May 30, 2009

Minty Fresh

No herb garden is complete without mint. What would Derby day be without that quintessential drink the mint julep? It is a primary ingredient in Greek cuisine, adding a wonderful flavor to lamb dishes. Spring peas with mint is to die for!

Mint belong to the genus Mentha, in the family Labiatae (Lamiaceae) which includes other commonly grown oil-yielding plants such as basil, sage, rosemary, marjoram, lavender, pennyroyal and thyme. Within the genus Mentha there are several different species, varying in their appearance, aroma and end use. The most common ones are spearmint (M. spicata), peppermint (M. × piperita), eau-de-cologne mint (M. × piperita var. citrata) and apple mint (M. rotundifolia). All are low-growing plants, readily sending out runners, or stolons, which develop new roots and shoots at the nodes.

Mints do best in deep, rich soils of friable texture high in organic matter. The preferred pH range is from 6.0–7.5. A higher water requirement means that soils must be deep and well drained while holding plenty of water. That said, mint seems to grow anywhere it pleases.

Mint can be propagated either vegetatively or by seed. Vegetative propagation is achieved by digging up plants in late winter or early spring and dividing them into runners with roots, then replanting. This will prevent the plants from becoming root-bound and prone to disease, ensuring strong, healthy plants for the new season.

Be aware that mint is definitely invasive. It reproduces from long, creeping stems that spread out just under the soil surface whenever they get a chance. If you plant them directly in your garden we recommend you plant it in containers, preferably with bottoms, sunk into the soil. This is probably not going to contain it forever but it will buy you some time. We usually plant our mint in containers on our deck. This keeps it in check and in close proximity to our kitchen. If you're growing in pots remember you will need to water more often and use a diluted water soluble fertilizer since you'll be flushing the nutrients from the soil on a continuous basis.

To list all the available varieties of mint would take more space than we have available! The most commonly available are:
  • Peppermint: sweet, strong mint flavor. It flavors many candies. Shiny, dark green leaves, some with a purple tinge.
  • Spearmint: flavor stronger and less sweet than peppermint. The curly variety is very ornamental. Used to make traditional mint sauce for lamb.
  • Pennyroyal: a ground cover and a very tough plant that spreads quickly. Do not ingest pennyroyal, especially if you're pregnant. It's used as a bug repellent.
  • Corsican Mint: mat-forming ground cover that can be walked upon, releasing its creme de menthe fragrance. Often used to flavor liqueurs, along with peppermint. Tiny, moss-like leaves are bright green, and they appreciate some shade.
Other varieties include scents such as apple, chocolate (my favorite!), orange, pineapple, grapefruit and even banana! For information on more varieties available try Richter's Herbs, Mountain Valley Growers, The Tasteful Garden. If you prefer to grow from seed: The Herb Cottage.

Spearmint, peppermint and applemint sprigs can be added to drinks and fruit dishes as a garnish. It also makes a refreshing tea.
Serve this mint sauce with roasted lamb for a delightful summer meal.

Mint Sauce:
Fresh mint - 4 Tbsp., finely chopped
Boiling water - 3 Tbsp.
sugar - 1 Tbsp.
salt - ¼ tsp
Vinegar - 3 Tbsp.
Stir the mint into the boiling water. Add the sugar and salt.
Leave until cold. Add the vinegar and mix well.

The menthol in peppermint soothes the lining of the digestive tract and stimulates the production of bile, which is an essential digestive fluid. A hot cup of herbal tea is an excellent way to settle your stomach after a big meal. A handful of mint steeped in boiling water for ten minutes is all you need for a comforting mint tea.

To make a facial astringent combine 1 Tbsp. cleane fresh peppermint or spearmint and 1 cup witch hazel in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Steep in a cool, dry place for one week, shaking occasionally. Strain and pour into a bottle or spritzer to use. Probably best to keep in the fridge if you are not adding preservative and it's a great way to chill out in hot weather. Good for normal to oily skin. Makes about a six-week supply.

Moth Repellent -Tie branches of mint together and wrap lightly in cheesecloth (to avoid flaking). Hang the bundle upside down with a ribbon in your closet.

Make a foot scrub by combining 1 cup unflavored yogurt, 1 cup kosher or rock salt or white sugar and 3/4 cup fresh mint leaves. Apply to feet. Use a damp washcloth to gently scrub rough spots. Rinse feet and apply lotion.

Refreshing Potpourri:
Combine 1/2 cup orris root and 1 Tbsp. of essential oil lavender or peppermint. Add 2 cups each dried orange mint, dried spearmint, dried peppermint, plus 1 cup each dried thyme and rosemary. Combine gently; try not to crush leaves. Store in a covered jar. To use, shake the jar gently, then open.

May 24, 2009

Holy Basil!

Basil is one of the most important and versatile herbs grown. Not only is this annual herb used in many styles of ethnic cooking, but it comes in many flavors, as well. Sweet Basil is probably the most common types and it is easy grow.

In colder zones, start basil indoors in mid-spring. The seeds can be sown directly into the garden in warmer areas. Seedlings should not be set outdoors until all danger of frost has past and the plant has four true leaves. Basil transplants easily. Plants can also be started from cuttings or rooted suckers.

When plants are established, pinch out the top. This encourages a bushier plant. Continuous picking will prolong the life of the plant. Basil also does well in containers, but make sure you water when needed and let the soil drain between watering. Too much and you will drown the plant. Keep the purple type basil in full sun to retain their vibrant colors. Be sure to pinch out the flowers until you are ready to harvest the leaves as it will have the strongest and best flavor at the time they are about to flower. To hold back flowering as long as possible, simply snip off all developing flower buds as soon as you see them. In basil they are easy to recognize by their stacked, nearly leafless structure.

If you let the plant go to seed in the garden you will have baby basil popping up everywhere in the next growing season. In warmer climates they will sprout almost immediately. You can either grow them where they rooted and thin them or let them get to the "two leaf" stage and prick them out into either containers or other spots in the garden. You can never have enough basil!

Companion Planting
It is said that basil improves the flavor of tomatoes. They also go hand in hand in the kitchen. Basil aids in repelling mosquitoes and flies, which is always, to borrow a phrase, a 'good thing'!

Culinary Use
Basil has a strong clove-like flavor and fragrance. The flowers and leaves are best used fresh and added only during the last few minutes of cooking. Basil works well in combination with tomatoes. Finely chopped basil stirred into mayonnaise makes a good sauce for fish. Use as a garnish for vegetables, chicken and egg dishes. Large lettuce-leaf basil can be stuffed as you would a grape leaf. Basil can be dried in the microwave until crisp but still green. Much of the flavor is lost this way, in my opinion, but can still add it's distinct taste to pizza toppings and garnish many dishes.

Additional Information
Check out these links for additional information on growing, buying and using basil.
Buon Appetito!

May 20, 2009

Rosemary - The Herb of Remembrance

"There's Rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember..." William Shakespeare - Hamlet. Rosemary is quite a memorable herb. Rosemary was named the Herb of the Year in 2001 by the International Herb Association. It was one of the herbs introduced to Britain by the Romans and this piny-scented plant is still particularly loved today by the Italians and the British, who use it frequently in their cooking. In ancient Greece and Rome rosemary was believed to strengthen the memory, which accounts for its being known as the herb of remembrance and fidelity.

A sprig of rosemary was often placed in a bride's bouquet or worn at funerals, and those taking examinations would twine rosemary into their hair or massage rosemary oil into the forehead and temples. This may well have worked, for rosemary stimulates the circulation, increasing the blood supply to the brain. Rosemary was also said to ward off infection and apart from the traditions associated with it and its many culinary, medicinal and cosmetic uses, rosemary makes an attractive addition to the herb garden.

The plant is native to the Mediterranean but although it prefers coastal conditions, it has been known to thrive as far inland as as the Sahara Desert. A perennial shrub, rosemary has spiky, evergreen leaves which are dark and glossy on the upper side and gray-green and downy underneath. The small, blue nettle-shaped flowers appear in May to June and are a great attraction to bees and butterflies. The shrub will grow to 4-5 ft and a few bushes planted together will make a compact, fragrant hedge.

More at home in the Mediterranean than colder climates, rosemary requires a sheltered spot in which to grow - a south or west-facing wall is ideal - and light, limey but above all well-drained soil. Seeds are difficult to germinate as well as very slow to grow and the best way to propagate rosemary is either by cuttings or from layering. A new plant can easily be produced from an old by firmly pegging down a small branch into the soil with a piece of wire or twig until the roots are established and then removing it carefully from the parent plant.

Keep the young plant moist but not too wet as the roots easily rot. The new plants should be transplanted in the early autumn to allow them to harden off before the winter, and they may need to be protected with straw where winter conditions are severe. Once established, rosemary bushes do not like to be moved. If this is attempted, the leaves will often turn brown and die, so if it is necessary to transplant try to avoid cutting any roots when doing so and retain as much of the original ball of earth as possible. If happy in its position, rosemary can last for about 30 years. Trim it lightly to maintain its thickness.

Do not use any part of a plant for food or cosmetic uses without thoroughly washing it first to remove all soil or contaminants. It's prudent not use any plant that was sprayed with pesticides as many skin rashes, irritations or allergies can result, and I would highly recommend growing your own herbs without chemical additives; many plants will thrive on a sunny windowsill, porch or deck if you have no place for an outdoor garden.

Rosemary has long been known for its therapeutic powers. Try placing a sprig under the pillow of a sleeper who suffers from nightmares - it often produces a miracle cure. Both rosemary oil and rosemary tea have many uses and the herb makes an excellent skin tonic and astringent as well as a hair conditioner, not to mention a delicious flavoring in food.

This can be used as an aid to digestion and taken at bedtime as a soothing drink to calm the nerves and induce sleep. Use about 15 ml ( 1 tablespoon ) of crushed rosemary leaves - fresh are better than dried - per cup of boiling water.

This recipe has an excellent conditioning effect on the hair, helping to control dandruff and even, it is alleged, curing baldness. Take a bunch of fresh rosemary and crush or chop the leaves; add 300 ml ( 1/2 pint ) boiling water and allow to stand for an hour, then drain. Use it as a final rinse after washing and towel - drying the hair.

May 14, 2009

Summer Scents

Summertime, and the livin' is easy... well if it isn't it should be! Whether you're lounging around the pool, hitting the beach or backyard cook-out you will be dressing cool and feeling fresh. I like to lighten up my fragrance choices in the warm weather. The breezy scents of crisp linens, powdery florals and refreshing fruits help me keep my cool when it's hot. Here's a few to try:

Mirabilis: AKA Four O'Clock has sparkling top notes of fresh lemon and Damask plum. An enchanting heart of white iris, lily of the valley and spicy carnation with a sensual base of ground nutmeg, soft sandalwood, sheer musk and oakmoss.

Eternal Spring: Sheer layers heirloom roses, lavender, gardenia and wood violets. A true floral that is completely feminine and absolutely romantic.

Strawberry Frappé: Juicy ripe summer berries mingled with melon, citrus and green apple.

Grapefruit Passion: Refreshing blood orange and ruby red grapefruit oils grounded with dark patchouli. A sparkling citrus scent with hints of intrigue.