Saturday, March 31, 2007

Tarragon and Tales (Tails ) of Dragons

I don't know what happened to my tarragon. Sometimes I wonder if I pull out a plant accidentally thinking it's a weed or did it just give up. So if you've done the same, know that you are not alone.

Tarragon, a member of the wormwood family, is a perennial that prefers a sunny, well-drained spot, and if left in a wet area will not return the following year. It does well in zones 5-10 but it's difficult to grow in warmer climates. Even so, in cold climates, you'll still need to mulch after the ground is frozen solid. You can grow it indoors in a pot but make sure it gets at least 5 hours of sunshine a day. That's a little difficult to promise here in Michigan. Well, I certainly didn't do it right so I'll try again this year in the garden.

The botanical name is artemisia dracunculus, meaning "little dragon." It was thought that the thin leaves resembled dragon's tongues and the roots were shaped like the curve of a snake. Ancient doctors sometimes felt that the shape and color of a plant determined what it would be good to use for medicinally; therefore it was often used for snake bites and bee stings. It was very popular as an appetite enhancer and often used in old England in salads to get the meal off to a good start. Henry VIII cited one of the reasons for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon as "a reckless use of tarragon." I guess it's one good way to blame someone else for your weight gain!

Tarragon, a favorite in French cuisine, with it's rich but mild anise flavor, is an essential in Bernaise Sauce. It goes well served over baked or grilled fish and cooled shrimp.

Bernaise Sauce:

2T. white wine vinegar
1/4 dry white wine or vermouth
2 T. tarragon leaves, chopped
2 shallots, minced
3 egg yolks
1/3 c. butter
salt and pepper

Combine vinegar, wine, shallots and tarragon in 2-cup glass measure.
Microwave, uncovered on high for 1-2 minutes or until boiling.
Set aside to cool to lukewarm.
Strain mixture into small bowl; whisk in egg yolks.
In a 2-cup glass measure, or similarly-sized glass bowl, melt butter in microwave.
Do not boil!
Whisk egg yolk mixture into butter.
Microwave, uncovered, 30-90 seconds on medium.
Whisk every 15 seconds.
Cook only until mixture starts to thicken.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve immediately.
Bon Appetit!

All my hurts, my spade can heal. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Yarrow, and Days of Yore

If you've never grown yarrow in your garden, you really should try it this year. I like to grow it even though it's not much use as a culinary herb. I enjoy the golden yellow flowers that mine produces, adding color to a sometimes drab garden. Yarrow also comes in pinks and white. I think this year I'll plant a pink variety.

Why do I plant it? Well, years ago, a friend gave me a start and it seemed easy to grow. Then I read about how it could amazingly stop bleeding very quickly. The article went on to say that it was a gardener's friend, because if you had sharp clippers, it was very easy to carelessly clip a finger while pruning and weeding. Wouldn't you know it, right after reading that, I did just what was written about. And I cut my thumb deeply. I calmly walked over to the outdoor faucet and rinsed my cut, dried it on a clean paper towel that was handy, and then wrapped some yarrow leaves around my thumb. It had been bleeding profusely, and I was a little worried, but I tried to stay cool about the situation. After firmly pressing the leaves on the cut area for several minutes, I noticed that they seemed to be stuck on; the leaves had just dried right to my skin. I left it on for a long time and then later carefully peeled it back to replace it with a Bandaid. How strange! The cut was sealed up, like it had been glued. It still hurt down inside but it really didn't look like a cut, just a thin line on the surface.

During the next week, I kept it dry. I could tell that it was healing from the inside out, but the seal held tight as if I had had stitches. A few days later, I went to a scheduled doctor's appointment for a routine physical, and I showed the cut to her. She had never heard of the properties of yarrow and was very impressed. Most doctors aren't trained in the use of herbs so she was excited about researching it for herself. Weeks later I noticed I didn't even have a scar.

The botanical name for yarrow is Achillea Millefolium and it is said to have been named for the Greek warrior Achilles. He knew of it's healing properties, and used it to heal the many wounded soldiers of the Trojan War.

The French call yarrow herbe au charpentier since carpenters used it after cutting themselves on their sharp tools.

Remember, if you have sprayed chemicals on your plants, which I hope you don't ever do in an herb garden, the chemicals could be absorbed into your cut. Then I say go straight to the Bandaids or to a doctor for stitches. Be careful with your gardening tools. I want you to be safe in your garden, but in case of a cut don't forget about yarrow. And please get a tetanus shot if you haven't had one in the last 10 years! You never know when there are rusty nails hiding in the dirt. And they might have been there since "Days of Yore."

Gardens are not made by singing, "Oh, how beautiful," and sitting in the shade. Rudyard Kipling

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mint, Money, and Myths

An old wives' tale says if you grow mint in the garden you will attract money to your purse. I've always had mint growing somewhere in the garden, often where I don't want it since it has a mind of it's own, but I don't think I've been attracting much money to my purse lately. Maybe I forgot to tell the mint.

Mint has so many uses that the stories and legends surrounding it are multiple. Walafrid Strabo, a 12th Century poet said: "If any man can name all the properties of mint, he must know how many fish swim in the Indian Ocean." He must surely be right in his thinking because again this herb is one of those that can go from the garden to the kitchen, medicine cabinet, or the bedroom.

The story goes that mint got it's name from a Greek nymph named Minthe, when Hades, God of the Underworld, made one of his few visits topside. He fell in love with the beautiful nymph and she in turn was smitten, for he arrived in a golden chariot drawn by four impressive black horses. He was caught in the act of seduction by his jealous wife Persephone, and she immediately stopped his plans by changing Minthe into the sweet-smelling plant that we know today.

We know mint to be a flavoring we find in toothpaste, breath mints and gum, and it also goes well with dark chocolate, in my estimation. In another month or so it will be time for the famous Kentucky Derby. Here is my recipe for that favorite beverage of the South called a Mint Julep:

Make a simple syrup by pouring equal parts of sugar and boiling water in a jar. Stir quickly until the sugar disappears. Cool, cover and refrigerate.
Chill 14 oz. glasses. In the glass, combine 2 1/2 oz. of good Bourbon, a handful of spearmint sprigs, and 1/2 oz. simple syrup. Fill with finely crushed ice and stir. Garnish with a spearmint sprig. Next get comfortable on your favorite front porch swing or on a luxuriously padded lawn chair under a shady tree and sip away all of your troubles while you dream of the wonderful people in your life and places you long to see! Ahhhh! What a life!

Gardeners, I think, dream bigger dreams than emperors. Mary Cantwell

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Chamomile -- Meal or Mile?

Chamomile -- is it pronounced meal or mile? Well, both are correct, but it depends on what dictionary you use as to which one is preferred. I personally like "Chamo-meal" since that is how my mother said it when she read Peter Rabbit to me. It brings back cozy feelings, curled up next to her as she read me stories of that naughty bunny, the sound of her voice lulling me to sleep, which is exactly what chamomile is famous for. Mrs. Rabbit gave chamomile to her son whenever he got into trouble with Mr. McGregor; maybe I should have tried that with my children; although I did make them chamomile tea with honey when they were sick. So I wasn't such a bad mom, was I?

Chamomile has been used for everything from a relaxing tea made from the dried flowers which aids insomnia, a hair rinse which lightens blond hair,and a flavoring for sherry. It works well as an anti-inflammatory, and used as a mouthwash, can relieve the pain of canker sores and sore throats. Bathe your eyes in a cooled infusion or inhale the warm fragrance over a steamy bowl of water to relieve nasal congestion. It can lessen flatulence and relieve indigestion or nausea. With all of its many virtues, it's even mild enough for children and works well in small doses to relieve colic in babies. What more could you want?

Are we done yet? Not really. Before grass lawns were planted, it became fashionable in England to grow the low-growing variety (called Roman chamomile) as a yard on which to play their lawn games. It had the pleasant fragrance of apples, and it was said that the more it was walked on the thicker it grew. It only required mowing 2-3 times a year. I wonder why we don't try growing it like that today?

If you wish to make a relaxing tea, place 2-3 teaspoons in a teaball and steep it in a cup of hot water for 4-5 minutes. If you wish to make an infusion to cure your ailments, make a stronger concoction by steeping the flowers and leaves for 10-15 minutes. Be careful if you have allergies to pollen; it could cause a mild reaction.

In a thousand unseen ways, we have drawn shape and strength from the land.
Lyndon B. Johnson

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Fennel -- Funiculi, Funicula!

Okay, so Fennel and "Funiculi Funicula" don't have a thing to do with each other. Funiculi, Funicula is an old Italian song, the Latin name of fennel is foeniculum, and fennel is a favorite Italian herb. Is that close enough?

Fennel is another one of those herbs that can be used in multiple ways; the leaves, seeds, and bulbs are all edible. The Romans put the dainty leaves under bread while it was baking so the fragrance would permeate the dough, and the gladiators used the seeds and leaves in their diet to give them strength. The Greeks ate the seeds to prepare for the Olympic Games. The poor chewed anise-flavored seeds to curb hunger and their wealthy, overweight, counterparts chewed them to stimulate weight loss. When the Puritans came to the New World, their sermons in their church lasted for so many hours, that the children, as well as adults, would get fidgety from their hunger. In order to curb their appetite and settle their growling stomachs, they chewed the so-named "Meetin' House Seeds."

If you decide to grow fennel in your garden, place it somewhere where it has plenty of room since it grows to be 3-4 feet tall. Be careful to plant it away from dill because they can cross pollinate. Fennel's smaller cousin, called finochio, only grows to 2 feet tall. Its leaves and seeds are just as flavorful but the prize is the bulbous leaf base. It is considered a vegetable and can be used in salads or roasted with olive oil and seasonings.

To collect seeds let the plant go to flower and harvest the seeds in the fall. Fennel seeds are that special flavor in the Italian sausage on your pizza. When I make a homemade pizza, I always sprinkle the sauce with fennel seeds before adding the vegetables, meat, and cheese. Not too much, though, or your pizza will taste like licorice!

Here's a great salad recipe that I found on the Food Network site. It works well in summertime with frsh fruit on the side.

Tomato Fennel Salad

1 1/2 lbs. heirloom tomatoes
1 small fennel bulb
2 T. good olive oil
2 T. fresh lemon juice
1 T. cider vinegar
1 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly ground pepper

Core the tomatoes and cut into wedges. Remove the top of the fennel (save some for garnish) and slice the bulb very thinly crosswise with a sharp knife.

Toss the tomatoes and fennel in a bowl with the olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Garnish with 2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds, season to taste, and serve.

Above the lowly plants it towers,
The fennel, with its yellow flowers... Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sage Advice, an Herb for the Wise

Maybe I'm worried about old age, I'm not sure, but my last article was about rosemary and the memory enhancing properties it could provide. Today I am drawn to write about sage, an herb that was thought to bring longevity and strength, and also a memory enhancer. Actually, researchers are working on a cure for Alzheimer's using sage as a derivative. It was once believed that sage only did well in the herb gardens of the wise. A healthy plant in the windowsill predicted business would prosper but if it whithered, beware, finances were going "south."

The word sage comes from the Latin salvare meaning "to heal." It was so well thought of that the ancient Chinese would trade with the Dutch and the English, giving 4 pounds of tea for a pound of sage. It was thought to cure fevers, eased grief, and hold off the plague. Nicholas Culpepper, a famous herbalist from the 17th century, wrote when women wished to have a children they should take "the juice of sage with salt,4 days before they company with their husbands, to will help them to conceive." The Romans and Egyptians took a slightly different approach and advised the couples to remain apart for 4 days each, while drinking the sage juice. When they came together, the pregnancy was certain.

American Indians have longed used sage, especially the white sage grown in the western regions, to purify the body. They burn sage leaves on the fires in their sweat lodges and pour sage tea on the hot stones intermittently for more smoke. They also use sage tea as rubdowns and baths to reduce fever.

Folklore from the 16th and 17th centuries stated that if you waved sage over anyone who was having a nightmare it would get rid of the evil spirits. Also, if a young woman picked 9 sage leaves without breaking the stems on Halloween (All Saints' Eve) at midnight, she could see the face of her future husband.

It seems as though the uses for sage are endless, but for me it's main purpose is to use in the kitchen. Did you know that if you put a sage leaf in your flour canister, you will never have bolls or pantry moths invade it again? I have been doing that for over 30 years now. It really works! So now let's bake! Here's a wonderful recipe for your next tea time with friends.

Sage Tea Bread:

1/2 c. milk
2 T. minced fresh sage or 2 t. rubbed (dried)sage
1/2 c. butter or margarine
1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 c. flour
1 t. baking powder
1 t. salt

In a small saucepan, heat milk and sage just until warm (do not boil): set aside to cool. In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt; add to the creamed mixture. Pour into a greased 9 in. x 5 in. x 3 in. loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack.

Happiness is a habit. Cultivate it. Elbert Hubbard.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Rosemary, an Herb for Remembrance

I've mentioned Rosemary quite a bit in past articles. It's a favorite with most gardeners. Even if you never learn to use it or don't like the flavor in your food, it has such a wonderful smell, that's it's a joy to have around. It has light blue or white flowers that the bees love, so be careful when you do your weeding. I really don't like to wear garden gloves and therefore I have been stung several times just by reaching in a plant to pull out a volunteer.

Rosemary has been a favorite herb since the days of the Roman Empire. It thrives in their mild climates by the sea, and actually received its name from the Latin words ros and maris which means "spray of the sea." The bush, once established, can reach a height of up to eight feet, but an old English legend has it that rosemary "passeth not commonly in highte the highte of Criste whill he was a man on Erth." They believed that a rosemary bush would not grow any taller after it was in its 33rd year, which was the age of Christ when he died.

In the Middle Ages, students twined rosemary sprigs in their hair to encourage their learning ability and brain activity because they had heard that it stimulated remembrance. Greek and Roman couples wore rosemary wreaths on their head on their wedding day. Later in the 17th century rosemary was used as a wedding favor or included in the bridal bouquet to help bring about a happy marriage.

Whatever the stories, rosemary is worth the effort to have some in your garden or in a pot on your windowsill. And who knows, you might start to remember all kinds of things once forgotten!

Here's a very easy soup recipe:

Rosemary Mushroom Soup

1 c. sliced, fresh mushrooms
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 c. butter or margarine
1 can (10 3/4 oz) condensed cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
1 c. half-and-half cream
1 T. minced fresh rosemary, or 1 t. dried rosemary, crushed
1/2 t. paprika
2 T. minced chives

In a large saucepan, saute mushrooms and garlic in butter until tender. Stir in the mushroom soup, cream, rosemary and paprika. Heat through but do not boil. Sprinkle with chives and serve. Yield: 3 servings

I look upon the pleasure which we take in a garden as one of the most innocent delights in human life. Cicero

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Dandelion, a weed or an herb?

Dandelion, a weed? Really? I know it seems to be a pesty little thing in the spring when we are trying to create that beautiful lawn, but come on, aren't they really pretty? So cheery with it's yellow flowers, a sure sign that sping and summer are here. I love to see the robins with their red breasts hopping in the green grass next to the yellow petals.

The dandelion "weed", or herb, actually has quite a history and is also useful in many ways. The name comes from the early French dent de leon which means "lion's tooth" probably because of the jagged edge of the leaf. The flowers are used to make wine and the plant itself can be used to create a wonderful magenta dye. When made into a tea or infusion, it becomes a diuretic as is noted by it's common French name pisenlit. Hmmm, that resembles an English word associated with diuretics which I won't use here!

Do little girls think of dandelions as weeds when they use them to tell if they are loved? When I was little, we held the flower under our chin in the sunlight. If it cast a yellow color, then it was said we liked boys. Oh my, how embarrassing!! Another tale is if a girl wants to know if the one she loves, returns the love, she blows on the dandelion puff three times. If any seeds stalks remain, then surely, he does love her.

The dandelion is not thought of as a weed in a small town near my home. Each year for the past 21 years, they hold a dandelion festival. No one would dare to cut their grass and destroy those pretty flowers. The idea, instead, is to see who can grow the most and the biggest. If you don't believe me, check out this article from a few years ago in the Holland Sentinel.
Recipes for dandelion soup and a variety of salads abound and are entered for judging. The roots can be roasted as a vegetable or ground to make a type of coffee. The greens can be cooked like spinach and are a great source of iron, calcium, and vitamin A. Look for the bright green, crisp, leaves in the early spring; they're best if you can get them before they flower. To this day German children are fed a healthy dose of dandelion greens every spring. After the long winter without much sunshine, the vitamins and minerals are just what the doctor orders.

If you decide to use your dandelions for cooking or for medicinal purposes make sure you don't harvest any that have been sprayed with an herbicide. Wash thoroughly and use immediately or keep in a sealed baggie and refrigerate up to 5 days.

Now, after this, do you still think the dandelion is a weed? Next time think twice before you mow the poor thing down!

No garden is without weeds. Thomas Fuller

Friday, March 9, 2007

Spring Cleaning, Who does it?

Does anyone do spring cleaning anymore? I NEVER have; shame on me! My life is such a pressure cooker these days that I only have time for a quick once-over, as my mom used to say. But I do admit that when the sun is out, I get an urge to make things sparkle. I generally start in January or February with one room at a time and give it a good, detailed, cleaning. But there are so many products now, that's it's puzzling what to use, and how do you know what's safe for your health and well-being? Your cupboard may spill over with items that you've only used once.

Herbs have long been used as household cleaners, as well as room fresheners and insect repellents.Check out what one of my favorite blogs has to say on chemical free household products. It's called The Mommy Spot. Some articles apply to everyone, not just mommys; I'm sure you'll like it.

Here are a few natural things you can do:

This soap will make the house smell great, and it's gentle enough to clean painted woodwork.

8 oz. pure soap flakes
2 T. corn oil, plus extra for greasing molds
5 T. clear honey
1 t. oil of cloves

Put the soap flakes, corn oil, and honey into the top of a double boiler and stir occasionally until the ingredients have blended. Stir in the oil of cloves, and continue stirring until the mixture thickens and resists the movement of the spoon. Turn the mixture into greased molds or individual dessert dishes and put them in a warm, dry place to set. This may take two weeks or more, depending on the volume of each bar. Unmold the soap, and polish with a soft cloth. Makes 1/4 lb.

Lavender Cream furniture polish:

2 oz. beeswax
1 c. pure turpentine
2 oz. pure soap flakes
3/4 c. lavender infusion (made with the flowers and hot water as in tea)

Put the beeswax and turpentine into the top of a double boiler and stir until the ingredients are well blended. Remove from the heat and cool slightly. Put the soap flakes and lavender infusion into a small pan and heat gently. Beat the mixture until it is frothy, then remove from the heat and cool slightly. Stir the lavender mixture into the beeswax to make a thick, creamy consistency. Pour into an airtight tin or covered jar, cover, and label. When ready, apply lightly to your furniture and polish with a soft, clean cloth. Makes approx. 2-1/2 cups.
Happy cleaning,! (if there is such a thing)

No matter what changes take place in the world, or in me, nothing ever seems to disturb the face of spring. E.B.White

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Starting Seeds Indoors

Here in Zone 5 the sun is shining and it looks like spring, but looking through the window can be very deceptive. This morning when I first got up it was 5 degrees outside. So although spring is getting closer, it will still be a while before I plants herbs in my garden. The frost free date here is May 30th. I have to admit that I have pushed it to the 15th on more than one occasion, but this year I don't think I'll try it. The weather has been too fierce and unpredictable. So if I start my seeds now indoors, they'll be ready for transplanting at just the right time. You'll want to adjust your planting time according to your zone and weather conditions.

Growing seedlings indoors is fairly easy. You can buy seed trays or peat pots at places like Lowe's, Home Depot, or Target. But you don't really need them. Try planting in waxed paper cups, cut off milk cartons, yogurt containers, or egg cartons. Make sure your containers have good drainage by poking small holes in the bottom. Fill them with a commercial potting mix, such as Miracle Gro that has been pre-moistened according to directions on the package. Sprinkle a few large in each container, for larger seeds only put one per container. Cover lightly with more potting soil. Place your pots on a tray to catch excess water; a cookie sheet with sides or a dishpan works well. Cover the tray with plastic wrap and place in a warm place, but not in direct sunlight. (The top of the refrigerator works great.) The sun coming through a window will be too harsh. Make sure you keep your seeds moist. When you see the seeds beginning to sprout, remove, the plastic wrap. Keep it in a warm place and turn the tray every day so the seedlings will grow straight. They tend to lean toward the sun.

When your seedlings are 2 to 3 inches tall and have developed small leaves you can begin the thinning process. I know this is difficult. You spent all this time growing them and now you have to pluck out the weak ones and throw them away? Sorry, that's the way of the nature, survival of the fittest. If you need to transplant to a larger container, lift them out carefully with a spoon so as not to damage the new roots. To prevent wilting, leave them out of the direct light, and again, keep the soil moist but don't let it get soggy. Sometimes a light mist is all you need.

Transplant into your garden after your frost free date, but first do what's called "hardening off." Just put your tray outside in a shaded area for a few hours so the plants can get used to their new surroundings slowly, then bring it back in. And each day for a week leave it out for a longer time moving it first to filtered sun and then finally planting your herbs directly in your garden. It's best to do this in the morning so they have the rest of the day to adjust to the sunlight. And there you go. Not too bad, right?

Patience is power; with time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes silk. Chinese Proverb

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Herb & Flower Salad

Oh, how I long for spring. Each day I think it's closer, and then we get hit with another wintery blast. The March winds are roaring and bringing pelting, wet snow. It's miserable. How long can it last?

Until the day when I can wake up to open windows and chirping birds, (and yes, at this point, even the sound of the garbage truck is welcoming) I am actually planning some menus I will use to entertain my friends for lunch. As I have been doing some research for this blog, I have come across some recipes that look fantastic. I have to tell the truth, I have not tried these out myself yet, but I've always had a pretty good eye for picking out recipes that taste good just by reading them. I look for ingredients that I know I will like and also read ahead for the difficulty factor. This one is a cinch. But you'll have to wait until the flowers are blooming in your area.

Some flowers are edible and look beautiful on a coordinating color plate. Place this salad in a beautiful white, or even better yet, dark blue bowl and serve it up with a muffin and cup of tea. Be sure to use good linens or a nice place mat, and a small candle on the center of the table. You know what they say; Presentation is everything. That's all you'll need, and if you're with a good friend, the converstation will flow.

Here's a list of a few edible flowers and how they taste. You can adjust your salad with what happens to be blooming at the time, and according to your taste.

Nasturtium: spicy
Chives: oniony
Calendula: buttery
Mint: minty
Parsley: minty

Herb & Flower Salad:

6 c. mixed baby greens
1c. green leaf herbs, your choice, such as basil, tarragon, parsley & chervil
1/2 c. edible flower petals

Serve with olive oil and vinegar dressing

Sweet flowers are slow, and weeds make haste. William Shakespeare