Thursday

Chai Tea Recipe

I was finishing up a big writing project when cabin fever hit me hard. My solution was to grab a stash of Groupon bargains and hit the road to visit some local restaurants for food ideas. There's no denying that I'm a dedicated foodie with a strong desire to take control of the ingredients I use, and coming off of a few too many Christmas indulgences, I was ready for some tasty food that wouldn't make me feel guilty.

One of my stops was a mom and pop diner offering homemade meals. It was a tiny downtown eatery that sported wall-mounted blackboard menus and old style wooden booths. This one seemed pretty authentic, too -- no brass, salad bar or potted plants in sight. I asked for a cup of tea and was offered a home brewed chai tea blend the owner mixed himself. It was delicious.

Let me set the scene: I was sitting by the window and it was raining outside. A flock of sparrows sidelined by the incoming storm front were gorging themselves in the tree lawn visible just outside the window and performing short flight acrobatics in the trees. The taste and aroma of cinnamon and ginger in the chai tea made the moment just about winter perfect. After much wheedling on my part, the manager gave me the recipe. It's an amazing blend of hot and flavorful ingredients that make for a nice afternoon tea break.

Chai Tea Recipe Base

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground anise
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground clove
1/4 cup  Darjeeling (loose) tea
3 teaspoons fresh minced ginger
1/3 cup honey, blue agave syrup (a sweetener made from the agave plant), brown sugar or stevia
1 tablespoon molasses
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon orange zest

Cook the first six dry spices in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture begins smell fragrant.

Add two cups of water and the loose tea and bring to a light simmer.

Remove from heat and add the vanilla, ginger, bay leaf, agave, molasses and orange zest. Stir

Leave at room temperature for an hour, strain and refrigerate.

To serve this concentrated mixture: add a quarter of a cup concentrate to six ounces of hot milk or water.


While you're relaxing with a cup of chai tea, take a look at my TLC article: 10 Chinese New Year Food Superstitions. It's a fun read. In researching it, I learned a lot of things I didn't know about this holiday and it's food traditions.

If you think you may be cooking for Chinese New Year, I've also written a helpful recap of how to make the Chinese dumplings known as pot stickers. They're yummy and easy to put together once you get the knack of pleating them closed: How to Make Chinese Dumplings 

Check back soon. I'm in the middle of preparing a tutorial on how to make crystalized ginger -- one of my absolute favorite old timey homemade candies.

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Photo: By Alpha from Melbourne, Australia [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMasala_Tea_and_South_Indian_Filter_Coffee.jpg

All About Onions

Good flavors come in threes, and onions are often used with garlic and olive oil as an aromatic and flavorful base for many traditional savory dishes. If it isn't a dessert, there's probably an onion in it somewhere, and using onions to advantage can be an art.

Onions (Allium cepa) are biennial plants with edible bulbs. They are related to the lily, and from their origins in Asia have spread across the globe. One of the first cultivated plants, the onion is related to some of my favorite herbs too: garlic, shallots, and chives. Its sharp flavor comes from volatile oils in the meat that contain sulfur compounds. These sulfur compounds produce an enzyme that causes us to tear up when cutting onions. Chemical warfare one is of the plants more effective defenses against predators.

How to Choose Onions

Look for onions with papery outer skins that feel heavy when you hold them in your palm. Onions should be juicy, and heavier onions will be juicier onions. Whole onions should never have a strong smell. That's a sure sign the skin has been torn or bruised. Avoid any onions that have started to sprout. Young onions are the sweetest, and sprouting is a sign of age. Sprouting also robs the onion of its flavorful juice.

Storing Onions

Storing Whole Onions: Onions will keep for up to three months in your pantry, basement or garage if you observe three rules: Keep them dry, dark and cool. Airflow is also important; that's the reason onions are sold in mesh bags. Turn them once in a while. This will help extend their life.

Never store a whole onion in a plastic bag. Plastic will lock in moisture and gasses, causing premature aging and rot.

Don't store onions with potatoes. Potatoes and onions kept together will spoil much faster. Their combined gasses and the moisture released by the potatoes are a terrible environment for either vegetable.

Don't keep uncut onions in the refrigerator. It's too cold in the produce drawer. Exceptions to this are scallions and some of the sweet onion varieties.


Saving Onion Parts

Don't throw out the top, paper or outer skin of the onion. Freeze them for soup stock. The skins and top will help flavor your soup, and the outer skin (parchment) will give your stock a nice golden-brown color.

No Tears Onions


Although science may have had some recent breakthroughs in developing no-tears onions, for now we'll just have to rely on the tried and true methods of cutting conventional onions under running water (or placing them in the refrigerator for an hour before cutting). Another option is to buy onion goggles. These tight fitting goggles create a sealed environment around the eyes. They work, too -- if you don't mind looking like a WW1 fighter pilot.

Cutting Onions
Cutting round vegetables on a flat cutting board can be a challenge -- and dangerous, too. To avoid injury, cut onions in half and place the flat side on the countertop before slicing or chopping. This will make the process easier and safer.
Preparing Onions

Onions release sugars as they cook, so cooking enhances an onion's flavor. The process also makes the taste less pungent.

Always remember to monitor the heat closely when cooking onions to avoid burning them. Burnt onions are bitter. They look unappetizing, too. Lower heat and regular stirring is a good way to dissipate the escaping moisture in the onion and cook it to an even, golden brown. You can also bake them uncovered and on low heat in your oven.

Avoiding Onion Breath and Smelly Fingers

Onions release oils that are absorbed into the tissues of the mouth when they're eaten, which leads to onion breath. This can be camouflaged with mints, parsley, cloves or seeds like fennel, but basically the smell will dissipate in its own time.

The problem with stinky fingers from handling onions or garlic is similar. The onion oil is absorbed into your skin and lingers for a while. To minimize the absorption, rub olive oil on your hands before handling onions. This will create a barrier and limit the amount of onion oil that's absorbed. If you can still smell onion on your hands, a lemon juice rinse will help, as will rubbing salt or cornstarch on your palms and fingers.

Common Onion Varieties

Yellow cooking onions aren't the only types of onions out there by any means. White onions are a good substitute for yellow onions, are easy to find and work well in cooking where high heat is required.

For use raw, purple onions and yellow sweet onions are wonderful choices. Vidalia, Walla Walla, Imperial and Maui onions are all sweet varieties. They are more fragile than yellow or even purple onions and only last a few weeks once harvested, but they offer a lot of sweet onion flavor with no heat.

Onion Tips

Need a cup of chopped onion? A good rule of thumb is to have one large onion on hand for every cup of chopped onion in a recipe.

  • Onions are high in vitamin C.
  • Onions are easy to grow in the garden in light, sandy soil.
  • A medium sized onion contains only about 60 calories.
  • Eating onions helps lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and promote heart health.

Saturday

Free Seed Catalogs 2012 - Spring Herb Catalogs and General Seed Catalogs

Free Herb Seed Catalogs
If you're like me, January is the perfect time to start planning your spring herb and vegetable garden. The landscape may look bleak today, but in a couple of months everything will change for the better. Become a part of it by making this your best year in the garden.

I've gathered together a list of free catalog links that will help you get in on the fun. Every season sees new plant varieties to play with. Heartier plant strains, brighter colors and delightful miniatures are a few of the surprises in store for us all this year. Sign up now so you'll have plenty of time for gleeful strategizing before the birds start tuning up for another season.

Unless otherwise noted, the online retailers mentioned offer free printed catalogs and often the links go right to the sign up pages.

If you have a favorite I've missed, let us us all know.  Happy shopping!

Sara

CHECK OUT THE LIST OF CATALOGS FOR THE 2013 SEASON HERE

Free Seed Catalogs for Spring Garden Planning

Johnny's Selected Seeds
Kitazawa Seed Co. (Asian veggies and herbs)
Medicinal Herb Plants (Click the link in the sidebar and request a catalog via email.)
Nichols Garden NurseryPark Seed (online catalog or a $1 charge for a hard copy)
Pinetree Garden Seeds (Thanks David!)
Prairieland Herbs ( PDF only)
Ricther's Herb Catalog
Sand Hill Preservation Center (Online only - Recommendation courtesy of Tacketts Hill Farm - thanks!)
Sand Mountain Herbs (online only)
Seeds of Change ( PDF Catalog)

Thursday

Getting Rid of Houseplant Pests the Easy Way

The weather's getting downright cold (if not frigid) for some of us around the country, which means many of us are housebound and looking at our indoor plants with winter longing.  If your ginger (rosemary or basil) plant looks nibbled, dew speckled or slightly web infested, there may be a solution that doesn't involve spraying insecticide all over your indoor spaces.

A Fast Way to Treat Housplants for Insect

Wash the plant thoroughly in warm water to which you've added a couple of drops of dishwashing detergent. (Don't forget to treat the undersides of the leaves, too.)  This is basic plant pest maintenance 101.  If you think more than one plant is involved, move them all to the bathtub for convenient spraying and rinsing.

After the plant has had a chance to dry thoroughly, place it away from your other houseplants, and put a new pet flea collar on the shelf around the base of the plant.  The insecticide in the collar is localized so it won't create many odor problems, but bugs typically loathe the smell.  Even if the collar doesn't kill the critters, they'll evacuate the plant or at least lose their perky attitude.  After a few days (four or five), remove the collar and wash the plant again.  Hopefully, that will take care of the problem until things heat up in spring and you can give your plants a good blast of your favorite pest treatment.  Avoid harvesting the edible leaves from your affected herbs the duration.

This isn't a perfect fix. Ideally, you should research the infestation and treat each plant thoroughly based on your assessment.  In the real world, though, this is a quickie that may work and save you time, effort and pesticide fumes.

A couple of notes:

You can use one of my herbal insect treatments (there are recipes listed in sidebar), but some of them call for fresh herbs you may not have on hand (and the dried alternatives may not be as effective).

If the dog collar idea works pretty well for you during the first bug fighting round, you can repeat the process every couple of weeks.

I've used this method for years, and although it won't kill every pest, it kills quite a few and discourages many of the rest from multiplying like crazy and doing as much harm as they would otherwise.

If you're treating small plants like African violets, you can snip the collars into three inch pieces and treat multiple plants simultaneously. If you have leftover snippets, store them in the original bag (staple the top shut).

Oh, one last thing:  Pet flea collars can get expensive, but major variety stores like Walmart sell generic alternatives that work just fine.  When they're on sale, you can get them for as little as a dollar apiece, so stock up when you can.

Stay warm.

Photo Attribution:  WhiteFlyWikiCommons.jpg by Sanja565658 (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%3ATrialeurodes_vaporariorum_01.JPG

Tuesday

Holiday Cleanup Tips

Holiday Trash Cleanup
If your house looks like a holiday disaster, we have something in common.  I'm digging out from under boxes, bags and piles of operating manuals and warranty cards.  I'm also taking stock of my kitchen -- from the piles of cookie tins to the abandoned dehydrator in the corner.  I have a list of New Year's resolutions somewhere -- just where probably won't become apparent until sometime in February.  If you're suffering from post-holiday shock like I am, here are some tips that may help:
  • If you have a million cupcakes, cookies and mini-loaf cakes from friends, stick a couple of slices of apple in their containers to keep them moist until you get around to eating them. Orange peel works, too. (Of course, you can freeze what you don't plan on using right away -- if there's room in the freezer.)
  • Save the cardboard cores from your holiday gift wrap; you can use them to store scrapbooking paper, scarves and long skinny stuff like knitting needles.  Come spring, you can also use them as biodegradable supports and frost guards for seedlings in the garden.
  • Don't throw out all that used wrapping paper, either. Send it through a paper shredder and use it to mulch your landscape plants.  Paper is a great insulator -- and free, too.
  • Refresh your potpourri with essential oil.  You can purchase essential oils and blends at most craft stores and many variety stores.  A couple of drops will renew that rose, lavender or citrus fragrance and contribute some nice indoor aromas to remind you that spring isn't too far off.
  • Don't pitch those dead plants.  If some of your fall transplants look like goners, don't give up on them just yet. Keep them watered and wait till the weather warms up a little.  Some plants revive once they get some sun and a little fresh air.  It's worth a shot.
  • If the lack of humidity in your home dries your skin, imagine how your plants feel.  Put bowls of water on your heat registers, and consider investing in a humidifier.  Your plants -- and your sinuses -- will thank you.
  • If you don't have your houseplants elevated on dishes filled with marbles (and water), create a few of these mini reservoirs to increase the ambient humidity.  Brown leaf tips often mean plants are struggling with dry conditions (and trying to release moisture through their leaves). Grouping plants together also helps to creating little humid microclimates in your rooms.
  • Rinse your sheets with lavender water.  It'll get rid of that winter-stale smell and help you get a better night's sleep.
  • Water your poinsettias with ice cubes.  They like the cold and will bloom longer.
  • If you had one too many fires in your fireplace over the holidays and now your living room smells like a campsite fire-pit (even after you've gotten rid of the ashes), sprinkle dried lavender buds and baking soda on your carpet and leave it in place overnight.  When you vacuum it up in the morning, the room will smell fresher without having to resort to using harsh chemicals. (There's some nasty stuff in those aerosol sprays.)
Have a nice cup of herbal tea.  It'll remind you of your spring herb garden and give you a nice respite from holiday cleanup duty.