New Year's in the Garden - and Out

I've been thinking about the New Year. It's an interesting time. Embarking on new goals in the middle of winter can be daunting, though. Here's an example: I'm gridding out open areas in the garden for spring planting. There's a notebook and pencil on my lap to catch any inspiration that manages to breach my post breakfast inertia.Every few minutes I look out the window at that selfsame garden, which is currently buried under a crusted, dimpled coating of snow. It's not a pristine smooth blanket today. It never stays that way for long. It's a churned up and chunky carpet made worse by my husband's footprints (from walking out to get the newspaper), and from our dog's antics while performing his morning ablutions.

That is to say, it isn't a picture postcard landscape by any means. But it is my garden, and its white patches and graying, muddy perimeter remind me of the coming New Year -- a little. It's waiting for a benediction in the form of the sun transiting a bit higher in the sky, resulting in longer, warmer days. But even that isn't enough for this little garden. It relies on me, this New Year and every year -- to pull weeds and plant seeds and stand armed and vigilant against pests.

New Year's resolutions are like garden duty. They're about hoping for the best from the cosmos (and oneself) and being willing to do some of the hard work. Call it an act of faith. In the garden, pesky chores are the product of a stalwart conviction that spring will come, maybe a little late this year, but it will come just the same. And it will be glorious, with temperate weather and tender showers and light breezes, with a ripe summer and a bounteous fall to follow.  I have that picture in mind as I run my pencil lines and make notations in the margins of my college ruled pad. I plan my gardening budget and hope my often aching back will hold up to the challenge.

If you've been unsuccessful with past New Year's resolutions, I'd like to share one of my favorite quotes with you. I try to remember it when my will power stutters. I don't know who said it first, but whoever it was is probably in great shape today and has an impressive credit score. Here's the quote in all its graceful simplicity:  "Discipline is remembering what you want."

I like that.  It puts power squarely in my hands -- for a great garden -- and anything else I want badly enough. So, dear reader, here is an end to my holiday reflections with a simple wish: I hope you remember what you want in the New Year -- whether it's a great garden, an enviable backhand or a perfect posterior.

Oh, and one more thing:  A favorite article of mine really hits home this time of year; please take a moment to read it.  I think you'll be pleased you did:  10 Kid Habits to Hold on To 

Have as safe and happy New Year's Celebration.

Merry Chirstmas

Today you may be ankle deep in double-sided sticky tape or battling pesky pie crust, but wherever you're spending Christmas Eve day, I wish you:

A few extra minutes to get things done
A friendly finger to hold the ribbon in place while you tie it
A handy potholder when the timer goes off
Directions you can actually read when assembling that (insert your project here)
Someone to rub your neck when you (finally) get a chance to take a load off your feet

. . . and a Christmas filled with family, friends and good times.

Merry Christmas from Sara

The Herb Gardener


How to Make Portuguese Sweet Bread

Around the holidays, I always reminisce about the Portuguese delicacies my grandmother served when I was little. It was common for us to have linguica with breakfast on Sundays. We also had big toasted slices of Portuguese sweet bread. Although it's rich and sweet, Portuguese sweet bread dough isn't tough. Actually it's very light and airy.

Sweet bread makes a very nice weekend treat.  If you've ever wanted to bake bread, this is a good beginner project.  It pays dividends because it's always a big hit.

About Portuguese Sweet Bread

The secret ingredient in Portuguese baked goods is egg -- lots of it egg -- and especially egg yolk, which adds richness.

Here's the old story of Portuguese breads and desserts:

Historically, Portuguese sweets and breads were produced in abundance by the nuns of local community churches. It was a way for them to make extra money. Since nunneries often used egg whites to make starch (to keep their habits looking neat), they typically had plenty of egg yolks on hand for baking. They used the yolks in their recipes, which then became famous for their richness and golden color. Those recipes were copied, improved and then handed down from one generation to the next throughout Portugal.

Sweet bread is a big favorite in many parts of the U.S. and elsewhere, too.   In some locations, it's also referred to as Hawaiian sweet bread. Both breads are very similar.

What to Look For

A good Portuguese sweet bread recipe will contain lots of eggs. The addition of a little mashed potato (or potato flakes) helps make the bread tender and moist, too. Potato was frequently used as filler during times when flour was scarce or expensive. The only disadvantage to using potato in baked goods is that it produces a somewhat wet dough that isn't as shelf stable as standard flour dough. That shouldn't be a problem here, though. This sweet bread is so tasty it'll disappear in no time.

The following recipe was adapted from mother's version, which she adapted from my grandmother's version -- and so on.

Portuguese Sweet Bread Recipe


1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (about 105 degrees F)
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup mashed potato (You can reconstitute dried potato flakes for this recipe, too)
Pinch powdered ginger
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoons salt
4 eggs (use 5 if they're small)
1 cups sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
4 to 5 cups bread flour


Step 1
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water.
Add 1-1/2 tablespoons sugar, mashed potato and ginger.
Cover with a damp cloth and set aside to rise until the mixture has doubled. You want a robust yeast colony. (This should take about an hour).

Step 2
In a separate pan, heat milk to just below boiling, add salt and stir. Cool to just warm.

Step 3
In small bowl, beat eggs and 1 cup of sugar.
Gradually pour the egg mixture into the yeast mixture, stirring constantly.
Add butter and stir to incorporate.
Add half the flour and stir.
Add the milk and continue stirring.
Add the remaining flour, less 1/2 cup, and stir for three to four minutes.
Note: If the dough is too moist to handle, add some or all of the remaining flour.

Step 4
Place the dough on a floured board and knead for 7 to 10 minutes. This is the hardest part of the recipe, so keep at it. The dough should be elastic and look smooth and glistening.

Step 5
Place the dough ball in a large bowl coated with butter or olive oil.
Brush a little oil on the top of the ball, too.
Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and place it in a slightly warm location for an hour or so. (The ball should double in size.)

Step 6
Grease two large (9" x 5" x 3") loaf pans.
Divide the dough into two balls and shape each into a loaf.
Place the loaves into the pans, cover with a towel and set aside to rise for another hour, or until they've doubled in size.

Bake both loaves in the center rack of a preheated 325 degrees F oven for 45 minutes.

Note: You can also form the dough into round (traditionally Portuguese) loaves, braided shapes (nice for holidays) or individual rolls, too.


Merry Christmas at the Last Minute

At the old homestead, I'm wrapping presents, making jerky and looking forward to a hot toddy this evening.  It's cold and windy here, with a combination of slush and snow that's hardly picture postcard material.  We're in the spirit anyway, though.  While scurrying around, all kinds of last minute ideas have been popping into my head.  Here are a few I'd like to share:

Save wood ash from your fireplace. If you'll be burning real wood in your fireplace this holiday, remember to shovel the ashes into a bag and save them to sprinkle on your garden this spring. They'll help provide your plants with lots of minerals like: phosphorous, potassium, boron and calcium. And wood ash doesn't need to be composted.

Go really green with your green onions. If you're like me, around this time in the holiday countdown you're buying plenty of scallions.  Look for bunches with quite a bit of root end attached, and you can keep any you don't use alive for months.

Place scallions in a glass half-filled with water, and then put the glass in a sunny window (no direct light). Change the water every third day. You can harvest a third (to about a half) of an onion's length and it will still grow back -- developing a healthy root system along the way. Continue harvesting a bit here and there until spring, and then plant the onion starts outside.  Now that's a green option.

Make yourself an apple chip snack. If you love the smell of Christmas cooking, you don't have to give it up after the 25th.  Try making apple chips with that fresh fruit display no one ever seems to eat.  Dried apples taste good, smell divine and a relatively low-cal  treat.  Here's a link to a great tutorial and recipe from Fifteen Spatulas: Cinnamon Sugar Baked Apple Chips 

Try fabric wrap. It isn't too late to take a quick trip to the fabric store for holiday fabric wrapping paper.  This is a favorite at our house.  I cut squares of fabric with pinking shears and use them to wrap stocking stuffers.  Here's how it works: Just crease the folds with your nail and wrap presents as you would with paper.  Affix the ends with double-sided sticky tape.

Using fabric for wrap has become almost as nostalgically memorable as putting up the tree ornaments because I reuse many fabric pieces year after year.  Give it a try.

Extend the life of your store purchased herbs.  If you have bunches of sage, mint, tarragon, thyme, rosemary or parsley from the produce aisle of your market, snip the cut ends and place the herbs in a tall glass filled with water. Keep the glass in your fridge -- changing the water every couple of days.  The herbs will last longer and taste better that way. If you end up with leftovers, freeze them in plastic bags -- there's always another herb worthy occasion right around the corner.

Happy ho-ho-ho!


Brightening up Dark Days and Nights

If your children (or you) are having nightmares following the tragic events at Newtown, then we have something in common.  After a restless night, this morning I woke up thinking about dreamcatchers. You know, those netted hoops decorated with feathers that some Native American tribes used (and perhaps still use) as sacred objects. I remember making a dreamcatcher with my niece years ago. After a loss, she was also having trouble sleeping, and the idea of making something that could keep bad dreams away was pretty tantalizing.

The project required a little more dexterity than she could muster at the time, but I was there with a steady hand (and a couple of cookies for afterward). It was a nice interlude.  We spent quality time together huddled around the table playing with string.  She kept the dreamcatcher (which turned out pretty nicely) over her bed for years.  I still look back on that time fondly.

I was thinking that making a dreamcatcher as crafty therapy for sadness -- and to ward off bad dreams (even in a symbolic way) -- isn't such a bad idea if you have kids around.  You'll find all the supplies you'll need at your local craft store.  They consist of: a ring, ribbon (or leather strips), string (or sinew), beads and feathers. I have a couple of links to helpful YouTube tutorials below. Dreamcatchers are easier to make than they look -- getting started is really the hardest part.

Also, I was rummaging around my bookshelves for a copy of Virginia O'Hanlon's 1897 letter to the New York newspaper The Sun that inspired the famous editorial "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Clause."  I finally found it in an anthology I bought back when I was in college.  It's a wonderful short piece.  If you'd like to reread it -- or read it for the first time, here's a quick online link:  Yes, Virginia . . . by Francis Pharcellus Church

Here's to better tidings (hopefully of comfort and joy) in the days and months to come.

Photo: Jorge Barrios [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Recipe for a Hot Toddy - The Best

When life gives you a Christmas that's hectic and demanding, it's hard to resist the urge to grump your way through the tree trimming (and Christmas light untangling), present wrapping, ribbon making, house cleaning, cookie prep and stocking stuffing. If you're beginning sound a little like the Grinch this year, there's relief in sight in the form of a heavenly and refreshing hot toddy.

This is the best stuff I've ever found for the holiday blues (or incipient exhaustion), including hard cider and Baileys. These fun beverages are probably only incidentally alcoholic -- ahem -- and if you're looking for a non-alcoholic toddy, with mine you add the alcohol last -- and to taste. If you want to forego the rum (or brandy) completely, then please do.

Here's the link to my favorite holiday beverage recipe. It's included in a previous post. You'll love it. The Best Hot Toddy Recipe Ever!

Oh, and don't make the mistake of leaving out the cardamom. It makes the drink.

This recipe makes eight servings, but that probably won't be enough, especially if you're serving it to family and friends. I usually make at least a double batch. The recipe base (without the hot water and alcohol) will be just fine nestled in your fridge for months.

Consider this my holiday gift to you, loyal reader. Put your feet up and enjoy.

Photo1: By Frettie (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Jerky for the Stocking -- Oh, Yeah!

If you're still stumped about what to get the man in your life for Christmas, there's always -- meat. Yes, most men (and many women) like a little jerky under the tree or in their stocking. Really. You may not like the price of the packaged stuff, but if you have a dehydrator, making an easy,  portable meat treat for the man in your life is pretty easy. The price of beef is high, but maybe no higher than spending the money on another man wallet or reversible belt. A roast destined for jerky goes a long way, too.

Homemade Beef Jerky Stocking Stuffer

The basic ingredients for jerky are:

Thin sliced meat (cut with the grain)
Soy sauce

The salt in the soy acts as a preservative (and draws out the water from the meat fibers), and the sugar and spices add flavor.

You can easily make jerky from lean rump roast, sirloin tip roast, round steak or flat steak. You can also make it from turkey (breast). The trick is to slice the meat thin. Partially freezing it helps (less wiggle). It should be about as thin as a slice of bacon.

You can also ask your butcher to slice a roast for you. Just explain what you plan on doing with it and he (or she) will understand. If not, a cut that's about an eighth-inch (1/8") thick should do it. Tip: I try to head out to the market early so I can catch the butcher before he gets too busy.

Most jerky will dry in less than 24 hours -- after a brief stint in a soy marinade, which means you can make a big batch in a little over a day. The dehydrator does all the hard work.

I've made lots of holiday treats over the years, but jerky is probably the one that friends and family have asked for the most often. It doesn't look like much, but don't knock the homey fun of gnawing on a strip of jerky while watching a classic movie on the old flat screen. It's as good as flavored popcorn and a lot more filling.

I've resurrected a jerky recipe from an old post. Give it a try this year: Beef Jerky Is Easier to Make than You Think

It's a sure bet that this is a homemade present he won't be expecting in his stocking.  Ho ho ho.


Gifts for the Herb Lover -- You

Apparently I'm not alone in giving myself gifts every Christmas. A few recent marketing studies suggest that well over half of spouses treat themselves to personal presents over the holidays -- and who better to give you what you really want than . . . you.

Not to be ungrateful, but opening a new handheld vacuum or can opener on Christmas morning probably isn't the big thrill my husband envisions for me. Heck, he's all smiles and patting himself on the back if he manages to wrap presents and not just dump them in a big brown paper sack. You've gotta love the efficiency, but subtle and romantically thoughtful it's not.

I might be exaggerating a little. He asks me for a list every year and is dutiful about rounding up most of the items I have in mind. The real trouble is that some items are between me and my creative self. I don't want to have to explain how having an instant-on glue gun is my big dream this year when he knows I have three or four standard glue guns in the garage already, or that ocean glass rock polishing is going to be my new hobby for 2013, and I need all the equipment pronto to make a set of mosaic stepping stones before Easter.

To fulfill my secret wish list, I sometimes have to employ subtlety and maybe even a little stealth (the trunk of my car and the guest room closet are my go-to stash locations). I'd feel a little guilty about this indulgence if I wasn't absolutely certain my sweetie has a similar method -- his stash is behind the reach-in fridge in the garage. (I stumbled on it cleaning one day.)

If the idea of personal gift giving interests you, here's my list of general suggestions for herb related holiday purchases. We'll be working on projects in 2013 that will put them to good use -- I promise.

Getting Seeds Started

  • Seed starter kits
  • All-purpose potting soil
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Vegetable and herb seeds - Order your free catalogs from my recent list of 2013 Seed Catalogs
  • A spiral bound notebook
  • A heat mat - Investing in a seedling heat mat will give your seeds a head start on the season. It's like preschool for plants.

Kitchen and Cosmetic Herb Project Supplies

  • Mortar and pestle - For grinding dried herbs. I like bamboo or wood, but they're also available in ceramic, metal and stone.
  • An assortment of glass bottles with tight fitting lids (prefer plastic, rubber or cork) - for homemade vinegars, liquors, oils and beverages
  • A set of smaller bottles - for ointments, perfumes and cosmetic preparations
  • Cheesecloth
  • A double boiler (This one should be reserved for your craft projects only.)

Basic Herb Craft Supplies

  • A glue gun
  • A dehydrator - They're almost all good and range from $20 to around $200.
  • A handheld staple gun with an assortment of staples
  • A craft drill
  • Rolls of ribbon in colors that match your home decor (or seasonal projects you want to make). Raffia ribbon is a good idea too.
  • Small muslin bags
  • 24 gauge wire in assorted colors (I like green and brown.) It's handy for lots of things, including wreath and swag making.
  • Wire cutters (You can find small ones at your local craft store for a couple of dollars)

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but if you have some of the basics on hand, there are lots of projects you can tackle without ever leaving the house for extra supplies. When inspiration strikes -- you're prepared -- or almost prepared.


How to Make Simmering Holiday Potpourri

Even if you aren't planning to bake (or even cook) much this holiday season, your home can still smell pretty great. All you need is a pot, some water and a few aromatics. Aromatic ingredients added to simmering water will release their fragrances (or aromas if you prefer), with the steam. You can keep the pot at a low simmer, replacing the water every half hour or so, all day. That means a home that smells like sugar cookies or cinnamon buns or spice cake -- while you're curled up with a book.

Beyond making your home smell great, a simmering potpourri pot will add welcome humidity to your home if you've been relying on your furnace during cold weather. Improving the ambient humidity in your house will help keep your houseplants happy, keep your skin moist (including the skin on your hands and feet), and even help protect your wood cabinets, flooring and furniture.

Ingredients for Simmering Pot Potpourri

The really nice thing here is that you can create a "perfume pot" -- that's what I call it -- with lots of different ingredients used alone or in combination. Choose what you like, or use what you have on hand. Recipes are strictly optional. Here are some popular ingredients:

  • A teaspoon of vanilla extract or a portion of vanilla bean
  • Apples - or just the discarded peels
  • Sliced citrus (or just the peel) - Think oranges, lemons or limes
  • Cinnamon sticks (In a pinch, I just use ground cinnamon from the jar.)
  • Star anise
  • Cardamom pods
  • Pear peels
  • Whole cloves
  • Allspice berries
  • Chinese five spice powder
  • Rosemary
  • Ginger
  • Juniper berries
  • Nutmeg
  • Pine stems (small)
  • Sage
  • Peppermint
  • Bay leaf
  • Lavender stems or blossoms (fresh or dried)
  • Rose petals
  • Pickling spice
  • Thyme
  • Cocoa powder
  • Chai tea (as a base)
  • Flavored extracts or essential oils (used sparingly)

You can see there's a lot of potential.

Basic Simmering Potpourri Recipe

If this idea interests you, start with a basic ingredient, like, say, a sliced orange, and build from there. Here's an example:

  1. Add one sliced orange to 2 cups of water in a heavy pot.
  2. Toss in 15 whole cloves, two cinnamon sticks and a couple of bay leaves. You could also add rose petals or some ginger.
  3. Bring the pot to a quick boil, and then reduce the heat to a delicate simmer.
  4. Set your stove timer for half an hour.
  5. The aroma will be evident as soon as the pot starts to produce steam. When the timer goes off, replace the water lost to evaporation and adjust the ingredients if you find the fragrance too weak or too strong. You may want to add a few allspice berries, more cinnamon -- who knows. Experimenting is half the fun.
  6. This is also the time to adjust the timer.  If there was a lot of water left in the pot, you may be able to reset it for 45 minutes; if there was just a little left, reset it for 20 minutes or so -- or add a bit more water this time. Remember, you're after a very light simmer.

After a trial run, you'll come up with all sorts of recipe ideas of your own.

This is an inexpensive and entertaining way to create a homey environment during a winter weekend. I tend to keep my home on the cool side, and the extra fragrance makes things cozier -- I even feel warmer. It may be an illusion, but if it works, I'm in.

It's a kinda green choice, too. I'm making a room freshener with natural ingredients, and in the case of citrus, pear or apple peel, I'm using ingredients I'd otherwise discard -- or throw  on the compost pile.

I usually think of putting together a perfume pot when I know I'll have aromatics (peels or vanilla) leftover from other projects. I often work with spices during the holidays, so pulling out a little more for the pot is not a big deal.

Reusing Simmering Potpourri

Although the spices are pretty depleted at the end of a day simmering, I have refrigerated perfume pot ingredients and started them up again the next morning. That works, but the pot will need some revitalizing with added spices.

Thanks to a suggestion from a reader, this year I've started using my small slow cooker for perfume pot duty. This is an inspired idea, but I still like to bring the initial ingredients to a boil on the stove first and then pour them into the slow cooker. I get quicker results that way.

Give simmering pot potpourri a try this holiday.


When You Think You May Hate Christmas . . .

On this blog I write about happy, fun stuff that usually involves herbs in one way or another. Around the holidays, searches explode here at The Herb Gardener from people looking for fun, fast projects to give away as gifts. I imagine thousands of you out there, up at midnight before the holiday, glue gun (or spatula) in hand, trying to put together something personal and charming that's also easy, within budget and likely to cure (dry out or otherwise be ready) before morning.

Actually, I've been there myself many times. One year my husband and I baked 120 dozen cookies, decorated them and shipped them off to relatives and friends. The project took six days. When hatching the plan that previous September, the idea seemed so Christmassy and charming. As the UPS truck lumbered up the street after collecting the boxed cookies, though, I felt exhausted, depressed and a little resentful. Instead of anticipating all those delightful packages being opened on Christmas morning, I was lamenting my use of chocolate morsels instead of a higher quality chocolate product (and other small choices that yielded less than stellar results). I was also resentful of the mess I still had to clean up -- everywhere.

The Rule of Thirds

It's easy to expect a lot from our Christmas efforts and end up disappointed. The cookie project was successful: all the cookies tasted good, looked good and arrived before the holiday. It wasn't successful in that it didn't (and probably couldn't) match my expectations. I'm sure you get the moral of the story.

These days, I embrace the rule of thirds. I develop Christmas plans in advance and then scratch a third of them off my list. That includes menu options and presents as well as Christmas activities. This sounds easy, but it's not. When it comes to making a choice between participating in a cookie swap or a Christmas caroling trip around the neighborhood, it can be a tough call. The same goes for limiting Christmas dinner options. Every year it's classics versus new recipes. (The classics usually win.)

When Christmas Cheer Is Thin on the Ground

This whole Christmas cheer business can be difficult in a lot of ways. Christmas becomes more bittersweet the older I get. In the years I lost loved ones or experienced other losses, the Christmas season was downright brutal. Sadness is a part of the season people don't generally discuss, but it's the ghost of Christmas past in a very real way. I'm not alone in feeling blue sometimes while I'm hanging ornaments or filling stockings. I still love Christmas, but it has more than its share of poignant and emotional and even upsetting moments.

I'm going to get serious here for a second, so click away if you're not in the mood.

Being swamped by negative emotion during the holiday season can be devastating. My father committed suicide during the holidays, so I'm sensitive to the destructive potential of feeling too disconnected or depressed this time of year. I wish I could pull the perfect sentiment to share from my bag of tricks, something that would add luster to your happy memories or at least blunt the sad ones. I will offer this short list of suggestions:

It's better to light one candle -- Add small grace notes to your days to make them more satisfying. They're not "raindrops on roses," but scented candles, hot cocoa, cinnamon sticks, a good book, a hot bath, a glass of Merlot and other things can be a bulwark against stress and depression.

Go ahead and be sad -- The only way past sadness is through it. Well-meaning relatives may try to pressure you into the holiday spirit, but if you aren't feeling it -- you aren't. Accept the fact that this isn't going to be a banner year for you and that next year will probably be better.

Get help -- If you're experiencing alarming thoughts and feelings of despair this holiday, talk to someone about it. My favorite quote about suicide it that it is ". . . . a permanent solution to a temporary problem." A number of studies about suicide suggest that an overwhelming majority of suicide survivors are grateful their attempts failed. If you're in crisis and want to talk with someone, start with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The call is free and confidential.


Sage Tea for Colds

You know the cold season drill: No matter what you do, someone in the family ends up with the sniffles, a head cold or the flu. Although this can be serious in the very young, immune challenged, elderly or those with other medical conditions, often it's just an uncomfortable nuisance. There's also that nagging worry that a loved one will be sick over the holidays (which is so disappointing), or that a simple cold will turn into something worse, like sinusitis or pneumonia.

Cold Busting Wisdom the Granny Way

If you're struggling with the cough, stuffy nose and the general discomfort of a cold or the flu, a cup of herbal tea will make you feel better -- temporarily at least. Many common herbs (thyme, lavender, rosemary, sage and others)  have antiseptic and antibacterial properties, too, which can help your body fight the good fight to get you back on your feet.

When added to ingredients like honey and lemon, herbs can give an upper respiratory infection a one-two punch that will dial back a sore throat, cough, runny nose and itchy eyes.

The bad news is the viruses just have to run their course. The good news is that the right herbal tea will give you a respite and make you feel pampered -- just like when you were a kid. Here's a simple recipe for a sage based tea that will reduce nasal congestion, fight infection, curb the sniffles and may boost the immune system, too.

Sage Cold and Flu Tea

  • 2 teaspoons dry or rubbed sage (or about 6 fresh sage leaves)
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice (fresh is best)
  • A couple of pinches cayenne pepper (this is optional, but it does help break up congestion)
  • 1 tablespoon honey (or to taste)

Directions for Sage Tea

  1. Add sage to a large mug.
  2. Pour 1 cup boiling water (a rolling boil, please) into the cup and let steep for 10 minutes.
  3. Strain.
  4. Add remaining ingredients and stir.
  5. Reheat. (The tea should be served steaming hot.)

Using Sage in Medicinal Preparations

It's prudent to throw in a disclaimer here since I will probably be posting other tea recipes in the next couple of weeks: Herbs seem pretty harmless. You can grow them in your garden and snip them into recipes without a problem, so how dangerous can they be? Right?

Common herbal remedies do have the potential to cause problems in certain circumstances, though, so it's always a good idea to have a chat with your physician (or healer) before using any herb for medicinal purposes.

This is especially true if you plan to use an herb or spice regularly for an extended period of time, have a preexisting medical condition, are pregnant or nursing, or are currently taking other medications. You should always consult a physician before treating young children with herbal preparations or over-the-counter medications.

In the case of sage: It is contraindicated if you are currently taking diabetes, anticonvulsant or sedative medications. For more specifics about drug interactions involving sage, the WebMD Sage page (yes, there is one) has useful information you'll want to review: Sage Interactions 


Beware of Bedbugs in Books

If you're a reader, you know the pleasure of curling up in bed with a good book. Bedbugs feel the same way. If you buy used books or belong to a lending library, you're at risk for bedbugs.

Here's how it works: Female bedbugs lay their eggs in secure locations -- like the spines of hardcover books. When the eggs hatch, the baby bugs may linger, or viable eggs may be present long enough for the books to change hands. Introduce an infested book to your bedroom and it becomes ground zero for a bedbug infestation.

Bedbugs can live up to a year without feeding, they're hard to see, and once established, they're devilishly hard to get rid of.

How can you guard against bedbugs introduced through books? Well, you can read ebooks exclusively or opt for new books only. If that sounds too restricting, there are now products on the market that heat treat items like books and clothing, killing the bedbugs inside.

Here are some other suggestions for dealing with hitchhiking bedbugs:
  • Ask your library what precautions it's taking to protect patrons from bedbugs.
  • Keep used books or library books away from where your family sleeps.
  • Heat kills bedbugs, but it has to be 110 degrees F (or higher) for at least three hours. You may be able to do this on a warm day by sealing books in a plastic bag and placing the bag outdoors in the sun.
  • Try placing used books in your (dry) bathtub at night to check for bedbugs. When it's dark, the bugs come out to explore. Turning on the lights in a darkened bathroom to see if anything scurries around the bottom of the tub is one way to detect them. (The slick sides of the tub will keep the bugs from escaping, and you can rinse them down the drain with hot water.)  
  • Treat books with a vapor style pesticide designed to kill bedbugs and their eggs.
Bed Bug Control Products

If you'd like to check out some bedbug busting products you can use to treat books and other belongings, I have a couple of Amazon links below. These use heat and are quite pricy. The good news is that you can use them to treat other belongs, which is convenient if you're afraid of bringing bedbugs home when you travel.

Bedbug Heat Treatment
Portable Bedbug Heat Killing Unit

If you think you may have bedbugs but aren't sure, an early detection system will help identify the problem. There are many on the market. Here's one economical option:

Bedbug Detection System (one-room)

If you discover you do have bedbugs, take a look at some herbal treatments that may help in the early stages of an infestation.  There's also quite a bit of basic information you should know for future refrerence. These are links to past posts:

Home Remedies for Bed Bugs 

Natural Bedbug Control

For more information about the risk of bedbugs in library books, please visit this informative article posted on the AARP blog this month:  Are There Bedbugs in Your Library Books? or check out The New York Times article: The Dark and Itchy Night


List of Free Seed Catalogs for 2013

Take a short break from the holiday madness to put in your order for a few free 2013 seed and plant catalogs. If you order early, you'll have some exciting reading material to peruse while you're sipping eggnog in front of the fire.

This is one present you can give yourself that won't cost a penny -- and isn't that refreshing. Many major seed suppliers have their catalogs printed and ready to go -- all they need is an address.

I ordered mine from the list below, and the whole process only took about 20 minutes. It's a wonder of the modern age that you can make an electronic request for a snail mail catalog you can then enjoy (and mark up) from the privacy of your own low-tech rocking chair.

All of the below links are good, so grab a catalog hot off the presses. Growers have new and interesting plants -- or reliable heirloom favorites -- to tempt and challenge us year after year. The photos in some of these catalogs are spectacular. Many catalogs include informative descriptions and even tips and recipes.

Enjoy the hunt for the perfect herb, veggie and decorative plant seeds.  We can compare notes later.

2013 Free Seed Catalogs (Herbs, Vegetables and Flowers)

Burnt Ridge Nursery & Orchard (2012 Catalog blurb is still up)

Gourmet Seed International  (Download only)

Horizon Herbs (2012 Catalog blurb is still up)

Kitazawa Seed Co. (Asian veggies and herbs)

Kitchen Garden Seeds

Klehm's Song Sparrow (2012 Catalog blurb is still up)

Medicinal Herb Plants (Click the link in the sidebar and request a catalog via email.)

Prairieland Herbs ( PDF only)

Rare Seeds (added to the list 12/17/12) 

Sand Mountain Herbs (Online only)

Sandy Mush Herb Nursery (Download only)



Thanksgiving -- at the Last Minute!

Ah, Thanksgiving. Few occasions inspire such anticipation, consternation and hard work -- if you're responsible for dinner, that is. Let's face it: While your family is overdosing on football and the MTG Day parade, you're elbow deep in turkey parts (and doesn't that feel wonderful). Without a doubt, you have the tender passion and skill to create a feast for friends and loved ones, but oh, your aching back.

I wanted to pop in and wish you a spectacular holiday (if you're celebrating), and offer a few hints and some inspiration gleaned from Thanksgivings past at my house.

When You're the Thanksgiving Cook

The most common and time honored spices used in turkey dressing are: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Sound familiar?

The USDA (U. S. Department of Agriculture) has changed its guidelines for cooking fowl. The new "doneness" temperature is 165 degrees F. This is very good news if you like a moist bird. You may be using an older recipe that warns you to cook your turkey to 175 degrees F. Don't do it. And if you need a little more reassurance, check the USDA's website for proof positive: USDA - Poultry Preparation

If you're noodling turkey size, the rule of thumb is one pound of turkey per person.

If you haven't started defrosting your turkey, you still have time. You can defrost fowl in cold water in your sink. Plan on 30 minutes per pound. You can also use the defrost setting on your microwave. Read the owner's manual for times.

If you're famous for your (dry) roasted turkey breast, try inverting the bird (cook it upside down), and flipping it during the last hour for browning. This works great.

For a bird with a wonderful aroma and a subtly complex flavor, stuff the turkey cavity with sliced oranges, celery, onions, carrots and bay leaf (about 4 for a 12 pound turkey). Collectively, these are referred to as aromatics, and they are -- aromatic. You kitchen will smell delicious long before dinner is ready.

These days, most experts recommend against cooking the dressing in the bird. If you're game, though, (pun intended), make sure to cook it to 165 degrees F to kill any bacteria. Use an instant read meat thermometer to check.

For a moist and flavorful bird, slather butter and herbs (poultry seasoning or sage, rosemary and thyme), under the skin before cooking. If you're a confident cook, injecting spices, butter and honey into the bird is also a tasty option. For flavor, moisture and tenderness, nothing beats brining your turkey, but it may be a bit late this year -- there's always Christmas and Easter, though.

If you're planning on making sandwiches with leftover turkey, add sliced avocado and some Munster cheese to your list of sandwich ingredients. This makes a dynamite sandwich you'll really enjoy. Extra points if you prepare it on potato bread.

If you're cooking your turkey in the oven, calibrate the oven temperature using an inexpensive freestanding oven thermometer (dash out and buy one now if you don't have one). Set the temperature on your oven dial to 350 degrees F. When the oven comes to temperature, test it against the thermometer. If your oven is inaccurate, you may be able to adjust the dial (recalibrate it). If not, make adjustments to compensate (i.e. 338 degrees is actually 350 degrees using your quirky oven). If you have suspicions about the accuracy of the freestanding thermometer, dip it in a pot of boiling water.  It should read 212 degrees F or thereabouts.

Stand on a rubber mat. When I quipped about an aching back, I wasn't kidding. If you're not accustomed to standing for hours at a time, a rubber mat will reduce the stress on your back and may give you another hour or two of painless movement before the twinges start. Rubber soled shoes help, too.

Clear your countertops. You probably won't be using your toaster, battery charger, popcorn maker or whatever else you have cluttering your countertops. Clearing the decks will give you extra space you're sure to need before the day is out. That way you won't end up stowing your pies in bookshelves or on plant stands.

Group items in the fridge. Your fridge is probably groaning under the weight of more ingredients than its seen in one place -- well, since last Thanksgiving. This year, try grouping items by recipe so they'll be easier to find. You can pull them all out at once instead of opening and closing the fridge multiple times and moving items around and around trying to locate the ones you need.

Expect calamity. Yes, it may come in the form of a stopped up garbage disposal or a broken chair leg, but it's my experience that Thanksgiving never goes smoothly. If you recognize that something is bound to go wrong -- and play it for laughs anyway, you'll have a much better time.

Good luck from the trenches!



Pumpkin Pie Spice Recipe

Pumpkin Pie Spice

Fall is just about the best time of year to experiment with spice blends. All those deep, rich aromas will make your home smell wonderful without your ever having to light a candle or pick up a can of air freshener.

Pumpkin pie spice is one classic blend you'll love making if you're planning on a bit of holiday baking. It calls for sweet spices like cinnamon (which it uses as a base ingredient). The name can be a bit deceptive: You can use pumpkin pie spice for a lot more than -- pumpkin pie. It's a useful go-to spice for breads, cookies, cupcakes, side dishes like candied carrots, cakes and even beverages (if you're into smoothies or Chai style teas).

Mixing up a batch for the season will save you time and probably money, too. Most of the spices in pumpkin pie spice are pretty popular and common. You'll probably be buying them individually for your other baking and cooking projects -- so why not use them to advantage in a few spice blends, too.

Here are some things to remember About Pumpkin Pie Spice:

How Long Spices Will Last in Your Cupboard -- The old rules (you know how they are) used to say that spices didn't last long in your cabinet. It turns out that many will last from 6 months to a year or more if stored properly. That's good news. It means the big spice bottle in the market that looks like culinary overkill will actually last long enough to make the cost worthwhile. Just keep spices in tightly sealed containers in a cool, dark location.
Cassia Cinnamon

A Word About Cinnamon -- I should mention something about cinnamon, too. A decade ago, cinnamon was cinnamon. You bought the ground stuff at the store -- it tasted good, and that was it. It turns out that cinnamon is a little like coffee, or wine or chocolate. There's good cinnamon, and then there's very good cinnamon. Thanks to the Cinnabon people, we have proof positive that the best cinnamon on the market is Indonesian cassia cinnamon. It's a little more expensive, but maybe not as pricy as you'd expect. It's also best to buy the sticks instead of ground cinnamon (which starts to lose its essential oil pretty quickly).

Break the sticks into pieces and grind small batches yourself in a spice or coffee grinder. The sticks will last a long time and retain their cinnamon-y goodness long after ground cinnamon has turned into colored dust. This sounds like a hassle, but it really does make a difference in cooking and baking. If you've ever wondered what distinguishes really great recipes from "pretty good" recipes, it's the ingredients (and often the herbs and spices).

The Secret Ingredient -- As with most recipes, there's always one ingredient that adds something special. With pumpkin pie spice, it's cardamom. Cardamom is a tropical plant in the ginger family. You can buy the spice as a seed or pre-ground. Its aroma (and flavor) is hard to describe. It smells exotic, somewhat like citrus (lime, maybe), with a little gingery bite thrown in for good measure. It's pricy, but I'll be sharing a hot toddy recipe this month that uses cardamom -- if that's an inducement to give it a try. The pumpkin pie spice recipe below calls for cardamom, but it's optional. Without it, you'll end up with a mixture that tastes similar to store bought pumpkin pie spice, but with a cleaner and more intense flavor.
pumpkin pie spice

Pumpkin Pie Spice Recipe

4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
4 teaspoons ground nutmeg
4 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom


Combine all ingredients and stir to blend. Store the mixture in an airtight tin or dark bottle (air and light are the enemy).

Photo 1: By (originally posted to Flickr as pie04) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (By (originally posted to Flickr as pie04) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2:


How to Make Lavender Vinegar Cleaner

I admit that my house is lived in. This may sound homey and comforting, but it also means that peanut butter cookie crumbs linger on my countertops longer than I'd like sometimes. Yes, I clean regularly, but I've always had a love-hate relationship with cleaning products. I have pets -- and, well, precious people live in my house, too. I live with a gnawing worry that all that guerilla warfare sanitizing stuff  isn't so great for the folks and critters I'm trying to protect.

The green movement comes in very handy here. I'm not talking about those hideously expensive "natural" cleansers that may or may not work. There's actually a very easy way to create an all-purpose cleaner that's effectively, safe and inexpensive. Stick with me for a second, and I'll explain. It's worth the wait.

A One-Two Cleaning Punch to Kill Germs

It turns out that a combination of hydrogen peroxide and vinegar is almost as effective as stronger cleansers like bleach when used in combination. It gets better: When exposed to light or heat, hydrogen peroxide undergoes a chemical change and converts to pure water (that's why HP is sold in a dark bottle). That means it starts out as a powerful disinfectant, but after spraying it around, you end up with simple water. You don't have to rinse surfaces afterward or worry about chemical residue -- because there isn't any. When used in tandem with vinegar, the combination is totally safe and very effective at killing bacteria.

Here's how it works: Hydrogen peroxide is actually a souped up water molecule that contains oxygen.  When exposed to light (or heat), the oxygen, a strong antibacterial agent, is released. It produces germ killing bubbles and dissipates completely, leaving a simple (and safe) water residue behind. Vinegar itself is an effective acidic ingredient that has germ busting properties too.

Hydrogen peroxide is odorless and colorless, and the vinegar smell will dissipate a couple of minutes after spraying. Think of these ingredients as the dynamic duo of kitchen cleaning. If you want to do some additional research on the science, take a look at Ellen Sandback's book Green Housekeeping, or check out the Daily Spark Healthy Lifestyle Blog. I've also written about this cleaning solution in a TLC article: 5 Tips for Disinfecting Your Countertops

How to use Hydrogen Peroxide and Vinegar in Cleaning

To work properly, this cleaning solution requires a two part process:

Spray vinegar (in my case, lavender vinegar) on a surface and follow up with a 3 percent hydrogen peroxide solution from a separate sprayer. (This is the concentration you'll probably come across in your market).

Placing the two cleaners together in the same bottle won't work. The vinegar will destroy the peroxide. This is a two fisted approach.

You will need to find (or make) a spray bottle that is completely opaque (light resistant) for the HP. You may be able to find a screw on pump sprayer nozzle that will fit the peroxide bottle, though.

How to Make Lavender Vinegar

To keep my kitchen clean and sweet smelling, I go one step further and infuse the vinegar with lavender. Lavender has antibacterial properties of its own and leaves behind a nice fragrance after the vinegar evaporates.

There are two ways to make scented lavender vinegar:

With essential oil (fast)

  1. Lavender essential oil is inexpensive, and one small bottle goes a long way.
  2. For lavender scented vinegar, add 8 drops of lavender oil to every cup of distilled white vinegar.
  3. Combine and shake.
  4. The preparation is ready to use right away. It will last for months in your cupboard.

The second method uses fresh or dried lavender buds:

  1. Combine 1/2 cup of dried lavender buds (or 1 cup of fresh buds) with 1-1/2 cups distilled white vinegar.
  2. Place the buds in a quart jar, bruise them slightly with a wooden spoon and then pour warmed vinegar (not boiling) over them.
  3. Cover the mouth of the jar with wax paper, add the lid and let the vinegar infuse for three to four weeks, shaking it occasionally.
  4. The completed infusion should have a vinegary smell with lavender undertones. The vinegar odor will dissipate but the lavender fragrance will linger.
  5. When the mixture is ready, strain it through cheese cloth or a coffee filter before putting it in a spray bottle.

I've been using HP and vinegar to clean for years.  It's effective and inexpensive.  I don't use it for heavy-duty bathroom jobs, but I do use it extensively in the kitchen. I also wash the kitchen floor with it.  It's good for cleaning:

  • Sinks
  • Countertops
  • Refrigerator Gaskets
  • Stovetops and range hoods
  • Toys (pet and human)
  • Around food bowls
  • Around kid play areas
  • Door knobs and drawer pulls
  • Small appliances
  • Faucets and faucet handles
  • Tables
  • Coasters
  • Windows

Special note: I use straight vinegar with hydrogen peroxide to clean produce from the garden or market sometimes, and to rinse egg shells.  Although I don't use it to clean meats, poultry or fish, it can be used to clean and disinfect most types of food ingredients safely. No kidding. No rinsing necessary.


Sandbeck, Ellen. "Green Housekeeping." Scribner,  2008

Sumner, Susan. Daily Spark. "How to Disinfect Your Home -- Naturally."

U.S. Centers for Disease Control. "An Ounce of Prevention Keeps the Germs Away."

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Food Safety at Home." 2006.

University of Oklahoma. "Can Your Kitchen Pass the FDA's Food Safety Test?" 2004.

Make Homemade Peppermint Extract for Holiday Baking

I wrote an article on the history of Candy canes a few years ago. These sweet candies were first made as a bribe to keep children quiet during long, holiday church services. Actually, I've always loved the smell of peppermint. It's bracing, but also fresh and clean -- so I must be a kid at heart. Everywhere I've lived as an adult, I've cleared areas under my downspouts for mint varieties -- especially peppermint.

About Peppermint

There are dozens if not hundreds of mints on the market. They're touted as having delicate, gourmet aromas like chocolate, lime, apple and so forth. The leaf shapes vary, too. One thing I've found, though, is that peppermint (and to a lesser degree, spearmint) are the strongest and most enduring. Through rain, snow, blustery wind and neglect (it happens), my mint has survived and definitely prevailed more often than not.

Peppermint (Mentha piperitae) is invasive. All the mint varieties and related herbs are. That's one reason you'll find many recommendations that it be kept confined like a miscreant -- corralled in a pot where it can't encroach on your pampered roses and irises. That's probably a good idea. It will often overflow its pot and start rooting in the surrounding soil, though -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Mint is shallow rooted, so it's easy to thin out, harvest and transplant to other locations, like behind the garage, in that boggy patch north of the easement, or along the foundation supporting the storage shed.

You could do worse than finding yourself ankle deep in peppermint, too.  It's very fragrant, which is why I have a little patch alongside the driveway.  It welcomes me home after a hard day with a burst of fresh scent; its encouragement follows me as I head out for the mail or take those pesky recyclables out to the street.

I harvest peppermint for tea (it's refreshing and can help sooth an upset stomach) and for a peppermint extract I use in holiday baking. Most peppermint extract recipes that use a Vodka base are pretty tame compared to mine. I use a lot of peppermint for a concentrated extract that will wake up my fudge and brownies -- without a doubt, it has a strong impact.

I'm sharing my extract recipe now because it takes two to three weeks to infuse sufficiently.  If you start making a batch in the next few days, it will be ready in time for holiday baking and candy making.  If you plan to make your own candy canes -- well, let's just say it's challenging.  A nice batch of white chocolate chip cookies with peppermint is a pretty easy hour in the kitchen -- with delicious results. In a pinch, just substitute peppermint extract for half of any other extract spelled out in a recipe.

My recipe for peppermint extract follows.  Although you can use other mints, peppermint has the strongest mint flavor and aroma, so prefer it whenever possible.  Oh, many of the photos of peppermint you'll find on the web are actually spearmint or another variety.  I've posted a good photo of hardy peppermint above.

Peppermint Extract Recipe


1-1/2 cups vodka
2 cups loose packed fresh peppermint leaves

Peppermint Extract Directions

  1. Harvest peppermint in the morning after the dew has evaporated.  Leaves are best before the plant flowers.
  2. Wash stems thoroughly in cold water, swirling them around to extract any insect freeloaders.
  3. Dry stems on paper towels.
  4. Place dried leaves on your countertop or cutting board and bruise them pretty aggressively.  I like to use a meat mallet.  You can also score them with a knife.  When you're finished, you should be able to detect the fragrance from a distance -- maybe even from other rooms in your home.
  5. Place leaves in a pint (glass) jar with a tight fitting lid.  I like to use a canning jar.
  6. Add enough vodka to cover the leaves (about 1-1/2 cups or a little less).
  7. Place the lid on the jar, and store the jar in a dark location for two to three weeks.  Shake it when you think about it.
  8. The extract is ready when tasting a bit it yields a deep, full (and cold) peppermint flavor.
  9. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth, a fine mesh strainer or a coffee filter.  Discard the leaves.

Peppermint extract will last up to six months in your cabinet at room temperature.  Keep it out of direct sunlight.


How to Make Sage Butter

There are a couple of ways to make sage butter. One is actually a melted sage butter (brown) sauce that's pretty delicious with chicken (we'll get to that before Thanksgiving). The other is a flavored butter you can use as an ingredient in cooking or to serve on a buffet or at the table. It will keep for weeks in the fridge and for months in the freezer. (Yes, you can freezer butter without it having an impact on the taste.)

Butter has a naturally mild flavor, so it lends itself to almost any spice, herb or other ingredient or blends you want to add to it. I tend to like simple flavored butters that resonate with the unique contribution of a single herb. That way rosemary butter is the perfect accompaniment to lamb, and sage butter is spectacular with roasted turkey or chicken. I will typically make up a stick of butter per herb recipe and:

Mix it.
Wrap the mixture into a (wax paper covered) tube.
Freeze the tube.
Slice it into one inch disks after it has had time to chill.
Store the disks in the freezer in a zip-lock bag.

I can snag disks out easily for specific recipes. If I want to slather sage butter under the skin of my Thanksgiving turkey, all I have to do is to take a couple of butter disks out of the freezer 15 minutes or so before I need them. That's how quickly they soften up at room temperature.

I can also take out a whole sage butter log as an accompaniment to cornbread muffins, potato rolls or mashed sweet potatoes.  A pound of butter easily sees a tidy freezer full of sage butter, rosemary butter, chive butter and garlic butter (for garlic bread).  If you want to get fancy, you can even place the mixture into food grade molds for flavored butter pats in fancy shapes.  (Think individual, fancy soaps and you have the idea.)  Making herb butter is an easy trick, but it looks like you took lots of time and effort with it.  It is 10 minutes in the kitchen that will pay you dividends during the holidays when you want to up your game at mealtime.

Sage Butter Recipe

  • 1 Stick of (salted) butter, softened
  • 2 Tbsp. finely minced sage leaves (about 6 to 8)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely ground white pepper (optional)

  1. Combine all ingredients and leave at room temperature for an hour or two. This will give the sage time to transmit flavor to the butter. After letting it sit, stir it one more time.
  2. Transfer mixture by heaping tablespoon to a square of wax paper or parchment paper.
  3. Roll into a tight tube about an inch or a little more across.
  4. Twist the ends of the tube and secure them with twine.
  5. Freeze. (It should take about 20 minutes for the butter to firm up.)
  6. If you want to store smaller portions, remove the tube from the freezer, unwrap it and use a sharp knife to slice the butter into one inch sections.  Refreeze the "pats" in a freezer bag for future use.
Tip:  Make sure the sage leaves are clean and dry, and before you mince them, bruise them between your fingers.  The goal is to release as much oil as possible into the butter.


How to Make Sage Oil

If you start making sage oil now, you'll have some prepped and ready to go in two to three weeks. With the holidays coming, sage oil, sage honey and sage vinegar are nice additions to your culinary arsenal, too. They'll all add a savory kick to your recipes with a minimum of fuss, and they make very nice gifts. This is a sage oil "infusion" rather than an essential oil that's distilled like spirits. It's for use as a cooking ingredient.

Uses for Sage Oil

Before you head out to the herb patch, let's take a look at some of the ways this versatile flavored oil can help in the kitchen:

Add it to olive oil - If the proliferation of olive oils on the market seems a bit confusing to you, you're not alone. The fact that a mild and inexpensive olive oil is great option for general cooking doesn't necessarily make it a good first choice as an at-table spread for your homemade dinner rolls. For that, extra virgin olive oil is probably your best bet and worth the money. To elevate a basic olive oil to standalone status, though, all you have to do is add a little flavor. It's a neat trick that works every time. Herbed oils impart the aroma and some of the flavor of their onboard herbs via a cold (or warm) infusion process. Adding a little sage olive oil to your potato rolls, for instance, will give them extra savor in a unique and appealing way. It's a personal touch that's easy to produce.

As a substitute for minced or rubbed sage - Fried sage leaves are delicious, but you don't need to keep a potted sage plant on your windowsill this winter to get those warm, robust flavor notes into your recipes. Incorporate sage oil in baked, stewed or slow cooked dishes and you'll pick up a subtle hint of sage without bits of the leaves floating in your sauces or peeking through your piles of carrots. Think of it a two-for-one bargain.

In sauté - I like to infuse avocado oil with sage. Avocado oil has a very high smoke point (when it starts to break down), so it's a practical as well as a heart healthy choice for frying and sautéing. A whisper of sage elevates just about any savory ingredient it's cooked with.

On fowl - If you oil the skin on chicken, turkey or Cornish game hen before cooking, consider using sage oil. You'll really like the flavor. For an added buttery mouthful, use sage butter under the skin and sage oil on the skin when preparing baked, grilled or rotisserie fowl.

In marinades - When you're adding flavor to fowl and even meaty fish using a marinade, sage oil is a good friend to have around. It works quickly, and without making your meat look like you just dragged it through a salad.

Sage Oil Recipe


  • 2 cups cooking oil (olive oil is a good first oil to try, but any oil will do)
  • 2 cups lightly packed sage leaves
  • Large glass jar with tight fitting lid
  • Presentation bottle or oil dispenser
  • 30 black peppercorns (whole)


  1. Wash and dry sage leaves, and place them in a large glass jar with a tight fitting lid.
  2. Add 20 or so lightly crushed peppercorns to the jar.
  3. Heat oil (see note below)
  4. Pour oil into the jar.  Make sure you add enough to cover the leaves. (Compress leaves with a mixing spoon until they're submerged in the oil if you have to.)
  5. Allow the oil to cool completely and secure the lid on the jar.
  6. Place the jar in a cool, dark spot for two to three weeks. (Test after two weeks to see if the mixture is flavorful enough for your taste.  Three weeks should be about the maximum.)
  7. Shake the jar three or four times a week (whenever you think about it) during the infusion process.
  8. After two (or three) weeks, pour the oil through a fine mesh strainer and place it in its final container with the 10 additional peppercorns.

How to Make Sage Oil - Notes and Tips:

  • If you don't have enough leaves, you can use sage stems.  They produce a stronger and sometimes slightly more resinous flavor, though.
  • Harvest sage in the morning after the dew has evaporated but before noon when the sun begins to warm up your herb patch.
  • Rinse sage leaves thoroughly and let them dry in a single layer on paper towels.
  • The idea is to heat the oil just enough to encourage the sage leaves to release their native oils into the mixture.  Too hot, and the oil will cook the leaves -- that's a bad thing.  A temperature of around 105 degrees F or slightly warmer works well for me.
  • I like to remove the leaves after infusing because then I'll have a good idea of the flavor going forward.  Sage can be overpowering in some mild dishes, so recognizing the potency of a tablespoon or two of oil is a good thing.  Leaves left in the mixture will keep adding flavor intensity over time.  I do add back one leaf (and a few pepper corns) to the oil decanter after infusing the oil.  This makes it easier to identify the without having to add a label.  Just a suggestion.
  • Oh, if you're wondering if a recipe will taste good with sage oil, my general guideline is that if a savory recipe contains carrots, lots of onions, lemon juice or chicken, a little sage oil couldn't hurt.
  • You can halve or double this recipe as needed, although when increasing it, prefer multiple jars for the infusion.

Cautions for Using Sage in Herbal Preparations: It is contraindicated if you are currently taking diabetes, anticonvulsant or sedative medications. For more specifics about drug interactions involving sage, the WebMD Sage page (yes, there is one) has useful information you'll want to review: Sage Interactions

Photos: (Italian_olive_oil_2007_Wiki.jpg) I, Alex Ex [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecomm


The Many Uses for Sage (salvia officinalis)

If you're into Thanksgiving stuffing, you probably enjoy adding a bit of sage flavor to your holiday table.  Sage is one of the most popular but misunderstood herbs around.  It can have an overpowering flavor if you use too much of it, but in moderation it can improve the savor of a wide variety of ingredients.

It can bring out the mild sweetness (and creamy texture) of eggs, wake up mild cheese blends and bring an earthy robustness to breads.  Here are some other dishes where sage can help make flavor medleys sing:

  • Roast chicken
  • Steamed carrots
  • Turkey
  • Lamb chops
  • Hummus
  • Fried potatoes
  • Yams
  • Liver (Don't wince, liver is delicious.)
  • Meaty, full bodied fish like tuna and salmon

You can deliver the kick of sage to your recipes in a number of ways, too: 

  • Make a sage flavored butter to slather rolls or add to your mashed potatoes, carrots or roast turkey.
  • Infuse sage in vinegar, oil or honey.  Sage honey is a perfect pairing of sweet and slightly tangy flavors. You'll love it on corn bread biscuits.
  • Toss pasta with sage oil or add a little to your potatoes au gratin.
  • Opt for something a little more exotic with Saltimbocca. This Italian favorite is made with veal (or chicken), prosciutto and whole sage leaves. Here's my favorite recipe: Herbed Chicken Saltimbocca

There are lots of other uses for sage too:

  • A Pharmacological Biochemical Behavior study found that consuming low levels of sage oil resulted in better memory retention on cognitive tests. So, a little sage tea may help you remember what you studied last night -- and the night before.
  • Sage has antibacterial and astringent properties.  It's one of the core ingredient used in herbal medicine. For instance, an infusion of sage makes a soothing gargle for gum and throat ailments.
  • Sage makes a surprisingly appealing tea that contains estrogens, which can help reduce the duration of hot flashes and night sweats: Sage Tea Recipe
  • Essential oil of sage and sage (aromatherapy) candles are effective in reducing the severity of hot flashes as well.

Over the next couple of days, I'll post some fun and interesting ways to use sage this fall and winter.  First up is an antibacterial sage gargle that will help your inflamed throat feel better and heal faster:

Sage Gargle Recipe

If you have a sore throat or bleeding or sore gums, gargling with a sage infusion will help reduce the irritation. As a side benefit, a quick gargle will clear your stuffy nose without relying on chemical drops.


  • *6 large fresh sage leaves (picked late morning after the dew has evaporated) 
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 to two teaspoons honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated, fresh ginger (optional)


Steep sage leaves and ginger in boiling water for 10 minutes.  Strain.  Add honey and vinegar. Stir. Cool to a moderately warm (not hot) gargling temperature.

Gargle every 2 hours or up to 4 times a day.

(Note:  Pregnant women should not use sage remedies, although using sage in cooking is still considered safe at this writing. (2012) 

*You can substitute 2 teaspoons dry sage leaves

Cautions for Using Sage in Herbal Preparations: It is contraindicated if you are currently taking diabetes, anticonvulsant or sedative medications. For more specifics about drug interactions involving sage, the WebMD Sage page (yes, there is one) has useful information you'll want to review: Sage Interactions

Photo Credits

Photo 1- Salvia_officinalis_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-126.jpg
By Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (List of Koehler Images) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo - 2 Sage_-_Salvia_officinalis.jpg By Takkk (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons


Five Surprising Diet Herbs and Other Foods

If you're working to lose a few pounds, swap those rice cakes and celery sticks for some unusual diet foods that up the ante with surprising fat busting benefits.
  • Hot Peppers - The "heat" in hot peppers comes from the ingredient capsaicin, a natural appetite suppressant that also reduces the body's ability to store fat as efficiently.  Just sprinkle on the heat and make the burn work for you.
  • Cinnamon - This tasty pastry spice supercharges your metabolism and hinders your body's ability to turn sugars into fat. Cinnamon also slows down the assembly line process between the stomach and intestines, making you feel satisfied longer after eating.
  • Avocados - These berries -- yes, they're berries -- contain monounsaturated fats that help speed up your metabolism. The good for you fats in avocados also reduce the amount of LDL cholesterol in the body. Eating a little fat when you're dieting isn't necessarily a bad thing. It will make you feel full longer.
  • Chocolate - Chocolate might seem like a no-no when you're on a diet, but a study published by the Archives of Internal Medicine in March established a link between regular (modest) chocolate consumption and a lower Body Mass Index (BMI). Although the research is still ongoing, current thinking is that chocolate is so rich in antioxidants and potential weight loss enhancers that the combined benefits somewhat balance the calorie load of this sweet indulgence.
  • Beet Juice - This magenta root vegetable has more to offer than bright coloration and lots of vitamin C. Drinking beetroot juice reduces the amount of oxygen the body needs during physical exertion by up to 16 percent. A beet smoothie before your workout could keep you comfortably active -- and burning calories -- longer.


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BBC News. "Beetroot juice 'boosts stamina'." 8/6/09. (8/8/12).

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "Cinnamon." 7/2012. (8/8/12).

Biscardi, Melissa. "Will Avocados Make You Fat?" Livestrong. (8/8/12).

Daily Mail. "How spicy food can benefit metabolism." 8/12/11. (8/8/12).

Eat This. "Cinnamon for Weight Loss." 6/16/11. (8/8/12).

Eat This. "Side Effects of Cinnamon." 9/27/11. (8/8/12).

Gorman Moeller, Rachael. "Cinnamon's Secret Health Benefit." Eating Well. 12/2007. (8/8/12).