Monday

Harvesting Homegrown Tea

Home Grown Tea
Hot homemade tea is a tasty and healthy pick-me-up over the fall and winter months. If you have herbs in the garden, now's the time to harvest and dry a few for your tea cabinet. Let's take a look at some herbs that make healthy -- and tasty -- tea.

Catnip tea (nepeta cataria) - Fresh catnip can smell a little sour, but drying seems to bring out the light aroma that gives away this plant's origins as a member of the mint family. It's a natural sedative and aids in digestion. Historically, when China tea was scarce, catnip tea's became a popular substitute. Even if you don't have a cat, catnip tea is the cat's meow. Harvest and use the plant's leaves and flowers. Avoid catnip tea if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.

Passionflower tea (Passiflora incarnate) - An effective sleep inducer, passionflower leaves should be on your list of home grown sleepy time teas. Take this soothing tea an hour or two before bedtime. Luckily it's easy to find and grow.


Fenugreek tea (Trigonella Foenum-Graecum) - Fenugreek seeds taste like maple syrup (without the sweetness). Sweeten the tea with honey to treat a sore throat, mild tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and indigestion.

Lemon balm tea (Melissa) - One of maybe seven prime herbs to help you sleep (passionflower is another one), lemon balm is a member of the mint family but you wouldn't know it from the aroma, which has all the bright sweet power of lemon without the bite.

Home Grown TeaLavender tea - I've discussed this one many times. Lavender tea is a muscle and mind relaxer that you should really rely on to decompress after a hard day. Drink it. Put it in your bath. Add a sachet to your pillow. It's all good.

Mint tea - As a pick me up, breath freshener or stomach settler, you can't beat mint. I use a mixture of peppermint, apple mint and spearmint. Whatever you grow, it's likely to make a superior tea. Dry the leaves and stems. Once dried, use about a tablespoon of mint for eight ounces of boiling water.


Sage tea (Salvia officinalis) - This is the herb used in stuffing, but as a soothing tea its natural estrogens can help reduce the severity of night sweats, hot flashes and menstrual cramps. This one can be a little bitter and earthy, so sweeten it with honey, stevia or sugar. Dry the leaves. Avoid taking sage in bulk if you're pregnant or nursing.


Camellia sinensis (China) tea - This is the China tea plant, and it's surprisingly easy to grow and dry. If you can grow standard camellias in your climate, you're halfway there. Although most tea camellia harvesting is done in spring, you can take a few fall leaves to tide you over. If you haven't invested in a tea camellia yet, make sure to put it on your list of new plants for spring. You can even grow it indoors -- for a while, anyway.

These teas have healthful properties and they taste good, too. Because you're growing and harvesting your own varieties, you can mix and match your teas to come up with a blend that offers the flavor notes and health benefits you want.

From a muscle relaxing lavender tea with sedative lemon balm (a favorite of mine), to a therapeutic fenugreek seed tea with orange peel and honey, having a full tea drawer or cabinet is one of the great benefits that comes with planting an herb garden. In the middle of February when you think winter will never end, you can open your cache of herbs for a fragrant reminder that spring is on its way.

Wednesday

Tips for Harvesting Basil

Harvesting Basil
If you're into herbs and cooking, basil is probably a big deal in your garden. Throughout summer it's the backbone of some of the most distinctive, fresh and delicious dishes around. My two personal favorites are basil pesto and Insalata Caprese, a simple salad made with basil, mozzarella cheese and tomatoes.

One of the things that makes these dishes so special is that they're largely seasonal. Yes, if you definitely need your basil fix there are a few things you can do, but basil and tomatoes just don't seem to fare well when cultivated out of season. Hothouse basil plants you may run into in the market during winter aren't large enough to season a family sized dish, except maybe a marinara sauce, and you probably already know that store purchased tomatoes taste like pale pretenders compared to their homegrown counterparts. There are some workarounds for storing basil you should know about, though. You can net great basil in December, but only if you act now.

Harvesting Basil and Storing it Over the Long Winter Months

Basil doesn't dry well. I'll repeat this because I don't want you to be disappointed: Dried basil loses most of its flavor -- and that's being generous. To preserve that bright burst of rich savor and zest, you will have to find another long term storage method. Basil is a prolific plant, and if you grow it, there's a good chance you have lots. Big bounty means a harvest to share and hopefully preserve for future use.

What You Need to Know about Harvesting Basil

The best time to ramp up for a basil harvest is when the plant has lots of leaves but few flowers (There's a technical term for this that escapes me at the moment and you probably don't need to be bothered with it anyway.)

Harvesting Basil
When you start to see what looks like stalks filled with little green crescents growing close to the stem, these are seminal flowers and the portion of the plant that sets seed. Pinch the tops down to the first set of distinctive bushy leaves, and keep doing that for the rest of the season. If you're after seed for next year, select one or two plants for seed and let them flower naturally.

This is how the whole flowering business generally works: Many plants and most herbs have limited energy stores. At the beginning of the season, they expend energy producing leaves. Where most herbs are concerned, that's where the flavor is. There are some exceptions, like chamomile and lavender, where you're really after the flowers, but we'll discuss those herbs individually.

When you have a bushy plant with lots of leaves and the tips are just starting to elongate, that's the best time to harvest. After flowers form, the plant switches from being a leaf producer to being a flower producer. Since it's the leaves you're after, waiting until the plant has flowered and set seed is counterproductive. Pinching back the flowers is a method of forestalling blooming and encouraging the plant to keep producing leaves. It may delay blooming for a week or two under the right conditions.

You can also harvest basil in batches: Wait till a plant is at least 10 inches high and then start harvesting a third of the plant every month or so. You should wait until at least as much as you've taken grows in again before taking a second and third harvest. You get young, flavorful basil, but there's more work involved than taking a single harvest from each plant. To fill your basil needs throughout summer, take partial harvests from a few plants to use fresh, and leave some alone for a big summer or early fall harvest.

Tips for Harvesting Basil

With basil, the leaves are flavor central, and you want to gather them together in the morning before the sunlight starts beating down on them (well before noon), but after the dew has evaporated. Place harvested leaves in a container that allows good air flow. You can use a paper bag or a woven basket. Avoid using a plastic bag or bucket. Without air flow, the leaves will wilt fast and can actually begin to cook. As you harvest, be sure to keep the snipped leaves out of direct sunlight, too.

After harvesting, rinse the leaves gently and pat them dry.

Here are some storage options:

Freezing Basil

Freezing leaves - One of the most common methods for basil storage is freezing. There are two easy ways to do this. You can store individual leaves in a big freezer bag for later use. They're best frozen on a cookie sheet or plastic tray. As the leaves freeze, throw them in the bag. The leaves will stay relatively loose and individualized, making it easy to pull them out a few at a time later.

Making basil ice cubes - The other method is to make a slurry of fresh chopped basil and water and freeze it in ice cube trays. This is an "instant" basil approach you can use to add basil goodness to soups, stews and pasta sauces throughout the winter. It's a nice option that's fast and simple to do. Once the slurry is frozen, you can transfer the cubes to freezer bags for convenient long-term storage (and free up your trays).

Making Basil Oil

Basil makes a tasty flavored oil, and you can create basil oil pretty easily too:

Basil oil infusions - Transferring flavor to oil using fresh ingredients is typically called an infusion, and this can be accomplished with or without heat. The best example of a hot infusion is a steaming cup of hot tea.

Cold vs. hot infusions - In the old days, herb enthusiasts used to cold infuse lots of herbs in oil by just letting the herbs dwell in the oil for a week or two. Some recipes called for leaving the oil in the sun, while others suggested placing the oil in a dark warm location. I've made garlic flavored oil like this and then just stored it in my cupboard.

There are some BIG problems with this method, though. Salmonella (Salmonella enterica) is one, and botulism (Clostridium botulinum) is the other. Both can be present in cold infusions that aren't refrigerated. Nowadays, I use warm infusions for edible preparations that don't use large proportions of highly acidic (vinegar) or alcoholic (liquor) ingredients. You can find more information about salmonella and botulism below.

For hot infusions, the idea is to speed up the flavor transfer between the herbs and the oil and also to eliminate as much water in the herbs as possible. The more watery an herb is, the more quickly the oil will spoil. For basil, which has a relatively high water content, I use this recipe:

Basil Oil Recipe

1 cup avocado oil
2/3 cup tightly packed, rough chopped basil leaves

I use avocado oil and not the standard olive oil mixture because I simmer the oil and basil leaves in a slow cooker or in a double boiler for about an hour. This process distributes the flavor and helps remove the excess moisture (the oil will last longer that way). The long cooking time works well with avocado oil because, unlike olive oil, it's super stable and has a very high smoke point. It's delicious, too.

Basil oil prepared this way has a complex basil flavor you'll like. After processing, I strain the mixture through a sieve and then through a coffee filter. It will last a month in the fridge. I typically break the batch into thirds and freeze two portions. This will usually get me through the winter months. The recipe can be doubled.

How to Harvest Basil
Storing Prepared Dishes Containing Basil

Another option is to prepare an entire dish containing basil and freeze that. I've had success freezing pesto, the same goes for any number of Italian sauce and pasta variations. If you have a few favorites that sound like good fall fare, take advantage of your basil harvest by preparing and freezing those recipes now.

When you're harvesting basil, don't forget to let a couple of plants, or portions of one plant, flower for seed. Basil is very easy to grow from seed in spring for a big, new batch of thoroughly delicious basil next year.

Harvesting Basil Seed

Most basil varieties have large black seeds that form on the flowering spikes.  I have some harvesting photos and instructions here: Harvesting Basil Seeds.

Special Notes:

Botulism - Botulism is present in soil. It needs an airless, low acid environment in which to develop from a dormant state. If you create herbal recipes using fresh ingredients and refrigerate them at or below 39 degrees F. right away, or use alcohol or vinegar as a base, the chances of botulism contamination are low. The problem with cold infusions left at room temperature using anything other than alcohol or vinegar is that botulism does have days to develop and later refrigeration or short term boiling won't destroy the toxin. For more information about botulism, visit the USDA's website (U.S. Department of Agriculture) or visit the Botulism pages on the CDC's (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) site.

Salmonella - Salmonella can be killed by boiling (actually if we were using meats, they would have to reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees F, while fresh ingredients only need to reach around 140 degrees F). Use a candy thermometer to test your preparations or employ some extra heat and simmer them.

References:

CDC. "Facts about Botulism." 10/6/06. 8/9/11.
http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/botulism/factsheet.asp

About Salmonella. "Salmonella." 8/9/11.
http://www.about-salmonella.com/

USDA. "Salmonella Questions and Answers." 5/25/11. 8/9/11.
http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/salmonella_questions_&_answers/index.asp

UAB Medicine. "Botulism." 8/20/07. 8/9/11.
http://www.health.uab.edu/17622/

USDA "Preparing and Canning Fermented Foods and Pickled Vegetables."
http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/usda/GUIDE%206%20Home%20Can.pdf

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Photo 1: By Paul Goyette (http://www.flickr.com/photos/pgoyette/201492949/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Basil_leaves.jpg
Photo 2: 532px-Bee_on_Basil_flower_wiki.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bee_on_Basil_flower.jpg
By Leonardo RĂ©-Jorge (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0
Photo 3: Basil2MF.jpg http://morguefile.com/archive/display/122290

Thursday

How to Make Sweet Pickles

How to Make Sweet Pickles
This summer I made sweet pickles for the first time, and it was so much fun. If you're a sweet pickle fan (I love them), have a big pickle harvest, or just like pickles and want an easy project to ease into the hobby of canning --this sweet pickle challenge is it.

You really have to make these pickles. They manage to be sweeter, crunchier and spicier than the store bought varieties I've tried. Indulge me a second while I explain:

Making Sweet Pickles is an Easy Introduction to Canning

I wanted to come up with a simple canning project that would involve making a batch of home grown product for future use that DIDN'T include a hot water bath -- you know, the grueling, steamy, worrisome part of canning.

I've canned relatively small batches of produce in the past, and even at that, my back and neck were usually killing me by the time the afternoon was over. Today, new style equipment makes the process easier -- more on that in another post.

I still had doubts about the fun quotient of spending a week elbow deep in pickles, though. If you think you might find canning fun but want to start in the shallow end of the pool, trying something simple like sweet pickles is a good way to test the waters. It was for me, anyway. The wonderful thing about this recipe is that you can make a big batch of pickles for room temperature storage (you know, with the sealed quart jars), but not have to mess with the funnels and endless rolling boil sterilization.

I don't know the science, but this recipe uses salt, vinegar and sugar -- all powerful antibacterial agents. That and the benign nature of cucumbers makes it possible to preserve and store them without refrigeration. They are the perfect introduction to canning.

I put up 10 each one quart jars in two batches. I'm not lazy, but I can get impatient with a process that's too fussy or detailed. This one was a pure pleasure.

This has been a long introduction to what's actually a referral to another site. I used the now famous Craven County Sweet Pickle Recipe. You can find it by following the link. I won't repeat it here because that would be rude. I will outline my experience making these pickles, though, along with a few tips.

Take a look at the recipe and come back for some pointers. You'll find this cucumber pickle recipe everywhere -- it's hard to ignore perfection.  We'll go through some of the details together. Just to whet your appetite: These are the best sweet pickles I've ever tasted, and knowing that I made them myself makes them all the sweeter. (Oh, I'm not getting anything for referring you to the Craven County recipe. I'm just a big, big fan.)

How to Make Sweet Pickles
How to Make Sweet Pickles

The process takes place over eight days. Don't balk. The only challenging parts are cutting the cukes on day one and sticking them in sugar on day eight. The rest is comprised of pouring hot, seasoned water (or vinegar) over the pickles and letting the mixture sit overnight.

A Note on the Sweet Pickle Ingredients

What are pickling cucumbers - You can use any style, but pickling cucumbers are grown for their length to width ratio (they're chubby), and their lack of open spots or voids.

Vinegar - This is good, old apple cider vinegar from the market. For a whole batch, you'll need a gallon. For me, that was a 12 quart pot filled with pickles. (Around 30 each)

Alum - This is a white powder, actually the mineral potassium aluminum sulfate. Alum gives the pickles their crunch. It's usually stocked in small quantities in the spice aisle of the grocery store. A small spice container (just shy of 2 ounces), was enough to process 60 pickles or so.

Pickling salt - Unlike table salt, pickling salt has no added iodine. It's coarser, too. You can find it in the spice aisle of the market too. Apparently the presence of iodine can discolor pickled produce.

Cheesecloth - Enough to cover the pot opening and to wrap the spices in. The cucumbers remain at room temperature throughout the eight day process, which may attract flies if you don't have screens or your kids tend to leave the back door open. The cheesecloth (a very loosely woven cloth) is important. The recipe specifically recommends NOT using a pot lid, as this could overheat the cucumbers and make a cuke stew instead of pickles.

Twine (cotton) - Enough to hold the cheesecloth in place.

A non-reactive pot - I used a 12 quart enamel pot to process the cucumbers, and another 12 quart pot, stainless steel this time, to heat the added ingredients.(You could also use glass or ceramic.)

I also used a one gallon measuring container - an old glass wine jug, actually.

Granulated sugar - white table (or baking) sugar is fine

Pickling spice - You can buy it already blended. For future reference, pickling spices are typically a combination of: allspice, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, ginger, mustard seed, bay leaves, dried chilies, mace, cardamom, and black pepper.


Sweet Pickling Tips

  • The recipe calls for enough hot water or vinegar to cover the fresh, sliced cucumbers (repeated over a number of days) to cure them and also to introduce the alum and spices. The cukes are never boiled, but by the end of the process, they are pretty well cooked. Remember, the lid is never placed on the pot, but it is covered with a protective layer or two of cheesecloth or a towel.)
  • Once the vinegar is added, the cucumbers sit in the mixture for days. If you don't like the smell of vinegar, have an out-of-the-way spot in which to stow the curing pot.
  • The recipe recommends placing the spices in a length of cheesecloth, tying them off and discarding the bundle later, but I like the idea of leaving the spices loose, which is what I did. I really relish (no pun intended) the notion of having the pickles get spicier over time. Those loose bits of red, gold and brown look intriguing in the jars, too. I can see whole cloves, peppercorns, ginger bits and whole mustard seeds. Yum!
  • The last step is to drain the vinegar and dredge the pickles in sugar -- lots of sugar. After that, the pickles are jarred with additional sugar. Over time, the sugar draws the vinegar out of the cucumbers and replaces it with sugar, making a thick, gooey, sweet and sour juice in the process.
  • The pickles are ready to eat a week after canning, but can last for years if the sealed jars are kept in a cool, dark spot.
  • What I Learned From My Sweet Pickle Making Project
  • I really liked the abundance of making lots of finished, jarred product. It makes me feel rich -- and powerful. Those pickles were darned special. I grew the cucumbers from seed, cultivated them, and transformed them into a very tasty treat. It was a fulfilling summer project.
  • I was also relieved at the prospect of not having to worry much about contamination. The directions recommend using the sanitize setting on the dishwasher to clean the jars, which I did. I also simmered the lids and threaded rings before putting them in place.
  • I used pickle canning jars. They have an extra wide mouth to make filling easier.
  • I think next time I may add a little more clove and ginger to the mix for some extra heat.
  • I tried the pickles after a week, refrigerating a jar overnight before doing a taste test. If you're a pickle fan, there's just no comparison with the processed stuff. They are amazing.
  • After using the vinegar, it's discarded, which is a shame. Next time, I might reuse it to make pickled eggs. I'm still thinking about how I'll pull that off from a safety standpoint.
  • I hate to admit it, but some of my cucumbers got kinda big. That's because they were hiding behind a huge squash plant. It didn't seem to make a difference, though. On a few, the skins were firm but turning a strippy yellow and green. After processing, most of the yellow faded to green, so it was no big deal.
  • I took the peels off some of the pickles to see how they'd turn out. Definitely plan to leave the skins on. The slices will be crunchier that way.

I hope you give these little examples of picklely perfection a try. Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

Monday

Lavender Honey Recipe - How to Make Lavender Honey

Lavender Honey Recipe
Lavender honey is one of my secret weapons. It's easy to make, as are all the flavored honey recipes I share, and it's a wonderful choice for holiday gift giving. You can whip up a batch in about an hour, and the resulting honey is delicious -- and something your friends won't find in stores. I make separate batches of rose, orange, lavender, vanilla and lemon balm honey to give away, and they're always a big hit. Spread on biscuits or used in recipes, they offer a subtle but distinct variation on the honey flavor you're probably used to.

Honey is a powerful antibacterial agent. It's so powerful that Alexander the Great was entombed in a coffin filled with honey to preserve his corpse. That makes it a stable and pretty safe base for experimentation. If you make barbecue sauce and want a hot, peppery, sweet honey to add to your grilling, make up a batch of hot pepper honey with a few peppercorns thrown in. You get the idea, I'm sure. Once you understand the basic technique, coming up with ideas for flavored honey is simple.

Making Lavender Honey Is a Project You Can Afford

Honey can get expensive, but making flavored honey gifts is still doable on a small budget. I just purchased three pounds of clover honey at my local discount market for a little less than $9. Once made up, I pour my flavored honey into small (around 3.5 ounce) jars for gift giving and keep a large container to give away or use later. At that rate, three pounds of honey goes a long way.

You'll see recipe videos around the web that recommend cold infusion for lavender honey -- that involves adding the lavender buds directly to the honey and letting them release their flavor essence over a period of days or weeks. This technique works, but it takes a while and uses a lot of lavender (up to a cup for each cup of honey). Instead, I like to heat my honey. That way the infusion process is faster and I can get away with using three tablespoons of lavender buds per eight ounces of honey.

I usually use fresh or home dried lavender, but if I'm making up a recipe after the first frost in fall, I use purchased, dried lavender. (A half-pound of food grade lavender buds sells for around $7 online and will last through many projects.)

Lavender Honey Recipe

  • 8 ounces clover honey (you can use other varieties, but keep the honey light and neutral)
  • 3 tablespoons dried lavender buds

Tools

  • Double boiler
  • 2 lengths of cheesecloth (about 6" x 9" each)
  • Twine
  • Funnel
  • Glass jar with a lid
  • Decorative gift giving jars
Directions for Lavender Honey

Measure the lavender into two lengths of folded cheesecloth (fold each piece in half) and tie with twine. (You can add the lavender directly to the honey, but this method is less messy and almost as effective.
If any bits get out -- some do -- you can strain them through more cheese cloth after you've finished the infusion.)

Place the honey in a double boiler and add the lavender packets. Tie the twine ends to the handle of the pan to make it easier to remove the lavender later. (Keep the twine away from your heat source).

Heat the mixture for 40 minutes on a low to medium flame (The water in the double boiler should be at a light simmer, not a rolling boil). Stir every few minutes.

Cool.

Remove the lavender, and pour the honey into a decorative jar (or jars). You may need a funnel for this. If there are lots of suspended lavender bits, strain them through three lengths of cheese cloth or a fine mesh strainer.

For extra flavor, retain one lavender bag with the mixture, place the batch in a glass jar, cap it and place it in a sunny window for a couple of days. The more time you cook or season the honey with the lavender in place, the stronger the flavor will be. If you'll be using the flavored honey mostly in cooking, stronger is better. As a sweetener or condiment, the minimum cooking time and no extra curing usually works best.

Lavender honey doesn't need refrigeration. It will last up to a year in your cupboard.

Lavender Honey Tips:
  • A few serving suggestions: Tasty on muffins, biscuits, and ice cream, lavender honey is also a great ingredient in lemon pound cake, oatmeal cookies, pumpkin bread, candied yams and gingersnaps.
  • You can triple the batch without any problems. More can sometimes be easier, especially if you have a large double boiler. If you want to cook smaller batches in a tinier pan, you can always suspend a small stainless steel mixing bowl in a larger pan. It works for me.
  • To make the most of your efforts: After cooking, squeeze the lavender packet gently to get as much honey out as possible.
  • Stirring frequently through the cooking process distributes the lavender flavor, so don't forget.
  • If your honey crystalizes over time, heat the jar in water until the crystals dissolve.