Saturday

Rosemary Tree Maintenance Tips

Rosemary Tree Care
Those petite rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Christmas trees you see at the home improvement store, in the market and at your local nursery are charming to look at, but can be a bear to maintain.

Rosemary Tree Maintenance

Because they look and smell so wonderful, they're almost irresistible. If you just have to adopt one of these seasonal beauties, make sure to take a look at the tips below.

Rosemary Tree Care
  • Consider the future. Rosemary can't tolerate a hard frost. There are some exceptions -- cultivars designed to survive to, say, U.S. Zone 5, but the rosemary varieties typically employed for topiary trees won't survive outdoors in the snow -- ever. If you live in a cold climate and plan on keeping your rosemary tree after the holidays, you'll have to maintain your shrub indoors until the weather warms up in spring. Next fall you'll have to bring it back inside, so be sure to keep it in a pot. Overwintering patio plants indoors is a common practice. You may even come to enjoy it and consider your plant commuters part of your extended family.
  • Don't repot. Rosemary doesn't like to be repotted until it is root bound. If you like to give your houseplants a great start in life by repotting specimens as soon as you get them home, resist the urge. Wait until mid-spring or early summer.
  • Watch the heat. Keep rosemary away from heat sources like warm electronics and heat registers.
  • Find good light. Although you can place your tree in a decorative spot like on top of your coffee table or on your dining table, if there isn't much sun in your preferred location, the tree will suffer. Ideally, you want to provide around six hours of light for your tree every day.

    It should be good light, too. That means light bright enough to cast a shadow on the floor when you hold your hand in a sunbeam. An unobstructed eastern exposure is good. A southern exposure is probably better in most areas. Light is important for the plant, but you can cheat by placing it in a decorative low-light location for a day or so and then putting it back in a well illuminated area for a couple of days. Rosemary Christmas trees are typically small, so moving one around isn't much of a hardship -- but it may mean life or death for your plant.
  • Rosemary Tree CareBe careful when watering. If you've killed rosemary trees in the past, the problem was probably with watering. Indoor rosemary is persnickety about water. You might have concluded that the dry indoor conditions warranted frequent watering, but this is deceptive. Rosemary will rest over the winter and doesn't really need much in the way of water or nourishment. It does need humidity, though. Water once a week, but mist the plant a couple of times a day. Maintain a layer of mulch at the soil line. It will hold the misted moisture and release it slowly.

    Another good idea is to keep your rosemary tree with a group of houseplants when you're not using it as decoration. The combined humidity created by the plants produces a favorable microclimate your rosemary will like.
  • Remove the decorations. Those cute decorations wrapped around the branches of your rosemary are not the plant's friend. Remove them if you can bear to. Otherwise, loosen them, and hopefully they won't cause too much damage to adjacent needles and supporting stems.
  • Remove the paper wrapper. The cheerful gold, red or green wrapper around your rosemary tree's pot can create a dangerous condition by trapping water. When the roots of rosemary sit in water, they die. When the roots die, the plant starves to death. You can handle this a couple of ways: Remove the wrapper; always dump any residual water a half-hour after watering the plant; place a tray outfitted with a layer of marbles (or stones) between the wrapper and the pot. The water will drain down to the tray away from the plant's roots and you'll still have the decorative benefit of the attractive wrapping.

Caring for Rosemary Christmas Trees and Choosing a Rosemary Tree - Final Words (Really!)

Rosemary trees sold as Christmas decorations have a beautiful triangular habit like real Christmas trees. This isn't natural. This isn't close to being natural for rosemary. Immature plants whacked and tortured into this shape are likely suffering from shock and need pretty favorable conditions in which to recuperate. Watch for drooping or dry needles that may indicate trouble ahead. If you follow the recommendations above, you will probably be able to salvage the plant and have a viable specimen after the holidays are over.

If you haven't purchased a rosemary Christmas tree yet:

Look for a bright green, vigorous plant.

Run your hand along its stems to make sure the needles aren't shedding (an important sign of problems).

Check the decorative wrapper (if you can) for standing water under the pot, and reject any plants that have been sitting in water.

If you do find a specimen you like and plan on transporting it in cold weather, protect the plant by placing it in a protective bag for the trip home. A paper bag provides the best insulation from the cold. Don't linger for a nice lunch out.  Even an hour in a winter cold car can hurt the survival prospects for most houseplants.

Good luck.

Tuesday

Homemade Spicy Cranberry Sauce

If you like canned cranberry sauce, you'll love the taste of your own homemade version. Homemade cranberry sauce has a sweet-tart flavor that is the perfect foil for mild tasting fowl like turkey. It has a fresher and brighter flavor than the canned varieties I've tried. It's also super easy to make. I have four variations on basic homemade cranberry sauce that amp up the taste and add a hint of exotic (or fresh herb garden) goodness.

Don't let another holiday go by without making your own cranberry sauce. In fact, try all four variations and package them in small jars to give away as hostess gifts. You can easily make enough for all your holiday visits -- or dinners -- in an hour or two.

Making a holiday classic from scratch, whether it is spice cake, fruit cake or cranberry sauce, is one way to revitalize your feelings for the season. It's hard to stay grumpy or depressed when your kitchen smells so good.

You can use apple juice, cranberry juice or orange juice as a base for cranberry sauce. All work well, but the apple juice makes for a less tart (and slightly less interesting) sauce overall. I've provided a basic recipe below and then added my favorite variations. This is an easy recipe, and I've tried lots of different ingredient pairings with it over the years. Once you know the ropes, experiment. Adding orange liqueur is nice. Homemade lemon vodka works well too. Just substitute about a quarter of a cup for the liquid requirement. Sometimes I even add stevia juice for a low calorie option.

Basic Homemade Cranberry Sauce
  • 1 cup juice (apple or orange is traditional, but you can probably add just about anything that can tolerate boiling)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups fresh cranberries
Directions for Basic Cranberry Sauce

  • Wash berries thoroughly and remove stem pieces. Set aside.
  • Combine juice and sugar in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil.
  • Add cranberries and bring back to a boil until berries pop. This should take five minutes or less.
  • Mash berries lightly. (I use a wooden spoon.)
  • Cool and refrigerate.
This is about as basic as it gets, so add some zest with these interesting variations. I like them all:

Cranberry Sauce with Lime

Orange is pretty traditional in cranberry sauce because it works well. Lime seems to be the citrus fruit of choice in cooking these days, though, so I've added it as an alternative option. It does seem to add a nice bite that's naughty but nice. For this one, all you need to do is add 1/2 teaspoon lime zest to the basic recipe along with 2 tablespoons of lime juice and another tablespoon and a half of sugar. Prefer orange juice as a base.


Ginger Cranberry Sauce

Add 2 teaspoons of grated ginger to the boiling berries just before removing them from the heat. Stir to incorporate.

Cardamom Cranberry Sauce

If you haven't tried cardamom, it's hard to describe. It has an old world, spicy flavor that's a real treat and works well with cranberries. It's a bit expensive, but if you plan on making rum toddies (I'll share an amazing recipe later), it's worth the investment, so buy some ground cardamom now and include it in your cranberry creation. Include 1/2-teaspoon grated orange zest and 1/4-teaspoon ground cardamom with the berries in the basic recipe above.


Mint Cranberry Sauce

Add 1 tablespoon of minced fresh mint leaves. I prefer apple mint or spearmint, but just about any mint will do. Incorporate the leaves into the berry mixture during the last couple of minutes of cooking. If you don't like the look of little green bits in your sauce, you can add eight large, whole mint leaves to the juice and sugar mixture (for this one, apple juice is best), simmer for 5 minutes, cool and strain out the mint before proceeding to the basic recipe. Add back a couple of teaspoons of water to make up liquid evaporated off while you simmered the leaves. The juice may turn slightly green, but that won't spoil the bright ruby look of the finished dish.

Well, that's it for now. This year I'm trying a honey, allspice and cinnamon version. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Whether you make cranberry sauce or not, if you celebrate the U.S. version of Thanksgiving, have a wonderful holiday.

Friday

Homemade Spice Cake Recipe

I'm not usually a cake fan, but spice cake is an exception. A good spice cake can bring out the wonderful aromas and complex flavors of exotic spices in a tantalizing burst that's worth a turn in front of a hot oven. Many spice cakes start with a moist base. Carrot cake is a variety of spice cake that takes advantage of the wonderful color and natural sugars in carrots to add moisture and texture. Pumpkin cake, zucchini cake and persimmon cake are other examples.

My all-time favorite spice cake is made with applesauce. It's hard to beat apples for flavor and texture. Applesauce is also easy to find and already prepped to ladle into the batter. When I was a kid the bakery on the corner sold a killer "applesauce cake" that was just about perfect. I've been trying to duplicate the recipe ever since. The version below comes close, and it makes for a great autumn treat or holiday gift. I make it in a loaf pan, and serve it toasted or warm from the oven. It's a holiday indulgence I look forward to every year.

Spice Cake Recipe
  • 2 cups flour (all-purpose)
  • 2 tsp. fresh baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 8 tbsp. (1 stick) softened butter
  • 1 cup tightly packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. honey
  • 1-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs plus one egg yolk
  • 1 1/2 cups applesauce (prefer unsweetened)
  • 1-1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ginger (I use finely grated ginger, but you can use 1/4 tsp. ground ginger instead)
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg (fresh ground is best)
  • pinch ground cloves (1/8 tsp. should do it)
  • 1/3 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
  • 1/3 cup dried cherries or golden raisins (optional)
Directions for Spice Cake

Blend flour, spices, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl.

In a separate bowl, cream butter, sugar, honey and vanilla. Set aside.

In a third bowl, combine eggs and applesauce. Whisk to incorporate.

Add the egg mixture to the butter mixture slowly. I try to combine about a half-cup at a time to make mixing easier.

Add the flour mixture to the eggs and butter in half-cup increments until fully blended.

Pour batter into a greased and floured pan. You can use a loaf pan, cake pan or cupcake tins. Bake in a 325 degree F oven for about 45 minutes. (For cupcakes, reduce cooking time to about 20 minutes.)

When done, the edges of the cake should pull away from the pan a little, and a toothpick inserted into the center will come out clean.


I usually don't bother with frosting, but when I do, I prefer a homemade cream cheese frosting. With an apple sauce cake, the addition of a little cheesy bite seems only fitting.

Tuesday

Thanksgiving Planning Tips from the Herb Gardener

Thanksgiving is a special time, but getting ready for the big day can be a hassle. We cooking mavens are notorious for biting off more than we -- and others -- can chew, which means turkey day marathons, lots of leftovers, and plenty of prep and cleanup. Along with the very nice recipe for spicy pumpkin pie from my last post, I have compiled a list of articles that will help make Thanksgiving more fun and foolproof.

If you've been visiting my blog for a while, you probably know that I also write for a number of Discovery Channel websites like TLC.com, HowStuffWorks.com and DiscoveryHealth.com. I've written quite a bit of food content for TLC that can make Thanksgiving meal prep easier. If you like herbs, enjoy cooking and adore the holidays, we have a number of things in common. These suggestions are my personal cheat sheets for the challenges ahead. Consider them my way of encouraging a few chuckles and helping you triumph over one of the biggest cooking days of the year:

10 Tips for Thanksgiving Newbies 

How to Cook the Perfect Turkey

Scrumptious Thanksgiving Tablescapes

Which Holiday Food Is the Worst for My Body?


Perfect Homemade Eggnog

5 Autumn Apples (pick one for pie)

Apple Cider 101

10 Reasons Why You Should Keep a Clean Kitchen (no insult intended - there are just some really good tips here)

Spicy Pumpkin Pie Recipe 

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Photo 2: By TheKohser (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOven_roasted_brine-soaked_turkey.jpg

Monday

Spicy Pumpkin Pie Recipe

To me, a creamy, spicy pumpkin pie is the quintessential autumn dessert. It may not be fancy, and it isn't a beauty to look at, but there's something about the aroma and texture of a good pumpkin pie that puts me in a holiday mood every time. I don't buy frozen pie because I like to add additional spices to give my pies some zip. If you want to create a pumpkin pie that will make a few squash converts at your house, the following recipe is the first step on a spice filled baking adventure.

Spicy Pumpkin Pie Recipe
  • 2 cups canned pumpkin
  • 1 cup prepared eggnog
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tbsps flour
  • 1 3/4 tsps ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • pinch ground allspice
  • pinch of ground cardamom if you have it
  • 2 large eggs

  • 1 prepared 9 inch pie crust

Pumpkin Pie Directions

I usually buy frozen crust, but you can certainly make your own. I always go the extra step of placing a film of room temperature butter on the crust before baking. For wet recipes like pumpkin pie and quiche, it keeps the crust from getting soggy or doughy.

The filling directions are pretty easy:
Combine all the ingredients except the eggs, and blend thoroughly.

In a separate mixing bowl, beat the eggs until well incorporated but not frothy.

Add the egg mixture to the pumpkin and spices. Stir to incorporate.

Pour into a prepared but unbaked pie crust.

Wrap the edges of the crust with aluminum foil to prevent over-browning.

Bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees F and then drop the temperature to 350 degrees for another 45 to 50 minutes -- or until the center is firm.

It's also a good idea to turn the pie 180 degrees about a half-hour into the cooking process. If your oven isn't spotless or perfectly calibrated, this will help insure even cooking.

Cool on an elevated rack, if possible.

    If you like your pumpkin spicy and love the aroma of baking pie permeating your kitchen, this recipe is for you.

    Thursday

    Lemon Vodka Recipe and Suggestions

    Lemon vodka has a strong, bright flavor that perks up mixed drinks and can work very well in lemon cake, as a frosting ingredient, or even added to tea. It makes a radically delicious lemonade, too.

    One really nice thing about this recipe is that you can use any citrus fruit as a base. If you prefer making lime vodka to use in your Tex-Mex marinades, or orange vodka to add a little bite to your fruit salad, I've listed the substitutions below. Flavored vodka makes an interesting ingredient in cooking. It's a nice homemade hostess gift, too.

    Lemon Vodka Recipe


    Half of a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka (59.2 fluid ounces)

    1 cup white granulated sugar

    The zest of 5 lemons (or four medium sized oranges, or six limes)


    Directions for Lemon Vodka

    Combine the ingredients in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid.

    Shake well to dissolve the sugar.

    Set aside for four weeks in a room temperature cupboard.

    Drizzle the seasoned mixture through a large coffee-filter lined funnel to remove the zest.

    Special Notes:

    For this recipe, I like to choose organic fruits because I'm not sure how much pesticide is typically used on citrus. Employ your best judgment.

    For presentation, it's nice to peel and curl narrow strips of zest to include in the bottle.

    If I have lemon balm, I like to add a sprig to the mix. It gives the vodka an elegant aroma -- well, it seems that way to me, anyway.

    Battening Down for Winter in the Herb Patch - Are We There Yet?

    You may not have to tie many of your herbs in place to help them survive the winter, but there are a few things you can do before the first killing frost to help make winter -- and next spring -- easier in the garden.

    I love spring and fall -- but I also really like winter. It can be a cruel time, but it scours the landscape clean in some ways. We can start fresh -- or at least fresher -- in a few months, because a generation of insects has died off, and sickly plants have lost their place in the relentless cycle of life in the garden.

    Before you say goodbye and keep cold for the season, review your winter checklist -- and not just to make sure you've turned off the water to exterior faucets.

    Tips for Winterizing Your Herb Garden


    Harvest seeds (and possibly stems) from annuals for spring starts. Label them well first, though. There's nothing like thinking you've planted pickling cucumbers only to discover you've cultivated 20 birdhouse gourd plants instead.

    Trim back hearty perennials by about two thirds. This will help keep them warmer, safer from insects, and it will also make the best use of their root systems to sustain and later nurture topside foliage.

    Remove dead growth and put down a nice layer of insulating mulch. I like to use dead leaves as a mulching medium because it's natural and inexpensive. Just run leaves through the mower to shred them into smaller bits that will breakdown easily, and layer them onto your herb patch and flowerbeds. By spring they'll be soft and ready to turn under.

    Rinse vacated pots and take them indoors for the duration. This is especially important for any porous pots that may crack in a hard freeze. Your lawn decorations (and furniture) will fare better in a garage or shed, too. Those mirror globes or lawn sculptures may have been marketed as all-weather, but they'll look better longer if you pamper them a little. If you have room for them in a protected location, move them now.

    As you work, check foliage for insect activity like egg sacks. This is the time to get rid of any overwintering pests you see.

    Bring old friends indoors. Whether it's the rosemary on the deck or the aloe vera by the front door, don't risk killing your frost sensitive plants by leaving them out too long. We've all made the mistake of thinking we could postpone moving day to the weekend by just draping a protective covering over plants when a light frost is expected. It's probably best not to risk it, though. If your beauties are still outdoors, bring them in today. (To make sure you aren't bringing spider mites or other insects indoors with your plants, spray them one more time before transporting them.)

    If you plan on keeping plants indoors during the winter months, take an afternoon to trim the shrubbery around your windows. This will let more illumination into light challenged rooms and make your home winter friendly to plants, pets -- and humans.

    Take a peek into your gutters. If there are leaves on the ground, chances are that a few are clogging your gutters and downspouts. If you don't have those nifty gutter guards, check out the condition of your home's gutter system before the temps get too brutal to pluck leaves out of your gutters without risking frostbite.

    Disconnect and stow the rain barrel. Rain barrels can freeze, too. So dismantle yours and put it away for the winter if it isn't insulated or buried underground. If you modified your downspout, switch back to the longer one.

    Take a minute to look around. The minimalist aspect of your fall garden is likely a far cry from its July glory; mine certainly is. There's winter wisdom in the machinations of its lean grasses, trees and shrubs, though. Putting everything to bed is sad -- no doubt -- but it's good, too -- like cleaning out the closets or donating the kids' old clothes to a worthy cause. Time marches.

    By January we'll have our curious noses buried in spring seed catalogs, raring to go for another year of sprouting seedlings and drawing battle lines against squash beetles and leafminers. That's just the way of it.

    My next few blogs will be about holiday matters, from special herb based recipes to a few inexpensive, homemade gifts. Stay tuned.