Category Archives: Herbs

Presto Pesto!

and Other Ways of Preserving Your Bountiful Garden

Homemade herb-drying rack made from a stick and some yarn. From left to right: thyme, French tarragon, chocolate mint, and rosemary.

Dear Reader:

This year’s garden was a great success. One giant sunflower produced fifteen or twenty blossom/seed heads and provided the early autumn garden with a showy display. The straw bale gardens gave the tomato plants a much-needed boost of sunlight along with the nitrogen fertilizer and carbon from the straw, and we had plenty of Early Girl and heirloom tomatoes to slice for sandwiches, chop for salsa, and wedge for salads.

Black-eyed Susans are still blossoming out there along with the deepening pink of Autumn Joy sedum. Even the new female Winterberry is bejeweled with deep red berries!

Bread & Butter Pickles

Cucumbers were so abundant this year I was able to make a few pickles. Pickling was surprisingly easy and amounts to nothing much more than chopping and slicing veggies and herbs, making a brine out of salt, vinegar, sugar and spices, and pouring the brine over the veggies in glass containers. These Bread & Butter Pickles came out very crisp and white where I’d always been used to softer and more yellow, but the flavor was intense and delicious.

I found my recipe in a 1980’s Betty Crocker Cookbook, but Mother Earth News Magazine has a good starter article right here online plus a heads-up about a book outlining small-batch pickle production (say THAT ten times fast).

An excess of tomatoes from my parents’ excellent garden up n’oth became hot, spicy pasta sauce. The process for the sauce is simple. Boil water in a big pot. Dump in the tomatoes and wait 30-40 seconds. Lift tomatoes out with slotted spoon and dump into cold water in the sink. After a minute or two, slip skins off tomatoes and cut into fourths. Throw into large slow cooker pot with onions, garlic, chopped veggies like zucchini, hot peppers, green pepper. Add salt, dried herbs or fresh herbs to taste. Add cooked meat if desired. Let it simmer for about seven hours. You can also add tomato paste to thicken it if you like. The sauce can be frozen in freezer bags or containers.

Calendula in the Herb Garden

Perhaps the most successful of my garden experiments this years was the herb box. Along with the sunflower mentioned above, I planted fennel (see Grand Fennel-ly ), rosemary, and basil. In the front of one perennial bed, a French tarragon comes back and grows bigger every summer, and down at the end of the driveway beneath the forsythia bushes my friend Sandi kindly divided for me, a hardly little thyme comes back year after year after year.

This year, I decided, I would preserve a bit of these herbs to see me through a winter season of cooking. The basil were huge. I grew weepy just thinking about pulling them and throwing them on the compost as I’d babied them through the first rough month of transplant shock, daily watering, and Japanese beetles. One night seemed to be threateningly cold, and so, fearing frost, I gently pulled up the basil and placed each one its own plastic grocery bag. These I crammed into the mudroom until I could figure out when and what to do with them.

Poor basil in the mudroom

Friends, let me tell you, basil fresh from the garden has a powerful odor! Neighbor Debbie stopped by and thought the mudroom smelled like old shoes. Hmmm. Hopefully the basil doesn’t taste like dear daughter’s gym sneakers. I rather thought the mudroom smelled wicked “herbal” and prayed no-one dropped over and came to a wrong conclusion about my gardening activities. All legal, I promise!

Ingredients for Presto Pesto

A week or so later, those basil plants were still sitting in my mudroom and beginning to look a little wilty. The predicted frost never materialized, and I gritted my teeth wishing I’d left my herbs in the dirt until I figured out what to do with it.

I knew I had to come up with something and fast, or else the poor plants would end up on the compost pile after all. A mid-week visit to my good friend, Donna D, prompted me to share some garden tomatoes and a large sprig of the basil. Donna D, in turn, gave me a cube of her homemade basil pesto and–bless her soul–a recipe to go with it. Voila! I had the answer to my herbal error.

The recipe calls for using a food processor and blending ingredients very slowly and deliberately. I don’t own a food processor. I do, however, own a blender. After trying with no success to puree basil leaves, garlic cloves and walnut in the blender with no liquid, I gave up and dumped in the olive oil and grated Parmesan and turned the blender on to puree for about three minutes. Presto Pesto! was born.

Pesto in ice cube trays

The trick to keeping the pesto for future use is simple: ice-cube trays. Empty your ice-cubes into a plastic container in the freezer so your family doesn’t throw a hissy-fit when they are looking to cool down their apple cider/workout water-bottle/iced coffee/red-wine-that-really- shouldn’t-be-chilled-but-whatever. Wash the ice-cube trays and dry them. Pour prepared Presto Pesto into the trays. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze. When frozen, pop out of trays and store in zippered freezer bags (or leave in the trays if you have extras for actual ice-production).

The pesto can be thawed and used later. I made four batches of Presto Pesto! with my starting-to-wilt-and-wither basil plants, and these batches filled two ice-cube trays. I think it must be fairly economical as those little jars in the grocery store are quite expensive (local big-box supermarket has a 4.5 oz jar for $3.29.) I used only a portion of a bag of walnuts and one wedge of Parmesan cheese. Pesto does take a bit of olive oil, but it is cheaper if you buy it in those big cans unless you are a stickler for extra-extra virgin fancy stuff.

Following is friend Donna D’s recipe just as she gave it to me. But to make it Presto Pesto! simply ignore the persnickety instructions about careful and slow blending at just the right moment and just dump the whole thing together in the blender and let’r go.

BASIL PESTO

1 1/2 c. basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
1/4 c. pine nuts or walnuts
3/4 c. thinly grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 c. olive oil

Puree first three ingredients in food processor until it forms a thick paste. Add the Parmesan cheese very slowly. Then add olive oil and mix until the consistency of creamed butter. Put a film of oil over top. Cover and refrigerate or freeze in ice-cube trays.

That’s it, Dear Reader! Whether you are preserving the garden by pickling, drying, canning or freezing, it is so much fun to go shopping in your own pantry during the winter months…Outside the Box.

Drop me a line and tell us about YOUR preserving projects this year. It’s always fun to hear someone else talk for a change.

Grand Fennel-y

Fennel Seed Head


Dear Reader:

September is here. It is the grand finale of summer, of the harvest. I’ve been picking tomatoes, cucumbers, red chili peppers, and the last of the lettuce and yellow summer squash. A couple of the garden boxes are looking a little thin now that the zucchini and squash plants have been pulled. My herb box, however, continues to delight. The basil is full and fragrant (time to make pesto before the frost hits!), the calendula finally blossomed, the sage and rosemary are holding their own . . . and then there is the fennel!

Rich in phytoestrogens,Fennel is often used for colic, wind, irritable bowel, kidneys, spleen, liver, lungs, suppressing appetite, breast enlargement, promoting menstruation, improving digestive system, milk flow and increasing urine flow. Fennel is also commonly used to treat amenhorrea, angina, asthma, anxiety, depression, heartburn, water retention, lower blood pressure, boost libido, respiratory congestion, coughs and has been indicated for high blood pressure and to boost sexual desire.–http://www.herbwisdom.com/herb-fennel.html

Honestly, I had no idea what a powerhouse of a plant I had growing in garden box #1! Fennel tasted like licorice, I knew that much. I wanted to grow some new-to-me herbs in that box, and the fennel looked interesting at the greenhouse. So four fennel plants found their way into the herb box.

And they grew.

And grew.

And grew until they were huge white bulbs with offshoots springing from it looking somewhat like a white heart with ventricles and arteries and veins.

See . . .

Upside-down for comparison

When it became clear to me that I should cook the bulbs before they went to seed, I pulled up three of them, brought them inside, sliced them up, and roasted them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and sea salt until they caramelized.

The fennel petals were a bit tough…I really did leave the plants in the ground too long. Still, the roasted fennel lent a mellow, buttery-licorice taste when added to the top of a bed of greens for a late-summer salad. The remaining plant will be allowed to go to seed. I’ve been snipping off fronds here and there to use in vinaigrette, on top of roasted meat, added to soups, for cucumber pickles, whatever I can think of.

Going All To Seed

When the flower heads turn to seed and begin to dry, I will harvest them, put them into a marked envelope, and wait until next spring to try my hand at starting new plants indoors.

I’ll also be trying to find some herbal teas that include fennel to help boost my heart, lungs, and digestive system over the fall and winter. Mmmmm, a soothing cup of licorice-tasting tea while the watching the leaves turn color outside the window. I’m almost ready for summer to be over. Almost.

How about you? Are you a fennel fan? Or fennel-finicky? Cast your vote . . . Outside the Box.

Strawberry Chocolate Mint Jam

Beautiful Locally-grown Strawberry

Dear Reader:

I finally got up to the local fruit farm, Dole’s Orchards, where I lucked out. It was the last day of strawberry picking and the picking, I must say, was GOOD. I filled seven quart containers in about an hour, and a quick taste test proved that all the sunshine and copious amounts of rain had come at just the right times and in the right amounts to create plump, sweet, flavorful berries–the best I’ve tasted in a few years.

Dole’s is located on top of a hill, apple and peach and plum orchards spreading out from an old yellow farmhouse and barn and neighboring hillsides in the distance drawing the eye with various shades of blue. The air is sweet up there on the hill. In a week there will be raspberries ripe and fat on thick canes and new peaches to pluck from leafy branches. Blueberries are ready for picking, an early season. Come fall, the Dole’s will be open for apple and plum picking, and on three consecutive Sunday afternoons there will be a hay-bale maze, music performances, a long stack of pumpkins from which to chose your jack o-lantern, and a farm store full of cider and Nancy’s deep-dish apple pie…

Chocolate Mint

But now it is summer, and I have a hankering to experiment with fruit jams. In the past I tried a recipe for blueberry-chili pepper jam with cilantro and thought it was fabulous–sweet, zippy, fragrant. What could I do with strawberries? What did I have growing in my garden boxes? The answer was obvious: Chocolate Mint.

Chocolate mint does really have a taste of chocolate. The more I learn about mint, the more admiration I have for this vigorous, hardy, versatile plant. You can find spearmint, peppermint, lemon, and many other varieties. It can be used for desserts, teas, baking, and jams. My grandmother used to make a beautiful green mint-apple jelly. What could be more perfect for strawberries, I thought, than chocolate and mint?

Strawberry Chocolate Mint Jam

The recipe is simple, based on one from the Betty Crocker cookbook:

4 cups ripe strawberries, crushed
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice, fresh squeezed
2 tablespoons chocolate mint leaves, snipped very fine with kitchen scissors

Prepare 2 half-pint canning jars on 1 one-pint jar. Boil in water to sterilize. Follow canning directions if you plan to store these unrefrigerated.

Put strawberries, sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan on high. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to keep a boil, stir occasionally, cook for about 25 minutes. Skim the light pink foam from the top. Mix in the mint and stir for one minute. Remove from heat.

Pour into jar(s). Finish processing if you are storing them outside the ‘fridge. This is such a small amount that I simply put the lid and screw-cap on and will eat it within the next couple of weeks. The sugar is a preservative.

Here is the finished product. I “tasted” the jam from the spoon, but the real test will be when the preserves have cooled and I’ve spread some on a homemade scone. I’ll let you know! In the meantime, don’t be afraid to experiment with jams, jellies, preserves, and chutneys. You can generally make a small batch and eat it up without having to invest the time to process it in a canner. If you like the results, well then, make a big batch to can and give away to your lucky friends and family. What special or unusual recipes have you tried lately? Drop me a recipe…Outside the Box.

Strawberry Chocolate Mint Jam

Straw Bale Sprouts

Straw Bale Sprouts

Dear Reader:

An update on how the straw bale garden is coming along. Following Joel Karsten’s instructions, I have been watering and fertilizing the two rows for about nine days. (Was keeping track and now realize I’ve thrown away my paper!) I’m a little concerned that all these sprouts are bursting up out of the straw, making my bales look like long, rectangular Chia Pets!

Hopefully this is a good sign that the fertilizer is doing its job; however, I’m wondering if this burgeoning hay won’t choke out tomato plants when I get them settled in to their warm and cozy home in a week or so. I’m waiting until Memorial Day Weekend–the traditional start of Maine gardening.

Up-slope in front of straw bale

Evidence is mounting that the fertilizer is also seeping through the bale and into the surrounding lawn. Above shows the decrepit state of my “lawn” on the upward side of the slight slope on which I plunked the straw bales. Pretty sparse and horrible, right?

Now, here is what the grass looks like on the downward slope where the run-off from my watering goes.

Between the Bales

These are not retouched photos! Can you believe the difference? I’m still wondering what to do about my leach-lawn. Maybe putting down some compost, some grass seeds, some fertilizer, some straw and a bunch of watering would make it look like a typical suburban plot of lawn. I could add a round “wildflower” plot perhaps, as I’ve read that wildflowers typically have more surface-loving root systems. The dandelions rioting out there certainly aren’t short-rooted, though. They are doing their very best to bring nutrients up to the surface with their long taproots. I should help them out, don’t you think? I also have some lime in my garage stash. The wouldn’t hurt either as the soil acidity if probably high from all the pine trees.

Crab Apple Tree Guild

I began planting a mini “apple tree guild” around my flowering crab as an experiment. In the inner circle, I stuck bulbs of MOFGA garlic that I will harvest as scapes, or green garlic. Then I transplanted two cuttings from a comfrey plant. Comfrey is a good “living composter.” You can cut the leaves off and compost them in place to provide nutrients to the soil. Comfrey is also known as “knit-bone” and has been used for hundreds of years to help heal bruises and bones. (As always, check with a trained herbalist before dosing yourself with anything!). I also transplanted a dandelion as they bring nutrients up from the deeper soil. In a week or so, I hope to plant some fava beans as nitrogen accumulators and some pretty nasturtiums. In the fall, I’ll put a ring of daffodils around the drip-line to discourage foraging creatures from getting into my guild.

If all goes well, I hope to plant a couple of medium-sized apple trees out front and create similar guilds. I want a good crab-apple for making jelly and maybe a regular apple for pies. I do need to research this as they should flower at the same time for cross-pollination.

Mystery Shrub

The mystery shrub on the north corner of my house is no longer a mystery. It is Kerria japonica. This is a double-flower variety I picked up as a very small perennial plant at a sidewalk sale in front of the beverage store/redemption center in Waterboro about seven years ago. It has grown to nice proportions and I can divide it easily to many spots around the yard beneath the trees. It seems to do quite well even in very sporadic dappled shade.

How is your garden journey going so far this spring? Do tell…Outside the Box.

Eggsellent Spring Supper

Spring Herbs

Dear Reader:

It may be hard to believe, but the garden, thanks to perennial herbs, produced ingredients for a wonderful, fresh-tasting spring supper before I even sent in my order to Johnny’s Seeds yesterday.

Perennial herbs are a gift of spring. Nestled up beside the first little feather fronds of yarrow and the recently divided rudbekia are the healthy clumps of reliable chives. The first grayish-purple flower heads poke up through the succulent spikes, and a few snips of the cooking shears yield a small handful of spicy, slightly oniony flavor.

Chives

Another unassuming, grassy-looking clump perfumes my fingers with the slight scent of liquorice when I roll a blade between thumb and finger. This is French tarragon–useful in soups, sprinkled on roasting chicken or vegetables with olive oil, or stuffed into a bottle of vinegar where it will impart its Mediterranean essence to that humblest of condiments.

French Tarragon

A short walk down to the perennial bed beneath the beech trees, my tiny but refuses-to-die thyme plant has put out new green leaves. I snip a few sprigs, roll a leaf between my fingers to inhale the woody aroma. Thyme is good, of course, in chicken soups and other stews. It is also remarkably yummy with eggs…and this is what I’m intending for this night’s supper.

Fresh Thyme

Bouquet in hand, I stroll to the house. From my ‘fridge comes a carton of locally-raised eggs; delicate shells in various hues indicate a mixed flock. The chickens that produced these eggs get plenty of protein from insects and plenty of fresh air and grass to scratch in. Their beaks haven’t been clipped. They have room to move. The yokes inside the eggs are golden-orange and plump, healthy, reassuring.

If only I’d thought ahead and purchased some local chevre, I think as I whisk a couple of eggs in a bowl and pour them into a buttered skillet on the stove. Instead I make do with some sharp cheddar and feta from the Limerick Market. I vow to try making my own mozzarella soon.

Sprinkling on the chopped herbs, I flip over one side of the set egg mixture. I pop a slice of my homemade bread into the toaster, tuck a handful of organic spring mix (Note to self: next year, use cold frames and start greens early!) onto a large plate, and slide the omelet next to the greens. A little butter on the toast and bon appetit!

Simple Dinner

If I’d started an asparagus bed, could I have added that to my meal, I wonder? Is Maine asparagus ready this early? Another note to self: create asparagus bed this year.

As for greens, I could have harvested all the dandelion any girl could want…wild food is even better than perennial food. (See “Not Your Grandmother’s Dandelion Greens.”) I have the store-bought greens, though, and the dandelions aren’t going anywhere.

Dandelions

Now, imagine some homemade hard apple cider to go along with this meal. Or some home-fries from local or backyard potatoes instead of the toast. Rhubarb pie for dessert. I wanted a quick meal, but the possibility for something more substantial is all right there–inspired by the fresh flavors of perennial spring greens. If you have even a small area in which to plant, these hardy and versatile herbs would serve you well.

Dissappointment In A Bottle

Gotcha!

Dear Reader:

I have caught a cold. A doozy of a cold. My nose is dripping. My throat feels scorched and swollen. My head is heavy, like you could throw it down a bowling lane and knock down ten pins without even trying.

I suppose I should be grateful I made it all the way through the holiday season without getting sick. Instead, I am able to send the Teen off to school for the day while I spend seven quiet, solitary hours tucked into bed–sleeping, watching Sex and the City DVDs, sleeping, drinking mugs of herbal tea, reading, and, did I mention, sleeping? The sleeping part would have been easier ten years ago, back in the good old days when we still had what I call the Magic Nite-Time Cold Potion.

Like all magic potions, the Magic Nite-Time Cold Potion was foul on the tongue. Syrupy and black with a super-concentrated flavor of licorice, this stuff tasted like the Witches of Eastwick brewed it up in their Crock-Pot slow cookers and passed it through rotting compost before bottling; however, to the sufferer of the common cold or not-so-common flu, this stuff was liquid salvation. Two tablespoons of the potion and boom! You were out cold for the night.

A few years ago, the Magic Potion lost its magic. The mighty hand of government had reached down and snatched it away, i.e. passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005. Seems that the Magic Potion contained a vital ingredient used to make a nasty illicit drug. Skanky drug producers were setting up labs in their kitchens and using these over-the-counter medications as primary ingredients for production of crystal meth. In order to curtail production, the government decided to cut off the supply of pseudoephedrine that the users (losers) had been purchasing over-the-counter down at the local drug store. Good-bye nasal decongestant.

Hello sleepless nights for the rest of us.

When my cold hit two days ago, I stumbled to the bathroom linen closet and found the new formula on my top shelf. The pain reliever worked, but my nose remained clogged and runny. I got maybe two hours of solid sleep. Alas, the Magic potion was no longer magic. It was simply Disappointment In A Bottle.

So, thank you all you meth addicts and producers out there with your miserable, stinky “labs” and teeth falling out and shakes and shivers and dirty needles. Do not expect pity from me when I am miserable with a nasty cold. And thank you, Big Government, for making each and every cold since 2005 one-hundred percent more miserable than it needed to be. Thank you very, very much.

As for natural, local remedies, I have been drinking a tea called Respiratory Tonic from a local herbalist– Greenwood Herbals in Parsonsfield. It doesn’t knock me out, of course, but sipping the tonic seems to relieve chest congestion and it opens the nasal passages a bit. The flavor is sweet, not nasty like the Magic Potion, and I can sleep a little easier knowing the ingredients are organically and locally grown.

Drinking hot liquids makes sense when you have a winter cold. Homemade chicken soup with lots of garlic thrown can’t hurt, either. Here is the soup I threw together last night:

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme Chicken Soup

1 chicken carcass with most meat pulled from it and meat set aside
3 carrots
2 celery stalks
Two onions
Garlic cloves, to taste
chicken bouillon cubes to taste
pepper (about 1/8 tsp)
(sea vegetable flakes optional)
dried parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme (1 tsp each or so
1 cup or so of dried pasta

Put chicken carcass in big pot and cover with water. Add 1 cut up carrot, 1 quartered onion, and 1 cut up celery stalk into pot. Bring to boil. Boil for one hour. Strain out broth.

Add chicken meat, bouillon cubes, sliced carrots, sliced celery, chopped onion and remaining ingredients except pasta. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until veggies are soft, about 20 minutes. Add pasta. Boil until al dente, about 12 minutes. Eat steaming hot.

Be well . . . Outside the Box.

PS: In researching this post, I came across the surprising and welcome information that my Magic Nite-Time Cold Potion is now available BEHIND the pharmaceutical counter. Next time Mr. Upper Respiratory Infection comes to call, I will make a trip to see the man behind the curtain, uh, RX counter. Coin will pass palm. The Magic will be back!