Friday

Make a Lavender Wand

Lavender Wand7By the beginning of summer, you should have enough lavender up and ready to make lavender wands. Lavender wands are always popular gifts for birthdays and around the holidays. I make a big batch during the summer, and tie them into my Christmas gift bows. These wands are an aromatic addition to a lingerie or linen drawer, closet, or laundry room. Lavender permeates the area in which a wand is placed. It's an ingenious way to add a little lavender to your life. They're easy to make too.

Another advantage is that working with all that lavender will relax your body and spirit, which is not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Make a Lavender Wand 1What You'll Need to Weave a Lavender Wand

7 to 15 lavender stems in bud for each wand. Select an odd number of stems. The more stems you have, the easier it is to conceal the buds inside the cylinder you're creating.

Lengths of attractive ribbon 1/8" to 1/4" wide. The width is a design choice. I prefer 1/8". Until you know the length that works for you, don't cut the end.

Pair of scissors

Toothpick

Special Note: The more bud stems you use, the chubbier your wand will be. I like to use between seven and nine stems, depending on how many I have available. I prefer to keep my wands streamlined. To avoid bulk, I try to spread my buds along the inside of the wand.

Another approach is to have a big bulge (bottle) in your wand where the buds are - this is great too. Some people like to have lots of buds in wands that look like little torpedos. The fatter the better. This type of wand is very fragrant. If you'd like to make a wand with a big bottle, use 15 or so stems, and space them evenly around your lavender bouquet. The link goes to a picture of a chubby wand: Lavender Wands and Lavender Bottles

Instructions for Making a Lavender Wand

Make a small bouquet of your stems. Tie them securely with a length of ribbon. Strip the leaves so that the stems are smooth. Turn the bouquet upside down and bend the lavender stems down around the bouquet, being careful not to tear or snap the stems. It's easier if your lay the tip of your thumb nail at the edge of the stem and bend where your nail and the stem meet. This helps to keep the stems from shredding.
Make a Lavender Wand 2
Tuck the short end of the ribbon into the center of the bouquet where it will be out of view, and free the long end of the ribbon from the stems. As you bend each stem, weave the ribbon over or under it. Space your stems around the bouquet.

Work your way around the wand in rows. Snug and tighten the ribbon as you go. If buds start poking out, push them back in place with a toothpick.

Make a Lavender Wand 8Keep going around until you achieve a pleasing length. I like about a third of the length of the wand. Some people like to weave the entire length of the wand. I prefer to weave for a few inches, and then crisscross ribbon the rest of the way.

Trim the ends of the stems, and add ribbons to both the bottom of the woven section, and the bottom of the crisscrossed section.

I try to make the bottom bow large enough to fit over a door handle if necessary. Oh, I also like to add a dry sprig of lavender to one of the bows.

I leave completed wands in a cool dark place for three to four days to dry. Your wand's fragrance can last for months.

Once you have your supplies together, it only takes a few minutes to complete a wand. The first one can be tricky. It gets easier after that.

Special Tips on Making Lavender Wands

When you cut your lavender, get the longest stems you can find. This will give you enough length to stagger where you want your buds to line up inside the wand.

Your hands get almost sticky as you work and can make it harder to weave the ribbon. Stop occasionally to wash your hands and the weaving will go more easily.

If I can't get my bows to stay put, I've been known to use glue.

Be sure to pull the ribbon snug as you weave it through the stems. The lavender will lose a little mass as it dries, so your weaving will be looser once the wand has cured.

As you are bending a stem, if you accidentally tear a section, as long as it hasn't completely detached, you can pull the stem down a tiny bit and try again.

Once your lavender wand does lose its fragrance, you can refresh it by adding some lavender oil to the dry stems. Try applying four drops of lavender essential oil to the cut ends of the stems and turning your wand upside down to let the oil travel deep into it.

Lavender wands are truly a favorite, and you'll find if you try this craft, that people will begin asking for them from year to year.

If you want to start a craft tradition by making an elegant, inexpensive gift that always pleases the recipient and is easy to construct, lavender wands are for you.

Monday

Christmas Gift Ideas: Seed Packets with Markers

Christmas is coming. . . really. I'm sorry to remind you, but it is. One of the many great things about herb gardening is that you have the raw material for some wonderful gifts. If you plan ahead, you can make unique herb offerings quickly and inexpensively. For the next couple of months, I'll be giving you some examples.

Here's one: Fabric Wrapped Herb Seeds with Popsicle Markers

This fall, gather up your seeds and place some of each variety in four inch squares of fabric that you've lined with cellophane. Tie them with ribbon to which you've attached a small card describing the herb. Offer some growing instructions, or send them over to me for planting information.

Place the packets in a presentation bag with handmade plant tags that you've fashioned from this summer's leftover Popsicle sticks. (Start saving them now.) Just paint the sticks green, write the herb names in black marker, and you're ready to go.

If you are feeling creative, make tags on your computer, something on the order of "From the garden of …", fold them onto the top of the Popsicle sticks, glue them in place, and you have instant designer seed starter packs. Anyone who has complimented you on your garden, herb cooking, or herb crafts, will be delighted with this personal gift.

You can do this in no time, and it makes a thoughtful and useful present. It's inexpensive, and if you take the time to sew a presentation bag, it's also creative, and chic. Really, what more could anyone ask for?

Quick Tips: Using pinking shears on the fabric squares creates a finished look, as does using lengths of narrow, good quality ribbon.

Friday

Tips for Growing Herbs Indoors



Many herbs are well suited to domestic life and thrive indoors. With some attention to their special needs, you can keep an indoor herb garden that will give you fresh herbs year round.

Indoor Herb Lighting


The biggest challenge to the indoor herb gardener is light. Lighting is critically important to all plants, but herbs seem to be especially sensitive to the right light conditions. If you can just manage to give your herbs effective lighting, you're 75% of the way to having a great indoor garden.

Stick with me here. I'm going to give you a brief primer on lighting.

Light Exposure


Your home has windows that have a directional orientation. This angle for sunlight is called exposure. Your room's exposure has a big impact on how much good light your plants receive. An eastern exposure is wonderful because it provides clear, bright light that isn't too hot. Western and southern exposures are also effective, although they are sometimes at risk for becoming too hot and bright during the summer season. The least effective exposure comes from the north. Northern exposures have weak light, and plants near northern facing windows are at risk of getting too little light to stay healthy.

Distance From a Light Source


This leads to another consideration, distance from a light source. Having good light only works if the plants are close enough to benefit from it. After you get a couple of feet away from a window, light quality starts to drop quickly. In order to give most of your herbs the light they need, they have to be pretty close to windows with good exposures. The only exception to this is in southern and western facing windows in high summer when the sun is very hot. (In this instance, move plants back from the windows, or filter the light through shades or sheers.)

Light Obstructers


Growing Herbs in PotsSome other thoughts related to light are how clean the windows are, and if there are any obstructions that will weaken the light your plants receive. Awnings, curtains, blinds, exterior shrubbery, and other buildings can all thwart your efforts to give your plants good light if they block a substantial amount of light from entering the room.

What's Enough Light for Indoor Herbs?


Plants need at least six hours of good light each day. The light should be bright enough for your hand to create a well-defined shadow when you pass it between the window and your plants.

What To Do if Your Indoor Herbs Don't Get Enough Light


The simple answer is to supplement with grow lights. This used to be a very expensive proposition, but prices for grow lights and fixtures have come down in recent years.

I put a couple of my lamps on 24 hours timers. That way they are giving my plants eight hours of light when I'm not around to be irritated by the glare. This works great, and the plants flourish. I don't want to quote prices because costs for goods are always changing, but my set-up cost less than a good dinner out for two.

Keeping Herbs Watered


The right water regime is crucial for plants to thrive. Water is an area where one size does not fit all. You have to experiment for a couple of weeks to see what watering schedule each of your plants need. The finger test is still a great way to tell if your plants need water. Stick your finger into the dirt near the rim of your plant's pot to a depth of about an inch and a half. If your finger comes out dry, it's time to water. If your finger is moist, wait a day or two and try again.

After a few tests, you'll have a good idea of how often you need to water a particular plant. . . for the time being. Just be careful to keep up your detective work as the seasons change. Once you turn on the heat in winter or the air-conditioning in summer, start opening windows, or move your plant, chances are its watering needs will change.

Fertilize Herbs Sparingly and Use good Potting Soil


Plants need nutrients in their soil and occasionally through the addition of fertilizer. Herbs are usually less prone to needing frequent feedings, but they still need a quality potting mix and some fertilizer incorporated into their water occasionally.

If you are over wintering outdoor potted herbs inside, be sure to check them for pests before you relocate them. You should also stop fertilizing them as frequently as they will be experiencing some shock from the move and won't need as much nourishment over the winter anyway.

Potting Herbs to Bring Indoors


If you are potting herbs to bring indoors, select pots that are only a few inches larger that the herb's root ball. Herbs are inclined to be more comfortable with crowded roots. Try to avoid terra cotta pots. They absorb moisture and can dry out plants prematurely.

Humidity


Plants need some humidity in the air. To make sure your herbs are getting the humidity they need, place a few of them on dishes filled with stones or marbles and water. This makes mini-reservoirs that will keep the air around your plants moist. Just be careful to keep the level of the water in the dishes below the bottoms of their corresponding pots to avoid root rot. Grouping your herbs together can help too.

Harvesting Indoor Herbs


Use restraint when harvesting your indoor herbs. Pay attention to new growth, and try to avoid taking more than half. If you discover that isn't enough, it's time to get another plant.

I've written a post for my houseplant blog that will give you more help on evaluating your indoor plant space for sunlight, heat, and humidity. Take a look if you have a moment: Houseplant Care – Evaluating Your Environment.

Good luck.

How to Make a Basic Tea Rub (Oh, and Some Variations)

Tea Bag Courtesy of MorguefileChef Ming Tsai has quite a presence on the web, and he uses rubs to create some wonderful recipes. One of his signature rub ingredients is tea. Other cooks have picked up the practice of using tea as a flavor base in rubs, artfully incorporating them in anything from mouthwatering BBQ to sea scallops. I don't know where the practice started, but I'm glad it did.

If you'd like your next seared tuna dish or pork tenderloin to be a big hit, try using a rub that's been amped with the addition of a tea base. The tea you use will make a difference, so this is your big chance to explore new taste territory.

Want to try a nice mango, blueberry, or orange pekoe tea? Maybe you'd like to stay with Darjeeling, green tea or Earl Gray? I think you'll be surprised at how well your favorite tea performs – out of the cup. Some things to keep in mind, though. The stronger the tea, the more important it is to season it well. Green tea is mild, so it makes a great base for more delicate meats and fish.

Basic Tea Rub Recipe


2 tablespoons of green tea of choice (ground fine)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

Here is one of my creations.

Cranberry Tea Rub for Pork Tenderloin

2 tbsp Cranberry Tea (or about two teabags)
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp garlic powder
½ tsp onion powder
½ salt
¼ pepper
¼ tsp ginger
¼ tsp allspice
¼ tsp ground thyme

Blend all ingredients in a coffee grinder or food processor. Rub onto olive oil coated tenderloin. Grill, broil or bake. If the sugar starts to burn, cover meat with aluminum foil or move to indirect heat.

Mock Mango Chicken Tea Bath

Tea can also make a flavorful marinade. I've used another fruit tea, this time mango, to make a marinade for chicken. Take a look at the recipe on my tea blog: Mock Mango Chicken Recipe

Thursday

Growing Bay Leaf (Bay Laurel)


 Bay or sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) is the leaf from a tree in the Laurel family. It's an evergreen that originated in the Mediterranean, where it grows to a height of 40 feet. Bay laurel is beautifully appointed with medium sized, glossy, green leaves. It is not winter hardy in areas that experience freezing weather.

Courtesy of Borealnz at Flickr.comLuckily, bay can be cultivated in a container and brought indoors to overwinter. When potted, it seldom grows taller than 6', but can be cultivated into a dense, rich specimen plant. Bay topiaries aren't uncommon, and they can be very elegant on a deck or patio. That's the good news. The bad news is that bay can be persnickety about its living conditions.

It prefers rich, well-drained soil that has a sunny exposure. Plant your tree away from other plantings. Once it gets started, it will need room to spread out. This isn't a shrub. Because it's considered an herb, it's easy to underestimate bay's growth potential. This is a tree that can last many decades, so give its location some serious thought. Because it likes its soil relatively moist and doesn't like to dry out, consider mulching, and don't forget to water it regularly while it's young.

Keeping Bay in a Pot
If you're planning on keeping your bay tree in a pot, avoid terracotta, and look for commercial potting soil that has good water retentive characteristics, like water beads and vermiculite.

Plan on a 12" pot for a plant that's about eight inches high. Since bay is a slow grower, invest in a larger plant if you can afford it. Bay can be pricey, but you'll be glad you paid a little more.

Growing Bay Leaf Indoors

Make sure your plant gets plenty of sun while it's spending time indoors. Remember, the quality of the light in a room starts to drop sharply as you move back from the window, so give it plenty of clear, bright light, or provide grow lights for it. Bay also dislikes drafts and hot spots, like those near heating vents or exterior doors.

Don't fertilize outdoor specimens you are over-wintering inside. Wait until spring. If you are maintaining a bay indoors year round, try putting it out on a patio for a couple of weeks in spring. A little time outdoors each season will do it a world of good. To make the moving task easier, give it a base with casters. Your back will thank you.

All this sounds like a pain, but a healthy, shiny, specimen can be a beautiful sight.

Propagating Bay Leaf Laurel

Take stem cuttings (four or five inches), or air layer. The end of summer is the best time to start new plants. The cuttings will have to be carefully nurtured; a conservatory where you can keep them in uniformly humid conditions would be ideal. Transplant the following spring.

Harvesting Bay Leaf

You can start to harvest bay once the plant is a couple of years old. The leaves should be dried before use, as fresh bay is bitter. The best wait time is around 48 to 72 hours from the time you pick a leaf. I know you get long-dried bay leaves at the store, but the freshly dried leaves have better, deeper flavor. After all, you aren't going to all this trouble for nothing.

Select the largest leaves. The older the leaf, the stronger the flavor will be.

Uses for Bay Leaf

Bay leaf is a favorite in cooking. It is commonly used whole in stews, sauces and soups. It can be used in both mild and strongly seasoned dishes and works well with many other herbs and spices. Bay Leaf is one of the key ingredients in Bouquet Garni, and ground bay leaf is the signature herb in Old Bay Seasoning.

Bay can also be used as a weevil deterrent. Place a few leaves in the cabinet where you keep your flour and other grains to repel bugs.

It is a pungent addition to potpourri, and an ointment made from bay leaf can help reduce joint inflammation. Bay also makes a very full and impressive base for an herb wreath.




Make Your Own Old Bay Seasoning Blend

One of the most well known of the crab seasoning blends, Old Bay Seasoning sold by McCormick & Company (and others), is a household staple in many parts of the United States.

It is less dependent on salt than some other popular seasonings – but delivers good flavor. Prepare a shaker full of goodness by creating your own Old Bay Seasoning mixture. Here's how.

Old Bay Seasoning Recipe

6 bay leaves (ground fine)
2 tsp. celery salt
1-1/2 tsp ground mustard
1-1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp red pepper
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground mace
1/4 tsp ground cardamom

Grind bay leaves fine. Add the remaining spices. Store in a container with a tight fitting lid.

When I prepare this blend, I also add one teaspoon of salt and one teaspoon of ground parsley. I always like to add something to make recipes my own. You'll find many of these Old Bay type recipes around. At one time, this basic blend was very popular and a number of manufacturers were making it. The main difference seems to be the proportion of celery salt and red pepper to the rest of the mixture. Mine is heavy on red pepper and light on celery salt. I also like to use chipotle pepper for the red pepper ingredient. It's sweet and has a nice smoky bite. Homemade Old Bay seasoning should stay fresh and viable for three to six months when stored properly.

Special Note: I'm into spices, so I keep a number of varieties whole and grind them as needed in a coffee grinder, with a rasp, or in a mini food processor. You can certainly do the same. If you start with whole seeds, the end result will be more flavorful and stay flavorful longer, too.

If you like the idea of making your own blended seasonings. You might be interested in blending up some:

Bouquet Garni
Herbes De Provence
Creole Blend

Wednesday

Want an Herbal Teeth Whitener?

Strawberry photo courtesy of Morguefile Try Sage and Strawberry

Sage has been used as means of whitening discolored teeth for centuries, and it still works today. Together with strawberry, it's a natural solution for treating a yellowed and dingy smile.

Make a paste of one large sage leaf, one strawberry, and one teaspoon of baking soda. I blend the ingredients in a mini-food processor. Apply the paste to your teeth for five to ten minutes. Rinse and brush normally. The mild acid in the mixture will remove some of the surface discoloration on your teeth. Use it once a week to maintain a bright smile.

Make Your Own Garlic Juice or Powdered Garlic

Fresh Garlic Bulb courtesy of MorguefileMake your own garlic juice and garlic powder. The process takes some time because it involved peeling lots of garlic cloves. You may decide afterward that buying prepared garlic products is easier and just as tasty, but every herb fanatic should try it once.

Here's how.

Instructions for Making Garlic Juice

1 bulb of garlic
Mesh strainer
Coffee Filter

Peel one bulb of garlic (this will give you a quarter to a third of a cup of juice depending on the size of the bulb).

Blend the cloves in a small food processor until creamy and strain twice, once through a mesh strainer, then strain that liquid through a coffee filter. That's it. The hardest part is peeling the garlic bulb, which is a bit easier to do if you smash it first.

Once you have some nice juice, combine it with a tablespoon of butter and sauté it to make a flavorful garlic bread topping. Be sure to sauté the liquid long enough to eliminate excess moisture. Keep the heat low. You don't want to burn the butter.

Extra juice should be frozen in an ice cube tray and then transferred to a plastic bag for storage.

Instructions for Making Roasted or Grilled Garlic Juice

To give your garlic juice a roasted, deep flavor, cook it first, either on the grill or in the oven. Just brush a bulb with olive oil and cook it until it begins to turn brown and feel soft to the touch. Low or indirect heat is best. You don't have to peel the bulb first. To harvest the pulp, cut off the pointy end of the bulb, squeeze the pulp into a mesh strainer and prepare according to the directions above.

Make Powdered Garlic

I only made this once, but once was enough. I prepared 15 bulbs of garlic by peeling the cloves and drying them in a dehydrator. I rough sliced the cloves lengthwise, thin enough to dry quickly, but large enough to keep from falling through the holes in the dehydrator trays. The whole batch dried within 24 hours.

I then used a coffee grinder to grind the dried pieces. It worked fine and took a weekend. The batch yielded a couple of spice jars worth of garlic powder.

I felt great after finishing the project, thinking that the result would have more flavor and be more natural than the mass-produced garlic powder I was used to buying at the grocery store.

I was disappointed, though. My homemade powder did have flavor, but not as much as the major, retail brands. You may have more luck, but for the money and investment in time . . . as I say, I only did it once.

Tuesday

Recipe for Bechamel Sauce With Herbs

Fresh Butter courtesy of MorguefileBechamel sauce, white sauce, is one of the most basic sauces used in cooking. It's an easy sauce to make if you remember to keep stirring the ingredients throughout. Never stop stirring, use medium heat, and pick a thick pan that will evenly distribute the heat.

Some béchamel recipes call for heavy cream, while others make due with whole milk. Some will even cheat and use milk, but up the butter requirement. The mouth feel of the sauce is improved 100% if you use cream instead of milk. I usually compromise and use a combination of milk and half-and-half. For special occasions, I use cream with half-and-half.

Bechamel Sauce

½ Stick butter
¼ Cup all-purpose flour
1 Cup cream (or milk)
1 Cup half-and-half
Pinch fresh nutmeg
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper (To avoide black specks, use white pepper.)
¼ tsp. ground thyme

Instructions for Bechamel Sauce (White Sauce)

In a saucepan, melt butter and add flour, whisking until smooth. Continue cooking until the mixture (roux) bubbles vigorously. While stirring, add cream and half-and-half slowly. Simmer until the sauce thickens. Stir in nutmeg, thyme, salt and pepper.

Special Note: You can use whole milk instead of cream, but the half-and-half is a really important element of a creamy sauce. Of course, with cream the sauce is amazing, but – well, you know.

Alfredo Sauce for Tortellini

I use this base when making Alfredo sauce, too, but I drop the thyme and add ½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano if I can find it. It makes a great sauce for tortellini – heck, it makes a great sauce for just about anything.

Monday

Moussaka Recipe with Aubergine (Eggplant)

Varieties of Eggplant courtesy of MorguefileMy friend Emily's grandmother was Greek and taught her some great Greek dishes which she's shared with me over the years. She's actually partly responsible for my interest in herbs and spices. One of her best recipes is for Moussaka. I've updated some things, grilling the eggplant and using sun dried tomatoes instead of tomato paste, but otherwise it's pretty close to her grandmother's recipe.

Follow the link for ingredients and instructions on making bechamel sauce.

Eggplant (aubergine) has a naturally spicy flavor that is a real treat. If you haven't added it to your cooking repertoire yet, you really should. Even if you just grill it with a little Parmesan cheese and some balsamic vinegar, it's delicious.

Moussaka Ingredients

1 ½ lbs of ground beef (lean)
3 large eggplant, peeled and sliced ½ thick
Olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped fine
1 ½ cups peeled, chopped Roma or plumb tomatoes (Blanch them to make removing the skins easier.)
¼ cup of red wine (dry)
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cloves of garlic, minced fine
1 large bay leaf
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. minced sun dried tomatoes (reconstituted in the red wine)
1 tbsp. fresh parsley chopped fine
¼ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground cloves
¼ tsp. pepper
Pinch ground nutmeg
Pinch ground allspice
Pinch ground cumin
½ cup of cracker crumbs (You can also use breadcrumbs.)
Béchamel sauce (Follow the link to the recipe. You will need about two cups.)

Moussaka Directions

Brush eggplant slices with olive oil, salt lightly, and grill or broil until tender. Cool.

In a large skillet, cook onions in olive oil until they begin to caramelize. Add ground beef and saute until all pink is gone. Add cracker crumbs (reserving 2 tablespoons), sun dried tomatoes with wine, spices (except for parsley), and fresh tomatoes.

Simmer mixture until almost all of the liquid has evaporated. The drier it is, the better. Find and discard the bay leaf.

Prepare a baking dish by oiling or spraying it with cooking spray and lining it with the remaining cracker crumbs. Layer with eggplant slices and meat mixture as you would for lasagna, starting and ending with eggplant slices. Three layers should be enough. Spread béchamel sauce over the top and bake at 325°F uncovered until bubbling – about 25 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and cheese and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Serves four.

For an interesting change, serve your moussaka with Retsina, Greek white wine. It's a bit of an acquired taste, but Greek night won't be the same without it.

Moussaka Cooking Tips: Grilling rather than broiling the sliced eggplant adds flavor and great color.

Since you will be simmering the meat mixture for a while in order to eliminate liquid, be sure to use a heavy, insulated pan.

Some cooks like to salt and rinse the raw, sliced eggplant to remove any bitterness. I haven't had a problem, but Cathy's grandmother always rinsed hers.

When you make your white sauce, be sure to add some nutmeg and thyme to the mixture. A little Parmesan cheese is great too.

Some people like to use ground lamb instead of beef. When I tried making moussaka this way, I discovered that the wonderfully delicate flavor of the lamb was lost, so I just stick with ground beef now. It's cheaper and makes a robust and flavorful dish.

I like to peel my eggplant. If I leave the skin on, sometimes it's tough. I'm not sure what the problem is. It may be the variety of eggplant I'm using. Then again, sometimes the eggplant may be too mature to have a tender skin. I don't know.

Cut the cooked eggplant lengthwise in order to get it to fit well in your baking dish.

To learn more about herbs for Greek cooking, take a look at my blog: Greek Herbs and Spices.

Sunday

Greek Herbs and Spices

Greek Salad courtesy of MorguefileGreece has an ancient, almost mystical culinary tradition. Whether you are interested in making a nice moussaka, Greek salad, or stuffed grape leaves, you'll want to know something about the signature herbs of this sun kissed Mediterranean country. So, get out your olive oil, phyllo dough, feta cheese and kalamata olives, tune up your bouzouki, and lets explore Greek flavor. Follow the links to information on each of these traditional Greek herbs and spices:

Thyme
Oregano
Marjoram

Rosemary Fresh Figs courtesy of Morguefile
Dittany
Basil
Nutmeg
Saffron
Cloves
Dill
Fennel
Savory
Bay Leaf (Daphni)
Sesame
Mint

Greek food is a cornucopia of blended flavors, and nowhere in the world is it more evident that understanding how herbs and spice work together makes for great cuisine.

Greek food takes full advantage of the aroma and flavor of both cooked and raw ingredients, and marries mild wholesome cheeses, fruits and vegetables with herbs that can bring out their unique flavors and textures.

Eggplant, figs, feta cheese, ground lamb, olives, sesame seeds, crisp pastry and honey work like the the colors on a painter's palate, and thyme, oregano, basil, dill and mint help to enhance and refine the foods of this amazing land.

For a great Moussaka recipe, see my blog: Moussaka Recipe With Eggplant (Aubergine)

Dittany of Crete

I am a devoted Harry Potter fan. I don't know what it is about the wizarding world, but it makes me happy just thinking about it.

In rereading the final book in the series, The Deathly Hallows, Harry and his friends get themselves in quite a few scrapes. It's interesting that Hermione, a young female wizard, is the one who performs most of the first aid. Often she's the only girl-woman around. When she's doing her herbal wizardry, she uses a lot of dittany, so in honor of Hermione and J. K. Rowling, here's some information about dittany of Crete:

Dittany of Crete (Organum dictammus L.)

Dittany is one of the most commonly reference historical herbs for healing. Closely related to marjoram and oregano, dittany has the distinctive oval oregano leaf shape, with hairy leaves and small pink to lavender flowers. Dittany of Crete is sometimes confused with false dittany (Dictamnus alba L.), which is also used in herbal healing.

Growing Dittany

Dittany is a perennial that will grow five to seven inches high and is hardy to zone 7. It likes a sunny location, well-drained soil, and mildly alkaline conditions. It also does well as a container plant.

Propagating Dittany


Propagate dittany by seed, division (spring or fall), or stem cuttings. Be sure to provide light shade until plants get established.

Dittany Lore

Dittany was reputedly sought out by wounded animals in an effort to heal themselves, and has a long healing and magical history. It was in common use during the time of Hippocrates and was one of the herbs he recommended as a treatment for stomach or digestive problems, arthritis, and rheumatism. The name is believed to come from a variation on the word Dicte, the name of a mountain in Crete on whose slopes the plant was known to grow.

Young men were often given the task of harvesting dittany from steep and dangerous hillsides as a proof of devotion.

Medicinal Dittany

A dittany compress was thought to help expel foreign substances from the body, and dittany was also prized as an aphrodisiac. It was believed to induce abortions in early pregnancy, to ease the pain of childbirth, and to reduce the severity of menstrual cramps. Dittany was also commonly used to treat snakebite.

Magical Dittany

Before its references in the Harry Potter books, dittany was a common ingredient in magical rites and potions. It was incorporated into rituals for summoning spirits that would appear in the smoke of dittany and other burning herbs.

One of it's modern magical or new age applications is in helping to induce astral projection, the practice of willing oneself out of the body and into other places or planes of existence. Dittany is also an important ingredient in love potions.

In the garden landscape, dittany is frequently used as a border or edging plant, It is hardy, and brings a great deal of history and interest to the garden. It is also a favorite of butterflies and bees.

This wonderful photo is courtesy of Cool.as.a.cucumber at Flickr.com.
Thanks for the heads up Jenny, I originally posted the wrong photo.

Saturday

Vermiculite

Vermiculite courtesy of MorguefileVermiculite is heat expanded mica. It is often used as a starting medium for seeds and cuttings. Sometimes referred to as a soilless medium, a feature that makes it free of disease, vermiculite has no nutritional value, so some sort of liquid fertilizer should be used when propagating plants with using this method.

As a additive to potting soil, vermiculite helps create a friable, light, mixture that holds moisture.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

Wicking

Drawing moisture upward through capillary action. Potted plants that need to be watered often respond well to wicking.

Fill a dish under the plant's pot with marbles or small stones, and then with water just short of the top of the stones. Thread twine from the top of the plant's pot, through the root ball of the plant, and out the drainage hole. Trail the twine into the reservoir under the stones. The water in the dish will be drawn into the pot via the twine. About four lengths of twine for a six inch pot should be enough.

A deep dish filled with water will allow you to cut back on the number of times you water each week. Seedlings, some houseplants, and house-herbs love wicking as a means of watering. They never go dry and you don't resent having to give them all that attention. Just be sure to give wicked plants a bath in the sink every couple of months to get rid of accumulated salts in the soil.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

Transpiration

The process in which a plant releases water through pores on its leaves.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

Heal-In

The temporary placement of plants in an interim medium until they can be planted in their permanent containers.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

Tropical

A typically warm and humid growing region that doesn't experience freezing temperatures.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

Semi-Tropical

A warm and often humid growing region that experiences infrequent temperature drops below freezing.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

ornamental

A plant that is grown for its visual appeal.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

Thursday

Harvesting Herbs

The process of harvesting the herbs you've cultivated is one of the most satisfying aspects of growing them. The fragrance of cut herbs fills the air around you, permeates the skin of your hands, and makes you feel blessed. Your basket is full of different textures and shades of the most peaceful green, and all of your harvest can be useful.

In the fall, I've made a workbench for myself on our deck and sorted cut herbs for wreaths, swags, and potpourri. That ritual each fall is one of my absolute favorite times, and I'm sure when I look back on the changing seasons of my life in the garden, these will be among my most vivid and satisfying memories.

If you are about to do a little harvesting of your own, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

Where to Keep Your Harvested Herbs

Never place your herbs in plastic bags. They will be unable to breath, might well overheat, and your harvest will be lost. You can use paper bags, but I like to use a basket. Baskets don't inhibit airflow, and they are gracious reminders of all those who went before us, harvesting wild or cultivated herbs in baskets or woven hats. If you are out of doors for an extended period, keep your harvesting container in the shade.

What Time of Day to Harvest Herbs

Try to harvest in the morning before 10:00 a.m. The essential oils in most herbs are most abundant in plant leaves in the morning, so your herbs will be more aromatic and flavorful if you harvest early. The one thing to try to avoid is dew. If there's dew on the plant, wait long enough for the morning sun to evaporate it.

How to Cut Your Herbs

Use a sharp knife. You want to make a clean cut just below a node that won't wound the plant any more than necessary. Tearing at leaves and creating ragged edges is an invitation to disease. Nodes are the areas on plants that produce new growth. They will often look like small bumps or sometimes joints.

Should You Wash Your Herbs?

Yes, wash your herbs. I fill the sink with tepid water, immerse the herbs and shake them gently. I do this two or three times, watching for any unwelcome guests, grit, or other problems. After washing, some people spin their herbs in a salad spinner to dry them, or even use the spin cycle of the their washing machines.

I use a gentler approach by shaking my herbs lightly and then placing them on a thick terrycloth towel to dry in a shady spot. When they look reasonable dry, I use them in cooking, or place bulk harvests in a dehydrator to complete the drying process before long term storage.

How Much of Your Herb Plant Should you Harvest?

As a general rule, if you only harvest half of your plant or less, then you will be able to enjoy a couple of harvests through the summer. In the fall, refer to the guide for each individual plant to see how best to prepare it for winter in your area.

When to Harvest Herbs

Harvest herb plants just before they bloom. After blooming, most of a plant's energy will be invested in producing seed. If the leaves are what you are interested in, make sure to encourage your plants to make leaves, not flowers, by harvesting leaves and stems before blooms appear or pinching back buds before they flower. If you do this consistently, you will extend the useful life of your plant and can still harvest seeds later in the season. This is also a good way to delay bolting. For slow growing perennials like rosemary, harvest new growth in summer and fall.

Herbs you've grown yourself, cultivated and cared for are being processed for your table, your household use, and your crafts. How amazing. This is the real deal. I think this is plant-keeping at its most visceral and satisfying -- to provide for your home, family and friends. The plant oils you smell on your hands will linger for hours: lavender, lemon balm, mint, sage, and whatever other herb choices you made when you were originally planning your garden, certain that spring and summer would roll around eventually.

Happy harvesting!

Cheers,
Sara

Saturday

Lavender Salt

Lavender Salt Recipe Photo Courtesy of MorguefileMy friend Eric was interested in making lavender salt to sprinkle on asparagus and wilted spinach salad. It's tasty and easy to make. Here's how.

Recipe for Lavender Salt

4 tbsp. dried lavender flowers
1 c. fine salt (Coarse salt doesn't work as well.)
Glass jar with a tight fitting lid
Muslin fabric

First Procedure

Place two tablespoons of lavender flowers in a length of muslin and wrap securely with string. Follow the same procedure to make a second packet. Place lavender packets in a glass jar and cover with a cup of fine salt. Seal the jar and set it aside for a couple of weeks, shaking it every few days. You'll know it's done when you can smell lavender in a teaspoon of salt that you've removed from the jar.

Alternate Procedure

The process above works great, but I usually just pass on making the lavender packets and mix lavender flowers and salt together in the jar, blending them gently. I let the mixture cure for a couple of weeks, and then pour it into my saltcellar. The saltcellar I use has fine holes, so no lavender flowers escape. The blended salt and lavender makes a nice display, and always sparks lively conversation.

Special Note: Be sure to use food grade lavender, or lavender from your garden that is free of pesticides. English lavender is best for cooking. Select whole flowers, and shake them lightly in a strainer to remove any loose particles.

Friday

Make Your Own Portuguese Linguica Sausage

Photo Linguica Courtesy of MorguefileLinguica is a robust Portuguese sausage that receives far less attention than it deserves. Unlike its cousin, chorizo, linguica is more flavorful than hot, and takes full advantage of its signature ingredient, paprika. Linguica works as well with egg and fish dishes as it does with beef in hearty stews. If you are having trouble finding a local source for this under-appreciated delicacy, try making your own linguica using the recipe below.

Homemade Linguica Recipe

5 lbs. boneless pork butt
8 cloves garlic minced fine or pulverized
4 tbsp. paprika (sweet)
3 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. coriander
1 tbsp. cayenne
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. allspice
¼ cup sherry (sweet)
¼ cup vinegar
¼ cup cold water
Sausage casings (optional)
Meat smoker (optional)

Cut pork into cubes and grind on the coarse setting of your grinder. Combine all ingredients and refrigerate for 48 hours. Fill casings with mixture or create loose patties, smoke, and freeze. Smoking adds flavor and complexity to the sausage, so give it a try. The raw sausage should lose about 20% of its volume in the process.

You can see by the ingredient list that linguica relies heavily on paprika for flavor, and includes a bouquet of spices that make a distinctive blend. Underestimated as a flavoring agent, when heated, a quality paprika can make a huge impact on a dish. Here it marries well with sherry and pork to create a truly unique and delicious sausage.

One of my favorite ways to serve linguica is fried in iron skillet in two-inch sections and served for breakfast with scrambled eggs. But it is also wonderful when diced and added to green beans or in a variation on the country hearty beans and rice. For a special treat, try linguica with fresh coriander (cilantro), black beans, and shallots. I'll try and dig up the recipe for next time.

Special Note: Don't short change yourself by freezing your sausage too soon. The longer the ingredients marinate, the better the sausage will be. Oh, and use a quality sherry. Sherry is not a traditional ingredient in 'old country' linguica recipes, but it helps to create authentic flavor - really. Try it.

Wednesday

Herbaceous

A plant with soft tissues. Not woody.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

Friability

Soil texture that is evenly loose, light, and crumbly.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

Dampening Off

A disease in young plants in which the stems are attacked at the soil line by fungus.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

What Is a Plant Cultivar

Grape tomatoes next to a standard cherry tomato.
A blending of the terms "cultivate" and "variety", a cultivar is a cultivated plant rather than one occurring in nature. The term refers to "new" strains of existing plants which are produced by breeders or enthusiasts. Some examples are peach colored pansies, grape tomatoes, or chives that don't set seed. (This last is a bit alarming.) Cultivars are sometimes produced to withstand harsher living conditions or offer a wider variety of beneficial attributes like: larger blooms, brighter colors or sweeter (or more pest resistant) fruit.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

Complete Fertilizer


Fertilizers that contain nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are considered complete because they provide the three minerals absolutely necessary for plant growth.

10-10-10 Fertilizer - By the Numbers

This is usually represented on the front of the fertilizer container with three numbers separated by hyphens. Like: 12-10-5. The first number is the nitrogen content, then phosphorous and then potassium. You would typically use different mineral recipes for different applications. The 12-10-5 above is often used in fertilizers for tomatoes and other vegetables. Your lawn, say, would need a different fertilizer/mineral mixture from your perennial beds. For example, lawn fertilizers may contain no phosphorous, so the middle number would be 0.

Most detailed planting instructions offer suggestions as to which mixture will likely work best for your application. A standard, all purpose fertilize has equal pasts of all three minerals, listed as:  10-10-10.

The right fertilizer helps plants grow and stay healthy.
This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

Cachepot

A plant container that does not come equipped with a drainage hole.

Monday

Air Layering

Propagation by slicing a section of woody stem and securing the open cut with a damp medium like peat moss. After roots form, the new plant is removed from the parent.

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.

Make Lavender Sugar Cookies

You might think it's a little too hot to be baking, but it's not too hot to start harvesting your lavender buds. Once you've made lavender sugar, you can make some very tasty lavender sugar cookies. They are buttery and have that added lavender zing. You might even want to pair them up with some refreshing lavender ice cream. Start making your lavender sugar now: Lavender Sugar Cookies.

Sometimes the best recipes add something unusual to the mix, and lavender can by your secret ingredient for great dishes.

Sunday

Acidifier

An acidifier is any soil amendment that decreases the soil's pH. This would include:

Substances That Increase Soil Acidity

Sawdust
Peat moss
Sulphur
Wood chips
Cottonseed meal
Leaf mold
Coffee grounds (Be sure to compost them first.)

Herbs and Plants That Love Acidic Soil

Sorrel (French), blueberry, honeysuckle and dandelion

This is a glossary entry that will help you understand some of my blogs better. Plants have a vocabulary; most specialized areas of learning do. Pick up one new term a day, and in no time you'll be a pro.