Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sassy Salsa

I think most of us like salsa with our favorite tortilla chips. There are so many recipes I could write a book on salsa alone, but the one thing the recipes all have in common is cilantro. Cilantro has been called the Mexican parsley, with it's look-alike green lacy leaves, but it has a much different and stronger flavor. On several occasions I have grabbed it in haste at the grocery store when I really wanted parsley, instead. This only seems to happen when I am having company for dinner and am trying to make one of my favorite recipes! Murphy's Law again.

If your windowbox plant or garden plant is not ready for picking, you can purchase cilantro at the grocery store in the produce section. Wrap the stems in a damp paper towel, and keep it stored in the refrigerator in a baggie. It will last for a week or sometimes more. You could also place it in a glass of water, but then you run the risk of spilling just as company is arriving!

The seeds are used as a spice called coriander, and have a totally different flavor than it's mother plant. You might need to adjust the amount of cilantro in this recipe, because of the intensity in flavor. I like to cut it in half, but that's a personal choice.

Here's a recipe I have had for years. I found it in the Taste of Home magazine in the June/July 1999 issue.
Be careful with the jalapenos. Since it is the seeds that are hot, you may want to seed it or just leave a few seeds in, according to your taste. Use gloves and be careful not to touch your face or eyes. Wash your hands well after handling them.

Lime Cucumber Salsa:

1 large cucumber, seeded and finely chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
3 green onions, sliced
2 T. minced fresh cilantro
2 T. lime juice
2 T. olive oil
1 t. grated lime peel
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper

Note: I recently made this recipe and discovered I did not have a jalapeno pepper. My husband suggested I substitute some banana pepper rings I had in the refigerator. I chopped them to an equal size as the rest of the items. They added a new interesting flavor and also a splash of color. 2/12/07

Hasta la vista (until next time)

We are here to cultivate the garden and take care of it. Genesis 2:15

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Dying to Try Drying?

Are you dying to try dying? Try saying that one ten times. Well, drying herbs is surprisingly easy. There are several ways I know of and I'm sure there are many I don't know.

First you have to harvest your herbs. Try to harvest in the morning after the dew is burned off but before the strong sun hits the garden. This will bring a stronger flavor to the leaves. In most cases, you'll want to pick your herbs before flowering, but if you miss the opportunity, just pick the flowers and wait for the regrowth. Take note that not all herbs are as abundant the second time around.

Cut the herbs on as long as a stem as possible, then wash them carefully with a fine spray or under tap water at a soft setting. Lay them out on paper towels and lightly tap or press to remove excess water. Then begin your chosen method of drying.

One of the tried-and-true methods of drying herbs is air drying. Put a screen on two sawhorses or between two chairs. You can do this in your garage, breezeway, or any out building. I've also done it in the house, but you'll be inconvenienced for a few days. If you try it outdoors, you run the risk of the elements as well as birds and squirrels. If that's the only place you have, then be sure to cover the herbs with a netting that's tied down. Make sure there is sufficient air circulation, then just wait for a day or two. When the leaves and stems seem to be brittle, they're done.

Another way to air dry is to tie the herbs in bundles and hang them upside down from the rafters in your garage or attic. I also like to hang them from an old-fashioned, folding, clothes-drying rack. Use them as soon as possible after drying to avoid dust settling on your herbs; you won't be washing them again. Sometimes I leave some hanging up just because I like the way they look and smell, but I'm careful not to use that bunch for culinary purposes.

If you're in a hurry and just doing a small batch, you can dry herbs in the oven or microwave. To oven dry, spread them out on a cookie sheet, and place it in a the oven at the lowest setting. Crack the door a bit and watch carefully as some herbs will dry faster than others.

For microwave drying, stack two or three paper towels, then the herbs, then one paper towel on top. This method will only take a few minutes, but watch closely because each microwave is different.

Once your herbs are dry you can strip them of their stems and place them in clean jars, sealing tightly. Keep them out of direct sunlight. I don't crush the herbs until I'm ready to use them, because sometimes I might want a whole leaf for an accent or decoration. Now that you're ready to go, I'll have recipes following for oils and vinegars, salads, bath and beauty, and tea time.

He who plants a garden, plants happiness. Chinese Proverb.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Herb Rub-a-dub-dub

Herb-rub-a-dub-dub, six herbs in a tub!
Soon we'll get into the different ways you can dry herbs. If you've already started and have a few in jars, you're probably ready to starting cooking. Over the years I have collected many, many recipes. As they build up, I discard the ones I don't like or haven't seemed interested in enough to try. Some are on recipe cards neatly printed in someone else's handwriting, some are photocopies of magazine pages, some actually torn out of magazines, some came from books hastily hand-copied on scraps of paper. Since I didn't document them at the time, I can't give the publications or the generous friend the credit they deserve. But I will try to notify you of the source anytime I have it. I believe this recipe came from a Taste of Home magazine but I don't have a clue what edition. It's one of my favorite magazines.

I just made up a fresh batch of this steak rub this morning. I was able to take everything from jars of herbs that came directly from my garden except the garlic powder. And any good cook should always have some garlic powder handy. It's the best flavor enhancer in the world. Try this and you'll see that it gives McCormick's a good run for their money. Besides you can feel proud that you grew all of the ingredients yourself.

Herb Steak Rub:

1 T. dried marjoram
1 T. dried basil
2 t. garlic powder
2 t. dried thyme
1 t. dried rosemary, crushed
3/4 t. dried oregano

Combine all ingredients; store in a covered container. Rub over steaks before grilling or broiling. Will season four to five steaks. Yield: 1/4 cup

My note: shake well before using. I noticed that the garlic powder seems to settle on the bottom. Enjoy!

No winter lasts forever, no spring skips its turn. April is a promise that May is bound to keep, and we know it. Hal Borlund

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Beautiful Basil

What could be more aromatic and flavorful than basil or,ocimum basilicum? It's one of my favorite herbs to grow and attractive, too, with it's bright leaves. I especially like to see the purple variety such as "Dark Opal" growing alongside the green of the sweet basil.

Basil works well in the garden or the windowsill, but it can become leggy if not tended. You'll need to pinch back the small buds of the new growth on the top to 5 to 6 inches That will encourage it to bush out a little and will lengthen the growing season. The flowers, which are white, are not used for culinary purposes and are not that pretty anyway, so go ahead and pinch those back, also.

Basil is very sensitive to cold and can die out just from a quick drop in temperature or cold, high winds. Even a light frost will end it's life. So when you're harvesting leaves, make sure you do that before Jack Frost settles in in the fall. Sadly to say basil is an annual; you'll need to buy a new plant every year or start some new seedlings. But then if everything was a perennial and grew without our attention, what would a gardener do for fun?

Here's a great recipe using basil:

Oil and Vinegar Basil Dressing:

12/ cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 T. coarse-grained mustard
1 T. pure maple syrup or 1/2 t sugar
2 t dried basil
Salt and freshly black pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients in a jar: secure the lid, and shake well. Store leftover dressing in the refrigerator, but bring to room temp. before serving for best flavor.

Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own. Charles Dickens

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Windowsill Wisdom

If you're ready to try windowsill gardening, there are a few things you'll need to think about first.

First of all, do you have a window ledge or shelf wide enough to hold your containers? Secondly, is your window going to provide enough light? Most herbs like sun when out in the garden, so you'll need a window with bright light, but not necessarily direct sun. Remember the glass intensifies the heat and can burn the plant. In my area the sun is okay in the winter but a southern window is brutal in the summer. If you don't have a good window, try using a fluorescent light purchased at your garden center.

What kind of plants do you want to grow? If you are not sure what you'll like, look in your kitchen cupboard. What dried herbs do you most often buy? If you like Italian food or Mexican food, then try herbs that are found in those recipes.

Now for the containers. You'll need something that can provide good drainage such as the usual clay pots or the plastic look-alikes. If you want something a little prettier or more formal, try a large coffee mug, a stoneware bowl, or a cookie tin with advertising on it. If you choose to use these items, you'll need to add drainage by putting smalls pebbles or broken terracotta pieces in the bottom before adding the soil. You can group several pots together on a tray if there are drainage holes on the bottom to prevent water from running all over your kitchen. Several plants can also be put into one larger pot, but be careful not to overcrowd them. Each plant will need its own space and air surrounding it.

Be sure to choose a good potting soil made especially for container gardening. The dirt in your yard might be depleted of the essentials needed to nourish your plant. It could also harbor dormant diseases which will begin to grow in the warmth of the kitchen and destroy all of your hard work.

Water your plants when the top inch of soil has become dry. Remember most herbs like a drier soil when outdoors but then they also have the benefit of the night dew. So if your furnace is running and the air is dry, you might have to water every 1-2 days. If the humidity is adequate, you can water less frequently. Watch the leaves to see if the are drooping; if so, a light mist might be necessary.

And last but not least, I know you'll be excited to cook with your herbs daily, but remember not to take off too many leaves at a time. Your windowsill plant won't be as prolific as the ones growing in the garden. You want to make sure your plant will continue to grow and rejuvenate itself, so pick just a few leaves or side shoots at a time to avoid totally stripping it. That will ensure your plant has a longer life.

At the heart of gardening there is a belief in the miraculous. Mirabel Osler

Monday, January 15, 2007

Chatting about Chives

One of the easiest herbs to grow is chives. You can start them from seed and transplant the seedlings to your garden at the right time of year or just grow a pot on your kitchen windowsill for easy culinary access. I've also found small pots already started at the grocery store in the produce section. Of course, you could force yourself to go to a gardening center and purchase a plant there. I like to let a patch in the garden go to blossom. They can grow right in with your perennials, and they make a very pretty color addition. Even after flowering, the chives are still good, although they are more flavorful before blossoming.

Inside or out, all you have to do is snip off the leaves near the tips with kitchen shears. In a pot on the sill, allow the plant to reach about 5-6 inches and continue to snip as it grows. If you cut more than you need, here is an easy way to store them. Cut them down to small pieces and put a tablespoon or so in each empty ice cube tray section. Then fill it with water. When they are frozen you can pop them out and transfer to some freezer bags or a plastic freezer dish. This will prevent them from picking up refrigerator odors. If you use them often, they can stay in the ice cube tray. When you're ready to use them in your recipe, take out as many cubes as you need and let them thaw in a strainer. Voila, just like they're fresh from the garden!

Chives contain minerals and vitamins which are good for your health, such as: potassium, calcium, iron, folic acid, and vitamins A and C.

Here's an easy recipe for you to try with your new chive plant.

Herb Butter:

7 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4 tbsp. chopped parsley
1 tbsp. chopped chives
salt and black pepper
1 tsp. lemon juice

Beat the butter with the garlic, parsley and chives. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Gradually beat in the lemon juice a few drops at a time.
Shape the butter into a roll, wrap it in foil or plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm. Cut it in slices, or pats, to serve. Makes 1/2 cup
Toss with plain, wheat or spinach pasta, or drizzle over steamed vegetables.

The plans of the diligent lead to profit. Proverbs 21:5

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Down and Dirty

Now that you've had a chance to look over your yard and make some sketches of possible garden designs, let's talk about soil types.

If you're unsure of your soil type, there is a test that you can do yourself to give you a general idea of what you're dealing with by using a kitchen jar. Put a few tablespoons of soil in a jar, fill it with water, and put on the lid. Shake the jar until the dirt is mixed with the water, and then leave it alone for a few days so the soil can settle to the bottom. When you check for the results, you will see one of three types of soil at the bottom. Clay soil will have a a small band of sand and stones covered by a thicker band of heavy clay. Medium soil will show an equal division of sand and clay. Light soil will be the opposite of the first type and will show a thick layer of sand and stones on the bottom covered by a thin layer of clay.

Herbs are not really fussy and can grow in any type of soil, but for best results, you should try to grow them in conditions that are close to their native habitat.

Sandy soils drain quickly but the draining takes the nutrients with it. Compost and mulch will help hold in some moisture. Most Mediterranean herbs thrive in this type of soil. Some of my favorites are: chamomile, fennel, lavender, and thyme.

Clay soils are difficult to dig and can become waterlogged in heavy rains, sticking together in clumps. Then when the weather becomes hot and dry, it bakes into a hard surface. You can loosen it up, by working in generous amounts of compost. Some herbs that are suitable for this situation are; bee balm, comfrey, mint, and wormwood.

Loam soils are easy to dig and rich in nutrients. It usually does not require anything further. If it seems to drain well, you're all set for most types of herb. Some that I like to grow are: basil, chives, coriander, dill, rosemary, and sage.

Once you plant them and watch them grow, you'll be able to tell what's working for you. Of course each year is different depending on weather conditions, so you might want to start a garden journal.

The wise gardener anticipates June in January. House and Garden

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Garden Dreams

Have you always dreamed of having an herb garden? Honestly, it was never in my wildest dreams. I was a just flower gardener for years. I thought herbs looked very unappealing to the eye. Why would anyone want these dry beds with wood chips and stones around them? What was all the fuss about?
One day, while at an out-of-town convention with my husband, I went on a bus tour with a bunch of the wives while the men were at a meeting. They took us to an herb farm, of all things. I grudgingly went along just to be polite, and to my surprise I fell in love with the place; an old barn surrounded by beds of herbs, chickens running loose pecking at the ground. It was close to the end of the season so we were allowed to pick leaves, and handle and smell anything we wanted. At the end of the walk around the paths, we were served herb tea and herb muffins. It was so relaxing, I never wanted to leave.

Years later, I found myself living in an historic home where there were herbs already planted. Around the foundation of the house was a variety of mints, some chives and feverfew. Since I already had a few of the main herbs in my garden, I thought it would be fun to add the four made famous by the Simon and Garfunkel song; Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme (yes, I'm a product of the sixties.) And that was the start of it all.

You're thinking about it at the perfect time of year. Get out a piece of graph paper and start sketching out the layout you want. It should be in an area that receives 4-6 hours of sun a day when the leaves are on the trees. Don't make your garden too deep. You should be able to comfortably reach across to weed it. You might want a path of wood chips or stone (there it is) to walk on. This will keep your feet dry and your shoes clean and also the dirt won't be compacted if you don't have to step on it. You'll also have to decide if you want a formal or informal garden. Formal gardens have more of a structure, sometimes with geometric patterns. I personally like an informal setting. I don't mind if the garden looks a little haphazard and overrun. It seems more comfortable to me and a lot less work. Maybe you just want a few plants by the back door and that's okay, too. The garden should not be too far away from the kitchen if you plan to use the herbs for culinary purposes. It's easier to step out the back door and break off a few pieces than it is to walk out to the back forty. But it really all depends on the sun and the way your yard is layed out.

We'll talk about the types of herbs you can choose for your garden next. In the mean time, think about the type of soil you already have in your yard. You might need to amend it, or have two or three different planting areas. Some herbs like hot conditions with little water and others prefer a moist soil thats rich but well- drained. Make some notes, and we'll get back together later over a cup of chamomile tea.

No occupation is so delightful as the culture of the earth.
Thomas Jefferson

Monday, January 8, 2007

Herb Heaven

Did you ever smell a sprig of lavender and think you went to heaven? That's what I think of heaven anyway. I hope God will allow us to surround ourselves with our favorite things. And for me that means quilts, music, flowers and herbs; especially lavender and lily-of-the-valley.

Whenever I have a bad day, I take a stroll through the herbs, reach down, and stroke the leaves. As I caress the rosemary, the aroma clings to my fingertips. I might break off a leaf or two of sage or oregano and hold it close to my nose. I walk calmly around the flowers holding the fragrant herbs, and sniff deeply every few steps. Before you know it, my mood has changed dramatically and all seems right with the world again. That's what herbs are able to do for me.

You can cook with herbs, use them for medicinal purposes, or just grow them for the fun of it. They can even be used to decorate your table or made into gifts. I plan to offer all of my many ideas to you, and will share my years of trial and error with you. So until the next post, here is the quote of the day:

Little flower -- but if I could understand what you are, root and all; then, all in all, I should know what God and man is. Alfred, Lord Tennyson