activity on moving day.
    • If your herbs are big drinkers, give their pots a nice layer of mulch to keep the indoor watering schedule reasonable. (This works for plants that like higher humidity, too.)
    • Isolate the refugees from your houseplants for the first couple of weeks to make sure no destructive insect freeloaders have survived to wreak havoc on your indoor garden.
    • Although there are exceptions, most overwintering plants will be dormant or conserving energy during the winter months and will not require much if any fertilizer.
    • Keep plants away from heat sources (like heat registers) and drafts (from windows and exterior doors).

    Starting New Herb Plants in Water

    If you have outdoor plants you'd like to propagate for spring planting, you may be able to get a jump on that now by starting stem cuttings in water. This can be a fun and inexpensive way to grow new plants. You can typically start stem cuttings any time during the growing season -- although I will admit that spring is usually a better time than fall. The fact is, though, that starting baby plants over the winter can be a fun project, and there's not that much of a down side. If it works, it works.
    Here are some tips:
    • Take six inch long stem cuttings.
    • Use a very sharp knife to make the cuts.
    • Cut plants at the juncture just below where new leaves emerge (leaf nodes).
    • Strip the leaves on the lower two thirds of the stem.
    • Take half again as many cuttings as you think you'll need. Some won't root.
    • Place the stems in water. No leaves should extend below the water line. The container isn't too important as long as it's clean.
    • Replace the water every three days or so with fresh. After about a month, you can cut back to once a week.
    • Turn the container so all sides have equal access to the available light. (I try to turn containers every couple of days.)
    • It may take up to six weeks for some cuttings to root, so be patient.
    • Discard decaying stems promptly and replace the water.
    • When cuttings have established roots of a half-inch to an inch-long, pot them. You can use starter pots and peat potting mix. For the mints and other moisture hungry herbs, as an interim step I like to repot into large freezer bags with three inches of potting soil on the bottom (around three seedlings per bag). When the weather starts to warm up, I transplant to large peat pots -- the last step before putting these new plants outdoors after the last frost in spring.
    • Choose perennial plants. These varieties are relatively easy to root in water: basil, pineapple sage, catnip, rosemary, oregano, lavender and mint (mostly). I have trouble with mint from time to time. Not all herb varieties will root in water.  If you want to try rooting an herb that isn't listed here, it never hurts to give it a try. You may want to hedge you bets by starting a few stems in sand, vermiculite or a soilless potting mixture (dust the stripped, soil bound ends with rooting compound first - you can find it at your local nursery). 
    If you enjoy your outdoor herb garden, you'll probably like starting new plants this way or bringing some of your outdoor favorites inside. Come spring, there are few garden tasks nicer than reintroducing your winter expatriates back into the garden.

    Special hint: If you do transplant rooted stems to plastic bags, leave the bags slightly open and breath into them every few days -- plants like the CO2 (this works well in a terrarium or conservatory, too).

    Wednesday

    How to Make Rose Petal Tea

    Rose Petal Tea
    If you love the fragrance of roses and want that elegant note in your home year round, consider drying flower petals (either in the oven, via air drying or in a dehydrator) and adding those rosy notes to one of your favorite basic tea blends.

    Late season roses are fragrant, but harvesting their blooms can be bittersweet. The flowers are beautiful, but there's a chill in the air, and spring is a long way off no matter how you look at it. Be sure to prune your roses to prep them for winter, but before you do, harvest a few cups of rose petals for winter rose tea. Made with a mixture of China tea and dried rose petals, rose tea has a mild flavor and very fine aroma that will bring back the sensory impression of your summer garden -- even if it's currently sleeping under a coverlet of snow.

    I like Oolong or Darjeeling, but almost any China tea will do. Here's a recipe to try. Even if you're just an occasional tea drinker, you'll be surprised at how refreshing and rewarding this tea can be on a cold fall or winter afternoon:

    Rose Petal Tea Recipe (bulk)

    • 1/4 cup dried rose petals
    • 1 cup dry China tea (Darjeeling, Oolong, English Breakfast or other)
    Directions

    Use a quarter of a cup of petals for each cup of tea leaves.

    It's practical to mix up a batch and use it as needed. Store it in a tin with a tight fitting lid.

    To brew a cup, follow the package directions for the base China tea you're using.

    Rose tea is very nice when served with biscuits and jam. If you like your tea sweet, honey is delicious with rose tea.


    Tips for Making Rose Petal Tea:

    Use roses that are free of pesticides. If you collect rose hips or use roses for crafting, this may not be difficult. If you don't have pesticide free roses this season, bring on a couple of your most fragrant varieties for next year and use organic protection methods to make them available for culinary use (that way you can make rose wine, too).

    Blown blooms (fully mature flowers) that haven't browned will make the most flavorful tea petals.

    Rose petals dry quickly if you're using a heat source, so watch them closely to make sure they don't scorch. They should be "shatter" dry, but not brown. In a dehydrator, they just take a couple of hours to dry completely (in a single layer).

    The most fragrant rose varieties typically make the best tea.

    Although you can use any color of rose, you may find that sticking with a single color or color range makes the most visually appealing tea. This may be an issue if you're giving rose tea as a gift. (It does make a lovely gift.)


    -------------
    Photo2 Credit Photo courtesy of Andrzej Gdula http://www.sxc.hu/photo/965011 965011_chinese_cup.jpg

    Vanilla Vodka Recipe and Suggestions

    This liquor is mighty tasty and easy to make. The ingredients are: real vanilla beans, sugar and vodka. Simple. The result is a strong liquor that goes down pretty smoothly.

    Uses for Vanilla Vodka

    I like to use vanilla vodka in holiday baking projects too (to enhance pumpkin, spice, apple and nutmeg flavors especially). The vanilla aroma really comes through and it adds richness to cupcakes, bread pudding, cakes, frosting and other pastries. I'll typically substitute a couple of tablespoons of vanilla vodka for the liquid requirement (milk or water) in a recipe and cut back a teaspoon of sugar or so -- but still add vanilla extract if the recipe calls for it.

    If you've ever tasted vanilla vodka, you know it has a cold kick. It's tasty in hot beverages like coffee, though, and I've even mixed a little into whipped cream. It's very refreshing alone over ice.


    Vanilla Vodka Makes a Nice Homemade Hostess Gift

    With the inclusion of a couple of your favorite vanilla rich recipes on a printed card, this is a nice hostess gift. Leave a long vanilla bean in the bottle, tie it with a raffia bow, and you've made a gift with real culinary potential. I've prepped a bottle in the photo above. All it needs is the vodka mixture.

    This recipe takes around a month to cure, but the wait is worth it. Once mixed, which should take around five minutes, a little patience does the rest. If you like to cook, bake or just experiment with beverages, make this one up and play with it a little. It's fun, and vanilla goes with lots of different ingredients. I plan on using part of my next batch in a cherry cupcake recipe -- just an example.

    Vanilla Vodka Recipe
    • 30 ounces of vodka (decent quality but not the best on the shelf) I usually use half of a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka (59.2 fluid ounces) for easy measuring.
    • 1 cup white granulated sugar
    • 3 vanilla beans (sliced lengthwise and then cut into small sections for maximum exposure to the liquid).
    Note: Reserve a bean for presentation if this will be a gift, which would make four beans total.)


    Directions for Vanilla Vodka
    • Combine the ingredients in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid.
    • Shake thoroughly to dissolve the sugar.
    • Set aside for four weeks in your room temperature cupboard.
    • As the vanilla beans release their flavor and seeds, the mixture will turn brown and speckled.
    • Drizzle the completed fusion through a large coffee-filter lined funnel into a presentation bottle to which you've added a decorative vanilla bean. (The second photo here is a picture of a curing batch about a week from completion. You can see that it gets brown and rich looking.)
    6 vanilla beans cost about $7.00 online
    All done.

    Special notes: Because I have leftover vodka, I usually make sweet lemon vodka at the same time. One is great with coffee (vanilla), while the other tastes very nice with strong, hot tea -- especially if I feel a cold coming on -- or it's cold outside -- or, well, you get the idea. I'll post the lemon vodka recipe shortly.

    Oh, you can double the vanilla vodka recipe and make two batches at once. Just use all of one 1.75 liter bottle of vodka, 2 cups of sugar and 6 vanilla beans (8 if you want to pretty things up).

    Last Photo credit:
    Vanilla_6beans_Wiki.JPG Vanilla : 6 beans Photo : B.navez - 27 NOV 2005 (1,057 × 2,174 pixels, file size: 400 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vanilla_6beans.JPG

    Dried Herbs that Aren't Worth the Price (or Effort)

    dried herbs
    I love herbs, but only when they have great flavor. That leaves out a number of dried varieties. It's nice to think that drying herbs for use over the winter months (or buying them for a fast blast of flavor or aroma) is a foolproof way to develop culinary muscle. The fact is, though, that many herbs suffer when dried. They either lose much of their essential flavor or aroma. This isn't herb bashing; it is a sensible recommendation that you use your herb buying pennies to get the biggest bang for your flavor enhancing dollar.

    Dried Herbs That Don't Pass Muster

    The herbs listed below are pretty tasteless when dried:
    Yes, you'll definitely find these dried herbs in your market, but their flavor is disappointing. The one exception may be parsley, but you'll discover that dried parsley will degrade very quickly in your cupboard. After a couple of months, it will be a colorful green with almost no flavor. If you like the idea of green specks in your chicken soup -- great. If you'd like some flavor with that garden fresh color, stick with fresh or frozen parsley.

    If you're harvesting your own herbs, freeze cilantro, basil, parsley and chives in small bunches. You can also rough chop them into a water slurry and freeze batches in ice cube trays you can then transfer to large freezer bags. You can also try growing herbs indoors over the winter months. I've had some luck with over-wintering all the herbs above. If none of these suggestions appeal to you, this fab four is often offered fresh cut at major produce markets. The price may be more expensive than a bunch of green onions, but if you're making something special, it's worth it.

    A Word About Dried Ginger

    Ginger is another herb that loses most of its flavor once dried. If you want ginger for cooking but don't like the price in the market when you know you'll throw away more than you'll be using, try buying a nice piece of fresh root, slicing it in half-inch pieces and "pickling" it in Sherry or white wine. The ginger "in wine" will last for months in your fridge, and you can use it as you need it. More flavor, and money savings, too - what could be better. (See tips below)

    Mint Takes Some Special Consideration Too

    The mints can be problematical, too. Fresh mint has a great, bright flavor, but once it's dried, the flavor changes. It's there, but it loses the effervescent punch. For a relaxing or stomach settling tea, it's still effective. If you're considering adding dried mint to your vegetable or yogurt dish, you might want to stick to fresh. Some mints hold their flavor better than others, too. Spearmint and peppermint do well, but the subtle flavors in some specialty mints like orange mint can be lost in the drying process.

    Drying Herbs Isn't Always a Compromise Move

    Using dried herbs isn't all bad news. Bay leaf has better flavor when dried, and some seeds do, too. The flavors of oregano, thyme and sage are very vibrant dried. You might want to check even the old standbys before you use them, though. If you're used to seasoning lamb with fresh rosemary and try the dried variety, you may discover it has a more resinous aroma than you're used to. When using dried sage, there can sometimes be a musty aftertaste. The take away here is not to assume that a dried herb product will exactly reflect its fresh counterpart. Do some recon and adjust your recipes accordingly.

    Ginger in Sherry: Slice ginger in half-inch pieces with the papery covering still in place. Place raw ginger in a glass jar with a plastic lid. (Old peanut butter jars are great for this.) Cover with Sherry or white wine (not dry). Refrigerate. You can use the ginger as needed in recipes. The wine will also take on a gingery flavor you can use in marinades.

    Friday

    Quick Tips for Harvesting Herbs

    Harvesting Herbs
    It's that time of year again. You know, the time when you start saving paper bags and rubber bands for your fall herb harvest. Chances are you've been pinching back the blooms on your oregano, drying a bit of catnip for the cat (and for tea), and using your tender basil for fresh, gourmet pesto.

    That's not all you should be looking out for, though. The parsley should be trimmed back, and the lavender may bloom again if you give it some TLC. The calendula should be in fine bloom, too, and provide a very nice bit of color in fresh salads and dried for potpourri and tea. Fall is the absolute best time in the garden -- next to spring, that is. So don't give up on a nice fall herb harvest just because it's unseasonably warm, wet or buggy outdoors.

    These Tips for Harvesting Herbs Will Get You Started



    Check descriptions for individual herbs to determine whether you should be interested primarily in the leaves, flowers or seeds. With some favorites like lavender and rosemary, anything above the ground can be pretty useful. With other plants like basil, it's the leaves you're after.

    Harvesting Herbs
    Have a strategy. Harvesting, drying, freezing and cooking with herbs isn't rocket science, but if you have lots of varieties to deal with, a little preplanning can be pretty useful. Basil doesn't dry well, so you'll want to freeze it or actually prepare recipes ahead and freeze them. For versatile herbs like lavender, you may want to dry buds and use fresh stems to make wands or in other projects. For herbs like lemon balm and some of the other mints that can be used in cooking, potpourri and other projects, understanding how you'll want to use them later will help you to determine the best way to preserve and store them now.

    It will give you an idea as to the quantities you'll want to deal with too. There's a big difference between drying some catnip for your favorite feline and wanting a big batch you can donate to the local pet shelter or use for holiday gift giving.

    Get your tools together. If you have a warm, dry spot in which to dry herbs in large bunches, you can accomplish a lot of harvesting in one go. Another option is to place large paper bags on their sides (with the erstwhile bottoms cut out) and fill them with herbs for open-air drying. If you have a sunny deck and little or no herb drying area indoors, this is a great solution. Whatever your method, make sure you have your tools ready before you start hacking away at your plants. Consider setting aside:

    • A good pair of shears
    • Paper bags
    • Labels
    • Twist ties
    • Baskets
    • Rubber bands (These are great for attic drying of herb bunches. The bands snug up as the herbs dry so fewer stems end up on the floor.)

    Have your dehydrator, oven drying racks or pans, or other drying paraphernalia ready to go, too. If you're doing this in a few batches, gauge your volume so you don't pick too much at one time. Once an herb has been cut, it's too late to put it back.

    Harvesting Herbs
    Harvesting Herbs -- Quick Tricks

    • Avoid using plastic bags for harvesting. Herbs will wilt more quickly, and if left in the sun, you may end up with steamed herbs unintentionally.
    • Harvest in the morning before the sun hits the herbs but after most of the dew has evaporated. That way you'll get herb leaves at their most fragrant and flavorful.
    • Choose the best stems, leaves and blooms you can find in the garden. Avoid harvesting any herbs that look as though they may be tainted in some way. Make a cursory check for insect activity, too. Look for small holes, irregular leaf margins, the presence of eggs on the undersides of leaves, and the presence of cocoons or webs.
    • If you have lots of varieties with similar leaf shapes, like multiple mint or scented geranium varieties, label them as you pick them. I use bulk-food twist ties from the market. It'll save confusion and disappointment later.
    • You can place harvested herbs in a paper bag to tote them around, but I prefer using a couple of wicker baskets. They're inexpensive, handy and lend a kind of nostalgic "lady of the manor" grace to the process that seems appropriate. They're also easy to rinse or shake out after you've finished with them.
    • Leave harvested herbs in a shady but warm spot outdoors for a half hour after harvesting. This is usually enough time to encourage lingering varments to depart.
    • Before you take your harvest indoors, inspect it for insect eggs and cocoons one more time. Destroy any tainted leaves or stems. You checked before, but it never hurts to look again before you bring big batches of greens indoors.

    If you plan on making an herb wreath or swag this year, leave some herbs on the vine for this last project. It's one of my favorites, and I usually put it off until the first frost is imminent: How to Make an Herb Wreath

    Monday

    Harvesting Homegrown Tea

    Home Grown Tea
    Hot homemade tea is a tasty and healthy pick-me-up over the fall and winter months. If you have herbs in the garden, now's the time to harvest and dry a few for your tea cabinet. Let's take a look at some herbs that make healthy -- and tasty -- tea.

    Catnip tea (nepeta cataria) - Fresh catnip can smell a little sour, but drying seems to bring out the light aroma that gives away this plant's origins as a member of the mint family. It's a natural sedative and aids in digestion. Historically, when China tea was scarce, catnip tea's became a popular substitute. Even if you don't have a cat, catnip tea is the cat's meow. Harvest and use the plant's leaves and flowers. Avoid catnip tea if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.

    Passionflower tea (Passiflora incarnate) - An effective sleep inducer, passionflower leaves should be on your list of home grown sleepy time teas. Take this soothing tea an hour or two before bedtime. Luckily it's easy to find and grow.


    Fenugreek tea (Trigonella Foenum-Graecum) - Fenugreek seeds taste like maple syrup (without the sweetness). Sweeten the tea with honey to treat a sore throat, mild tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and indigestion.

    Lemon balm tea (Melissa) - One of maybe seven prime herbs to help you sleep (passionflower is another one), lemon balm is a member of the mint family but you wouldn't know it from the aroma, which has all the bright sweet power of lemon without the bite.

    Home Grown TeaLavender tea - I've discussed this one many times. Lavender tea is a muscle and mind relaxer that you should really rely on to decompress after a hard day. Drink it. Put it in your bath. Add a sachet to your pillow. It's all good.

    Mint tea - As a pick me up, breath freshener or stomach settler, you can't beat mint. I use a mixture of peppermint, apple mint and spearmint. Whatever you grow, it's likely to make a superior tea. Dry the leaves and stems. Once dried, use about a tablespoon of mint for eight ounces of boiling water.


    Sage tea (Salvia officinalis) - This is the herb used in stuffing, but as a soothing tea its natural estrogens can help reduce the severity of night sweats, hot flashes and menstrual cramps. This one can be a little bitter and earthy, so sweeten it with honey, stevia or sugar. Dry the leaves. Avoid taking sage in bulk if you're pregnant or nursing.


    Camellia sinensis (China) tea - This is the China tea plant, and it's surprisingly easy to grow and dry. If you can grow standard camellias in your climate, you're halfway there. Although most tea camellia harvesting is done in spring, you can take a few fall leaves to tide you over. If you haven't invested in a tea camellia yet, make sure to put it on your list of new plants for spring. You can even grow it indoors -- for a while, anyway.

    These teas have healthful properties and they taste good, too. Because you're growing and harvesting your own varieties, you can mix and match your teas to come up with a blend that offers the flavor notes and health benefits you want.

    From a muscle relaxing lavender tea with sedative lemon balm (a favorite of mine), to a therapeutic fenugreek seed tea with orange peel and honey, having a full tea drawer or cabinet is one of the great benefits that comes with planting an herb garden. In the middle of February when you think winter will never end, you can open your cache of herbs for a fragrant reminder that spring is on its way.

    Wednesday

    Tips for Harvesting Basil

    Harvesting Basil
    If you're into herbs and cooking, basil is probably a big deal in your garden. Throughout summer it's the backbone of some of the most distinctive, fresh and delicious dishes around. My two personal favorites are basil pesto and Insalata Caprese, a simple salad made with basil, mozzarella cheese and tomatoes.

    One of the things that makes these dishes so special is that they're largely seasonal. Yes, if you definitely need your basil fix there are a few things you can do, but basil and tomatoes just don't seem to fare well when cultivated out of season. Hothouse basil plants you may run into in the market during winter aren't large enough to season a family sized dish, except maybe a marinara sauce, and you probably already know that store purchased tomatoes taste like pale pretenders compared to their homegrown counterparts. There are some workarounds for storing basil you should know about, though. You can net great basil in December, but only if you act now.

    Harvesting Basil and Storing it Over the Long Winter Months

    Basil doesn't dry well. I'll repeat this because I don't want you to be disappointed: Dried basil loses most of its flavor -- and that's being generous. To preserve that bright burst of rich savor and zest, you will have to find another long term storage method. Basil is a prolific plant, and if you grow it, there's a good chance you have lots. Big bounty means a harvest to share and hopefully preserve for future use.

    What You Need to Know about Harvesting Basil

    The best time to ramp up for a basil harvest is when the plant has lots of leaves but few flowers (There's a technical term for this that escapes me at the moment and you probably don't need to be bothered with it anyway.)

    Harvesting Basil
    When you start to see what looks like stalks filled with little green crescents growing close to the stem, these are seminal flowers and the portion of the plant that sets seed. Pinch the tops down to the first set of distinctive bushy leaves, and keep doing that for the rest of the season. If you're after seed for next year, select one or two plants for seed and let them flower naturally.

    This is how the whole flowering business generally works: Many plants and most herbs have limited energy stores. At the beginning of the season, they expend energy producing leaves. Where most herbs are concerned, that's where the flavor is. There are some exceptions, like chamomile and lavender, where you're really after the flowers, but we'll discuss those herbs individually.

    When you have a bushy plant with lots of leaves and the tips are just starting to elongate, that's the best time to harvest. After flowers form, the plant switches from being a leaf producer to being a flower producer. Since it's the leaves you're after, waiting until the plant has flowered and set seed is counterproductive. Pinching back the flowers is a method of forestalling blooming and encouraging the plant to keep producing leaves. It may delay blooming for a week or two under the right conditions.

    You can also harvest basil in batches: Wait till a plant is at least 10 inches high and then start harvesting a third of the plant every month or so. You should wait until at least as much as you've taken grows in again before taking a second and third harvest. You get young, flavorful basil, but there's more work involved than taking a single harvest from each plant. To fill your basil needs throughout summer, take partial harvests from a few plants to use fresh, and leave some alone for a big summer or early fall harvest.

    Tips for Harvesting Basil

    With basil, the leaves are flavor central, and you want to gather them together in the morning before the sunlight starts beating down on them (well before noon), but after the dew has evaporated. Place harvested leaves in a container that allows good air flow. You can use a paper bag or a woven basket. Avoid using a plastic bag or bucket. Without air flow, the leaves will wilt fast and can actually begin to cook. As you harvest, be sure to keep the snipped leaves out of direct sunlight, too.

    After harvesting, rinse the leaves gently and pat them dry.

    Here are some storage options:

    Freezing Basil

    Freezing leaves - One of the most common methods for basil storage is freezing. There are two easy ways to do this. You can store individual leaves in a big freezer bag for later use. They're best frozen on a cookie sheet or plastic tray. As the leaves freeze, throw them in the bag. The leaves will stay relatively loose and individualized, making it easy to pull them out a few at a time later.

    Making basil ice cubes - The other method is to make a slurry of fresh chopped basil and water and freeze it in ice cube trays. This is an "instant" basil approach you can use to add basil goodness to soups, stews and pasta sauces throughout the winter. It's a nice option that's fast and simple to do. Once the slurry is frozen, you can transfer the cubes to freezer bags for convenient long-term storage (and free up your trays).

    Making Basil Oil

    Basil makes a tasty flavored oil, and you can create basil oil pretty easily too:

    Basil oil infusions - Transferring flavor to oil using fresh ingredients is typically called an infusion, and this can be accomplished with or without heat. The best example of a hot infusion is a steaming cup of hot tea.

    Cold vs. hot infusions - In the old days, herb enthusiasts used to cold infuse lots of herbs in oil by just letting the herbs dwell in the oil for a week or two. Some recipes called for leaving the oil in the sun, while others suggested placing the oil in a dark warm location. I've made garlic flavored oil like this and then just stored it in my cupboard.

    There are some BIG problems with this method, though. Salmonella (Salmonella enterica) is one, and botulism (Clostridium botulinum) is the other. Both can be present in cold infusions that aren't refrigerated. Nowadays, I use warm infusions for edible preparations that don't use large proportions of highly acidic (vinegar) or alcoholic (liquor) ingredients. You can find more information about salmonella and botulism below.

    For hot infusions, the idea is to speed up the flavor transfer between the herbs and the oil and also to eliminate as much water in the herbs as possible. The more watery an herb is, the more quickly the oil will spoil. For basil, which has a relatively high water content, I use this recipe:

    Basil Oil Recipe

    1 cup avocado oil
    2/3 cup tightly packed, rough chopped basil leaves

    I use avocado oil and not the standard olive oil mixture because I simmer the oil and basil leaves in a slow cooker or in a double boiler for about an hour. This process distributes the flavor and helps remove the excess moisture (the oil will last longer that way). The long cooking time works well with avocado oil because, unlike olive oil, it's super stable and has a very high smoke point. It's delicious, too.

    Basil oil prepared this way has a complex basil flavor you'll like. After processing, I strain the mixture through a sieve and then through a coffee filter. It will last a month in the fridge. I typically break the batch into thirds and freeze two portions. This will usually get me through the winter months. The recipe can be doubled.

    How to Harvest Basil
    Storing Prepared Dishes Containing Basil

    Another option is to prepare an entire dish containing basil and freeze that. I've had success freezing pesto, the same goes for any number of Italian sauce and pasta variations. If you have a few favorites that sound like good fall fare, take advantage of your basil harvest by preparing and freezing those recipes now.

    When you're harvesting basil, don't forget to let a couple of plants, or portions of one plant, flower for seed. Basil is very easy to grow from seed in spring for a big, new batch of thoroughly delicious basil next year.

    Harvesting Basil Seed

    Most basil varieties have large black seeds that form on the flowering spikes.  I have some harvesting photos and instructions here: Harvesting Basil Seeds.

    Special Notes:

    Botulism - Botulism is present in soil. It needs an airless, low acid environment in which to develop from a dormant state. If you create herbal recipes using fresh ingredients and refrigerate them at or below 39 degrees F. right away, or use alcohol or vinegar as a base, the chances of botulism contamination are low. The problem with cold infusions left at room temperature using anything other than alcohol or vinegar is that botulism does have days to develop and later refrigeration or short term boiling won't destroy the toxin. For more information about botulism, visit the USDA's website (U.S. Department of Agriculture) or visit the Botulism pages on the CDC's (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) site.

    Salmonella - Salmonella can be killed by boiling (actually if we were using meats, they would have to reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees F, while fresh ingredients only need to reach around 140 degrees F). Use a candy thermometer to test your preparations or employ some extra heat and simmer them.

    References:

    CDC. "Facts about Botulism." 10/6/06. 8/9/11.
    http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/botulism/factsheet.asp

    About Salmonella. "Salmonella." 8/9/11.
    http://www.about-salmonella.com/

    USDA. "Salmonella Questions and Answers." 5/25/11. 8/9/11.
    http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/salmonella_questions_&_answers/index.asp

    UAB Medicine. "Botulism." 8/20/07. 8/9/11.
    http://www.health.uab.edu/17622/

    USDA "Preparing and Canning Fermented Foods and Pickled Vegetables."
    http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/usda/GUIDE%206%20Home%20Can.pdf

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    By Leonardo RĂ©-Jorge (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0
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