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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Herb of the Week -- Epazote

The herb of the week is Epazote. (chinopodium ambrosioides)

Pronounced eh-puh-ZOE-tay

By show of hands, how many of you have been growing this and using it for years?

Ok, how many of you have ever grown it or used it?

Ok, has anyone heard of it?

I hadn’t either, until I saw it at the garden center last spring.

Now, showing me a new herb I have never heard of, all potted and ready to take home is like waving a pork chop in front of a pit bull. Once I saw it, I knew I had to have it. I didn’t know what it was, what it tasted like, what you used it for, or where, how, when, or even why to grow it.

All that didn’t matter. It was new, it was there. It was mine.

So, then I got home, with my new Epazote plant, and looked it up.
First I googled it. That wasn’t encouraging.
The first thing I found was Wikiopedia which said, among other things:

Epazote essential oil contains ascaridole (up to 70%), Ascaridole is toxic and has a pungent, not very pleasant flavor. In pure form, it is an explosive.

Whoa Nellie! What was I getting myself in for here? Now if I were Alton Brown, or the Mythbusters, then a toxic, explosive, pungent unpleasant tasting herb may make a great TV episode, but I’m not. I’m just plain old me.

But Diann and I both have a weakness when it comes to plants. Once we have them, we feel a stewardship, an obligation to Nature, or God, or Karma, to care for them, nurture them and help them grow.

So, what were we going to do with this plant? I figured we could just plant it in the garden and see what happens. But then I read this:

Epazote has never caught on. It is just too hard to get past that "old sock" aroma”

And this:

“the name Epazote comes from the Nahuatl word for skunk, epatl,”

And this:

Epazote is also known as: Skunkweed, Wormseed, Mexican tea, West Indian goosefoot, Jerusalem parsley, Hedge mustard, Sweet pigweed”

And this:

Epazote self-seeds readily and is considered highly invasive. You might want to consider growing it in a pot.”

And then, I looked at a picture and saw how truly unattractive it is, I talked it over with Diann and we decided it probably would not be a good addition to our regular garden. So, what to do with it now?

We had some landscaping that was done with red lava rock and we had been trying to figure out what to put in the middle of a big open space we had. A birdbath? A stepping stone? A gazing globe? A garden gnome?

With nothing but rock for 3’ in any direction, and a weed barrier under the rock, we figure this would be a safe place to put a pot of something that we didn’t want to spread.

So, there it sat. It grew strong and healthy, flowered, seeded, and finally, as the season came to end, it curled up and died.

And what did we use it for? How much did we pick? Did we dry it or freeze it?

Ok, I have a confession. I’m a big old chicken.

Explosive, toxic plants just don’t inspire warm fuzzy ideas in my mind, so the plant lived, grew and died, and we never so much as plucked a single leaf.

However, since it seeded off, and I noticed it did this quite liberally, I’m sure that pot will have Epazote in it next year.

I’m trying to work up the courage to play with it a little bit. After all, although I chickened out, my research turned up some interesting facts about it, so maybe I can talk myself into it.

Want to know what I found out?

OK, here we go…

Epazote, technically an annual, is an unusual herb that is essential for any chef serious about authentic Mexican cooking. In its native Mexico and was common in the pre-Hispanic cooking of the Aztecs and Mayas. I say technically an annual, because most of the sites I found that talk about growing it mention that once it’s planted, you can expect it to be there for ever. So although it’s an annual, it acts, for all intents and purposes, like a perennial.

You can use Epazote leaves and seeds in a variety of dishes. It has a strong and pungent flavor with a light hint of mint. Although Epazote is poisonous in large quantities, it is used in moderation in many recipes requiring beans. It’s no surprise to see Epazote used to flavor beans, as its anti-flatulent properties come in quite handy. It has become a distinct flavor in Mexican cuisine and is now used to season a variety of dishes including beans, soups, salads and quesadillas

Epazote is also said to cure an upset stomach

The older leaves have a stronger flavor and should be used sparingly. Younger leaves have a milder, yet richer flavor.

Epazote has a distinct taste that cannot be replaced by other herbs. If you do not have access to it, you can leave it out. If you leave it out, use more of the other seasonings to balance out the loss of the Epazote.

You can find this herb in most Latin markets or Hispanic grocery stores. There are many places online that sell dried Epazote which is a satisfactory alternative if fresh is not available.

If you are pregnant, nursing, or have health problems, you should avoid use of this herb, as toxicity varies from one situation to the next.

If you want to attempt to grow some, or if, like me, you just can’t pass up the challenge of a new plant, Epazote is not fussy about soil, but wants full sun and good drainage. As with most herbs, a less-than-rich soil produces the best and most concentrated flavor in the leaves. It can grow fairly large, up to 2 to 3 feet tall, so give it a good-size pot.
Sow a few seeds in the pot, and after emergence thin to the best plant. Germination rates are usually very good, and seedlings should appear within a few days of sowing the seed.
Once it is planted, there is little work required as the plant has its own insecticidal and protective chemistry.
When harvesting, cut the center stem first, to encourage bushing. Prune the plant frequently to prevent flowering and assure a continuing supply of leaf, but don't harvest more than half the plant at a time

OK, so there you have the lowdown on Epazote. Maybe you can see why, although mine grew very well, I couldn’t work up the courage to use any yet.

But if you are brave and bold, and want to see for yourself, you can get some, either fresh, or dried, from the local ethnic market. The herb is used to flavor corn, black beans, mushrooms, fish, soups, stews, chili sauces, shellfish, and freshwater snails. (yum, all it takes is a bit of toxic skunkweed to make snails taste better… who knew?)

So, to try it yourself, without too much out of pocket, make up a batch of black beans to really taste the distinct flavor it adds

I have to make it clear that none of my usual sources had much to say about Epazote, so I am running a bit blind here, but I did find this recipe:

(I personally always soak beans overnight when I cook them, but this is the way one person makes them.)

Black Beans with Epazote

1lb uncooked black beans
6 cups hot water
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
1 serrano chile, seeded and finely diced
1 sprig of Epazote, finely chopped
1/2 of an onion, diced
1 teaspoon cumin
salt to taste
Rinse beans and discard any debris. Place beans in the bottom of the pot and cover with the hot water. Bring beans to a boil, then reduce to a slow simmer and cover. Simmer for about 2 hours. Add in additional ingredients and simmer for another hour, or until beans are soft and a broth has formed.
Serve beans with a slotted spoon for a side dish. Or, serve in a bowl with the broth and add in some cooked, cubed chicken and some salsa for a main dish.

And Chef James at Food came through for me with this one.
I didn’t do the measurement conversions, this is verbatim how I got it from Chef James.
Note, Several of the ingredients may not be readily available here, but it may give you an idea of how the herb is used, and in what proportion to the other ingredients. Oaxaca is the name of both a state in Mexico and that state's capital city

Mole Verde Con Espinazo Recipe

(Recipe courtesy of the late Esperanza Chavarria Blando, who owned Restaurante Quickly, and represented Oaxaca at national cooking expos, for three decades)

• ½ kilo Frijol Blanco
(small white beans)
• 1 Garlic Clove
• ¼ Onion
• 2 tsp Salt

• 1 kilo Espinazo De Puerco (pork spine)
• ½ kilo Other Pork Meat
• 2 large Garlic Cloves
• ¼ large Onion
• 2 tsp Salt

• 2 large Garlic Cloves
• ¼ large Onion

• ½ kilo Masa

• 3 leaves of Hierba Santa
• 12 leaves of Epazote
• 1 bunch Cilantro
• 1 small bunch Parsley

• 3 Cloves
• 3 Whole Peppercorns
• 12 Green Tomatoes (approx)
• 9 Serrano Chilies (approx)*
*Buy several extra. Their strength depends on the time of year they're harvested…cooler weather means less potent!

Clean beans while checking for little stones.
Soak overnight and cook with the garlic, onion and salt the following day until beans are soft, or cook in a pressure cooker for ¾ to one hour without soaking.

Cook the meat in water with the garlic, onion and salt, covered, for about 20 minutes or until soft.

While meat and bean are cooking, grill on a griddle or bbq the garlic cloves and onion and then put aside.

Spice Mixture:
Mix in blender the cloves, peppercorns, halved green tomatoes, serrano
chilies and the grilled garlic and onion, with about ½ cup water. Blend thoroughly.

Strain the mixture into a large deep pan already well heated with oil.

Go back to the blender, add about a cup of water and reblend in order to completely empty the blender jar, and then strain this final mixture into the pan as well. Allow this green mixture to simmer 10 to 15 minutes.

Add about 2 cups of the pork broth into the above green mixture, and continue simmering.

Mix half of the masa with ¾ cup of water in blender.

Add this masa mixture through a strainer to the green simmering mixture. Stir so the masa doesn't form balls.

If you want to make the green mixture thicker, mix more masa with water in the blender and add through a strainer.

Put the herbs in blender with enough water to blend, and blend well.

Add the meat (without the onion and garlic) to the green sauce, then the strained beans, and finally the blended herbs.

Add salt to taste.

Because leaf size varies, you may notice that sometimes the verde doesn't look very green. When this happens, simply blend a small amount of herbs and add to the final sauce.

Hierba santa also known as yerba santa, hierba santa, Mexican pepperleaf

Abundant in the south-central region of Mexico, the palm-sized, velvety leaves of this anise-scented, bushy perennial make fragrant wrappers for grilled or steamed fish dishes, such as the Pescado en Hoja Santa of Veracruz, where it is quite commonly known as acuyo. It is also used as a flavoring in green moles, a tamale wrapping, and with chicken and shrimp dishes. As a home remedy, it is considered anti-inflammatory and prepared as a tea for stomach cramps and as a poultice for skin irritations

Finally, I found this one, that looks interesting:

Epazote Vegetable Pancakes with Black Bean Tropical Fruit Sauce

Epazote adds an interesting depth of flavor to these pancakes that is balanced by the sweet fruit sauce.
• 2 t. baking powder
• 2 t. sugar
• 2 T. chopped fresh Epazote
• 1 c all-purpose flour
• 1 c rice flour
• 1 T. sliced green onion
• 1 T. snipped chives
• 1 t. salt
• 1 t. pepper
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 2 c milk
• 2 c shredded mixed vegetables (carrots, celery, onions, red potatoes, zucchini, etc.)
• 1/4 c butter, melted
• Oil
Black Bean Tropical Fruit Sauce:
• 2 c julienned vegetables (carrots, celery, a mix of peppers)
• 1 onion, sliced
• 1 c cooked black beans
• 1 c diced mixed fruit (mango, pineapple and papaya)
• 3 T. butter
• 3 T. diced tomatoes
• 1 t. chili paste
• 1 t. minced garlic
• salt and pepper
• 4 T. chopped fresh Epazote

For pancakes: combine baking powder, sugar, Epazote, flours, green onion, chives, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, add the eggs, milk, and mixed vegetables, and combine. Add the melted butter and stir just until it is incorporated, without overmixing.
Heat a small amount of oil in a skillet. Pour in the batter and cook pancakes for about 2 to 3 minutes or until they are golden brown on both sides (Note: pancakes are ready to turn when dry bubbles form on top.)

For sauce, place the mixed vegetable and onion in the skillet over medium heat for 1 - 2 minutes. Add the black beans and mixed fruit. Add the butter and tomato, chili paste and garlic. Stir and continue cooking 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve, pour the sauce over the pancakes and top with chopped fresh Epazote.
So, there you have it, cooking with Epazote can be easy…. (I’ll keep telling myself that and maybe by next summer I will believe it.)

Medicinally, Epazote is used to prevent flatulence but also in the treatment of amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, malaria, chorea, hysteria, catarrh, and asthma.
It is antihelminthic, that is, it kills intestinal worms, and was once listed for this use in the US Pharmacopoeia. It is also cited as an antispasmodic and abortifacient.

Although I never advocate anyone using my blog as a medical journal, let me add another caution here.

Epazote can be toxic if used in excess. Please do not self treat any of the above with this herb.

Although I always suggest treating with herbs only under the direction of a licensed professional, I need to add an extra warning here.

Do not use this herb medicinally without the advice consent and guidance of a professional. Please.

Magic, on the other hand, is up to you, please use it at your own discretion for protection, hex-breaking and road-opening spells.

As is often the case, the reputed magical properties are analogic to the medicinal ones. Epazote is said to help us digest the obstacles in life and removes spiritual parasites. It is used as a smudge/spray for getting rid of residual negativity from our houses – it is often highly recommended to smudge/spray the house with it after situations that are highly stressful for the whole family, like after a family member’s death, after a divorce, etc.

This is a plant that is said to be highly related to the world of the Dead, so a cup of its tea will make a wonderful offering in your ancestor’s altar, or when asking for help to those who have crossed over to the world of spirits. A bundle of dry Epazote might be used as protection to keep nightmares caused by spirits away, and to protect from spiritual attacks.

So, although I am not quite sure I am ready to embrace it wholeheartedly, Epazote is definitely an herb I want to continue to explore.

If anyone has any personal experience with this herb, please let me know. I’d love to hear about it.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Herb of the Week -- Lemon Balm

The herb of the week is Lemon Balm. (Melissa officinalis)

We got some Lemon Balm from a clearance sale at a nursery toward the end of the summer and planted it in the garden, where it promptly died. I noticed that although the plant died, the roots did not, because it was sending up new growth at the end of September. I’m hoping that the root system is strong enough to make it through the winter and we will see it growing there in the spring.

How To Garden Advice .com Says that “Lemon Balm is one of the easiest herb plants to grow, and is a perennial that will winter over in many areas, particularly if mulched in the fall.” So I’m really hoping it will make it.

Lemon Balm is a perennial herb, in the mint family, native to the Mediterranean region, western Asia, southwestern Siberia, and northern Africa. It is widely naturalized in North America and elsewhere.

Like its name suggests, Lemon Balm, has a strong lemon scent. (the word Balm is an abbreviation of Balsam, a reference to the sweet smelling oils in the plant) Its' vein-filled, oval-shaped leaves contain lemon-scented oils. The plant strongly resembles spearmint, or catnip, with clusters of tiny white flowers. Besides as a flavoring in cooking, the oils are used in laundry products, furniture polish, cosmetics and hair care products.

If you run out of Pledge, you can just run up to the garden -- the leaves are supposedly good for polishing wood

Lemon Balm grows to a height of 3 feet and gives the best show when planted along borders or in front of shrubs. Lemon Balm flowers are attractive to bees, but don’t confuse it with Bee Balm, and entirely different plant. Many people confuse the two, because Lemon Balm is so attractive to Bees, and… …well, they both end in balm…. Hello?? Besides that, the first part of the botanical name, melissa, translates into honeybee.

In ancient Ephesus, known today as Turkey the honeybee was considered to be a form the human soul took when descending from the Goddess Artemis herself. Bees were not only important in the cosmology of ancient man but also in their commerce (honey, wax). Thus anything that helped to attract the valued honeybees to a hive, or keep the honeybees from swarming, gained in stature.
This is where Lemon Balm enters recorded history. Lemon balm was a sacred herb in the Temple of Artemis/Diana, and the herb that assisted the ancient beekeepers in keeping honeybees happy and well fed with nectar.
According to Pliny , bees were “delighted with this herb above others”; Thus the Greek derived scientific name “Melissa” and the lesser known name of “apiastrum”. Both of Lemon Balm’s given Greek names mean bee/honey bee.

In ancient Greece sprigs of Lemon Balm were placed into beehives to attract wandering honeybee swarms.
Lemon balm was also planted around the bee’s hives to keep them happy and more apt to stay at the hive and not swarm away.

Much like most plants in the mint family, Lemon Balm spreads rapidly, and if not controlled can become a nuisance. I would recommend planting it in a container, or burying a container of some type in the bed, to contain the roots. It will spread two ways. The roots will send out runners, and the plants will put out roots whenever they touch the ground. Containing the roots, and keeping the plant pruned will help you keep your Lemon Balm under control.

If you want to plant your Lemon Balm in the ground, but want it to
Stay in one spot, try sinking a section of 10” PVC pipe 12” long into the ground, or, cut the bottom off a five gallon bucket that has sprung a leak and use the tube. Your barrier should reach at least 12” deep and should be big enough, (minimum 8-10”) to allow the plant to form a healthy root base.

To plant Lemon Balm, Sow seed in spring, or you can plant transplants in spring or early autumn. Any reasonable soil and spot will do. If you have divided your plants in autumn then they may need a bit of protection over the winter – either in a cold frame or mulched with straw to protect from the frost. If it shoots early in the spring, then keep a watch for frosts and protect the plants if you think it’s going to be very cold – it won’t kill the roots, but it will damage the leaves and delay your using them.

I know in Michigan, we often get a week or two of spring-like weather in February, when all the plants start to grow, thinking it is spring, then winter will hit again in full force for another month. I think it’s natures way of toughening up both the plants and the people who grow them.

If your patch of Lemon Balm, (and this will work for mint and catnip as well) gets out of hand, divide it in the late fall. This will allow the cold to take out the weaker plants leaving you with a smaller, but stronger and healthier patch in the spring.
Lemon Balm can be harvested throughout the summer months by snipping or pinching. It grows back quickly and tolerates heavy harvesting well. To help keep it from getting out of control, harvest it before the flowers have a chance to produce seeds. Like any herb, the best time to pick is after the morning dew dries, but before the afternoon sun gets too hot.

When I post recipes, sometimes they are recipes I have tried, and sometimes they are just recipes that I think sound good. These recipes fall into the latter category. I’m looking forward to having enough Lemon Balm next year so I can try them.

Stewed Chicken with Blackberries & Lemon Balm

· 4 boneless chicken breasts, skin on
· 2 T extra virgin olive oil
· ¾ cup of hearty red wine
· ¾ cup of chicken stock
· Grated rind of 1 small orange
· 1 T freshly squeezed orange juice
· ½ c fresh lemon balm, finely chopped, plus 4 extra sprigs for garnish
· 2/3 c heavy cream
· 1 egg yolk
· ¾ c fresh blackberries, plus another half cup for garnish

Sauté both sides of the chicken breasts in the olive oil over medium heat sufficiently to seal in flavor, about five minutes each side, then transfer them to a casserole dish. Add the wine, chicken stock, orange rind and juice and lemon balm to the sauté pan, stirring while bringing it slowly to the boil. Add salt pepper to taste. Pour over the chicken and bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.
Blend the cream with the egg yolk, along with about half-cup of liquid from the chicken that you've allowed to cool.
Add the ¾ c blackberries and stir this back into the casserole,
cover and bake for another 10-15 minutes. Garnish with the rest of the blackberries of lemon balm sprigs.

For dessert, try the following:

Berry Balm Crunch

· 3/4 c each of blackberries, raspberries and blueberries
· 3 tablespoons of lime juice
· 2/3 of a cup of packed, brown sugar
· 1/3 cup of unbleached white flour
· 1 cup of quick cooking rolled oats
· 1/3 cup of shredded coconut
· ½ cup of butter, melted
· 1 tsp. cinnamon
· 1/3 cup of finely chopped fresh lemon balm leaves

Mix the berries, lime juice and lemon balm in a bowl, then spread this mixture in an eight-inch square buttered baking pan. Mix the rest of the ingredients thoroughly and pack over the berries. Bake at 375F degrees for about 30 minutes, or until crisp and brown. Serve hot with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream with a garnish of fresh lemon balm leaves.

Lemon Balm Vinaigrette

3 T. lightly flavored olive oil
1 t. chiffonade of fresh lemon balm
1/8 t. salt
1/16 t. fresh ground black pepper
2 T. rice wine vinegar

Combine all ingredients just before using, for the freshest taste and brightest color. Use as a salad dressing with baby lettuces and touch of grated, aged Jack cheese, or toss with fresh steamed veggies (it's delicious with asparagus!).

In addition Lemon Balm leaves also taste great:

--boiled into the broth when you make vegetable or lentil soup
-- in tea and fruit salads
--sauteed with a little garlic oil and pepper with vegetables
--in steamed or Mexican rice
--mixed with melted butter spread on tortillas

For a general seasoning, use it in tandem with tarragon. Try adding some freshly minced leaves to lamb or fish marinades for the grill, and toss a few sprigs on the fire to perfume the air and keep away the mosquitoes. When using whole leaves be sure to handle them delicately; they tend to bruise and turn black. Combine Lemon Balm with other garden herbs for homemade herb vinegars. For a eye-catching garnish, freeze some small leaves into ice cubes to serve in lemonade.

Lemon Balm was used in the Middle Ages to reduce stress and anxiety, promote sleep, improve appetite, and ease pain and discomfort associated with digestion (including flatulence and bloating as well as colic). Even before then it was steeped in wine to lift the spirits, help heal wounds, and treat venomous insect bites and stings. Today, Lemon Balm is often combined with other calming, soothing herbs, such as valerian, chamomile, and hops, to enhance the overall relaxing effect.

There is current research underway suggesting that lemon balm may interfere with thyroid and sedative related treatments. If you are being treated for either of these conditions, consult your doctor before using lemon balm.

Although few rigorous scientific studies have been conducted on lemon balm, many health care professionals suggest that this herb is beneficial for a variety of health problems, including Alzheimer's disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, indigestion, gas, insomnia, and hyperthyroidism.

Plants, just like people, are subject to many viruses (virusi ? Vireese? What is the plural of virus?) And over the years, the ones that have anti viral properties were able to survive longer and stronger than those that do not.

Many believe that Lemon Balm is one such plant, that it has anti-viral properties, and that when taken as a tea will help the body fight virus. Research seem shaky at best as to the effectiveness, but Lemon Balm tea is pleasant tasting enough that I don’t mind drinking it, under the remote chance that it may help.

To make a lemon-scented bath, tie ¼ cup crushed leaves into a handkerchief or washcloth. Let the water run through the bag until the tub is filled. In smaller quantities, use lemon water to rinse your hair after washing.

Topically, the oils act as a mosquito repellent and have been said to be effective in treating cold sores.

In ancient times, Lemon Balm was planted by the front door to drive away evil. Since it attracted bees, and bees were considered a sign of good luck, it was assumed that the Lemon Balm drove away bad luck and invited in good luck.
In Modern magic, Lemon Balm is primarily used in the pursuit of romance. It is an herb which attracts, and is sometimes made into a charm and worn to bring a lover into one's life. It may also be used as a bathing herb, some of the delightfully scented leaves scattered over the water, or an infusion poured to mix with the bath. . A tea made of the leaves brings calm, which is appropriate for preparing for ritual work.

In kitchen magic, Lemon Balm is said to be ideally suited for healing those who suffer from mental or nervous disorders. It is claimed to be very useful for those of sound mind who need to keep their mental processes in superior condition and said to give energy to make one more desirable to the opposite sex.

Avicenna, an 11th century Arab herbalist said "it causeth the mind and heart to become merry"

My mind and heart can use all the merriment they can get.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Herb of the Week -- Cilantro

The herb of the week Is Cilantro. (Coriandrum sativum)

Cilantro is an herb that we have tried to grow twice, both times with limited success.

I think, in both cases, we transplanted it into the garden too late in the year and it was too hot, so as soon as we planted it, it bolted. But since I really like to cook with Cilantro, and after all (who can make fresh salsa without it?) We will probably keep trying.

We have really dedicated our garden to mostly perennials, since we have limited space, and then once we are happy with our perennials, we fill in the spaces with annuals. But I see garden expansion in our future, and I am pretty sure that we will find room for Cilantro next year.

The funny thing about Cilantro is that if you plant Coriander, Cilantro comes up instead.

Seriously though, the name Cilantro comes from the Spanish word for Coriander, a versatile plant. The leaves are used as an herb, the seeds as a spice, and the roots are used in some cultures to flavor foods as well.

So we are actually talking about two different things when we talk about Cilantro. Although the terms are often used interchangeably
to the point where it can be somewhat confusing. The entire plant is properly named Coriander, while the leaves alone are Cilantro. But generally, informally, the plant and leaves are referred to as Cilantro and only the seeds as Coriander. Just to liven things up, Cilantro is also referred to as Chinese parsley.
To avoid confusion, when I talk about them, I will use the term Cilantro, to refer to the leaves, and subsequently the plant, which have a light citrus flavor not unlike celery and lemon together, When I use the term Coriander I am referring to the seed, which has a nutty, peppery flavor with just a hint of citrus.

The name Coriander, is reported to come from the Greek word koris which means bedbug. Some say that the plant smells like bedbugs, (whatever bedbugs smell like) while others say that the seeds resemble bedbugs. Still others believe that the seeds, when ground and sprinkled on your sheets, will help prevent bedbugs.

Whichever the case, the name stuck, and has been around for a long time. One of the original seven wonders of the world was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Coriander/Cilantro was one of the plants generally believed to have been grown in those gardens.

It is one of few modern foods that are mentioned in the Old Testament and is mentioned in the Medical Papyrus of Thebes written in 1552 B. C. No one is quite sure where Cilantro originated, but the ancient Israelites were familiar with it, it has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and it was even mentioned in Arabian Nights a book over 1000 years old. The Chinese have used Cilantro for centuries, believing it to be an aphrodisiac.

In the mid-1700s a liquor was made from the Coriander seeds, but this experiment proved unsuccessful
Today, Cilantro and Coriander are widely used worldwide. It is a favorite herb from the Southwest U.S. through Central and South America, as well as in India, China and Thailand.

Most of us think of Cilantro in terms of salsa and guacamole, however, Cilantro and Coriander are used all over the world in many other ways. Cilantro is used with meat, chicken, fish, sauces, marinades, chutneys, and Coriander is even used in baking.

The most important thing to remember when growing Cilantro is that it does not like hot weather. Cilantro growing in soil that reaches 75F will bolt and go to seed. This means that the ideal cilantro growing conditions are cool but sunny.

Even with ideal growing conditions, cilantro is a short lived herb. Taking the time to prune cilantro frequently will help delay bolting but no matter how much you prune cilantro it will still eventually bolt. Reseeding, every 3-6 weeks will help keep a steady supply throughout the growing season.

The Tasteful Garden suggests that “Cilantro needs to be grown in early spring/summer or even during the fall when the weather is cooler. It requires mostly sunshine about half a day and will be best grown in morning sun
and shade in the hot afternoon. Growing it in the ground with mulch on top of the roots helps keep the soil cooler longer. Filtered sunlight, as in under a tree with light coming through, is ideal. To harvest Cilantro, you can begin cutting as soon as the plant is about 6" tall by removing the outer leaves and leaving the growing point intact for the new leaves to grow from. Another method is to wait till the plant is almost completely grown and pull it up by its roots to use the whole bunch at once.”

(Photo courtesy of The Tasteful Garden, Used by permission)

Once you have it harvested, the next question is what to do with it.

Cilantro can be dried, but will lose a lot of its’ flavor. If you have so much extra that it will go bad by all means dry some, but it will never be as good as fresh cilantro. Frozen Cilantro doesn’t seem to fare much better, with a great deal of the flavor disappearing, however, once again, weak flavored frozen cilantro seems better to me than cilantro flavored compost, so before you just throw the extra away, feel free to play a bit.

Burpee suggests an herbed butter, using one 1 stick of Butter, 4 Tablespoons of chopped fresh cilantro and 1 Tablespoon of Lemon Juice. I have been meaning to play with herbed butters for several years now, and need to put it on my “next year for sure” list. The butter acts as a preservative, as well as a suspension for the herb flavor..

Next year, I intend to get some candy molds, either flower shaped or something else simple and make herbed butters from all of the different herbs we grow. Then, sometime in the fall, around this time of year, when it gets all cold and wet and rainy, we can invite the family over for a bread and butter party, where I can bake a couple of different types of bread, bring out a tray of different butters, and tell people if the want anything besides bread and butter, they should bring enough to go around.

If anyone has made herbed butters before and wants to share any tips, I’d love to hear about them.

But back to Cilantro. It seems that the best way to use it is fresh.

Try adding cilantro to crab cakes or shrimp salad. Or chop cilantro and garlic, add a little olive oil and spread this on poultry or fish. Skip the oil to save calories. For a creamy low fat dressing mix equal parts of buttermilk and plain yogurt with salt, pepper, and a generous amount of chopped cilantro.

Ground coriander is a great addition to dry rubs. It pairs particularly well with cumin, curry, paprika, garlic, and chili powder.

Here’s a recipe you may try:

Recipe Courtesy of Chef James at used by permission

6 poblano peppers, roasted, skins & seeds removed
¼ cup cilantro
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 tablespoon white vinegar
½ cup of water
Cayenne powder, salt, and pepper to taste
4 pork chops
olive oil, as needed
onion, 8 ounces, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped

1) Puree two of the roasted poblano peppers, cilantro, cumin, coriander, vinegar, water, salt and pepper in a blender. Add additional water if necessary.
2) Brush the chops with olive oil and season with salt, pepper, and cayenne powder.
3) Sear the chops on each side in the oil. Do not fully cook the chops. Remove them as soon as each side is seared and set aside.
4) Roughly chop the remaining poblano peppers and sauté with the onion in the same pan you sautéed the chops until the onions start to soften. Add extra oil if necessary.
5) Add garlic and sauté one minute more.
6) Return the chops to the pan and add the sauce. Simmer until the chops are cooked. About 3-5 minutes for half inch chops.

And here’s one that is bouncing around on the Internet. I’m not sure of the original source but it sounds like one Bobby Flay may use:

Lime-Chipotle Sauce

Blend in food processor.
1/2 C honey
2 T minced canned chipotle chilies
3 T stone ground mustard
½ C lime juice
1 ½ T minced garlic
1 t ground cumin
½ t ground allspice
½ C chopped fresh cilantro
1 ½ t ground white pepper
sea salt to taste

Makes 1 1/2 cups.

Use as a dip for tortilla chips, pita bread, or sliced cucumbers, bell peppers, and zucchini.
As a marinade for fish or chicken, or on a simple salad of mixed greens.
Add some to your egg yolks when you make deviled eggs, or to your chicken salad.

NOTE : This can be canned in a boiling water bath for 15 min. (20 min. at 1001-6000 ft. and 25 min. above 6000 ft).

One batch makes less than a pint, so I would multiply by at least 4 and can in half pints if I were doing it.

Medicinally, Cilantro doesn’t seem to have quite as many applications as a lot of herbs, Rich in vitamin C.Cilantro is considered an aid to the digestive system. It is an appetite stimulant and aids in the secretion of gastric juices.

The essential oils of the cilantro leaves contain antibacterial properties and can be used as a fungicide. Coriander seeds is said by some to have cholesterol lowering properties, but I haven’t seen the research, so I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

In Egypt, the seeds have been found in pharaohs' tombs, presumably to prevent indigestion in the afterlife. While no one has been able to attest to its post-mortem healing properties, recent studies have supported its use as a stomach soother for both adults and colicky babies.

Ancient Romans used cilantro to preserve food, as well as to mask the flavor of meat that was going bad. (It’s a wonder anyone survived past their twenties back then) although they couldn’t have known it then, cilantro contains an antioxidant that helps prevent animal fats from turning rancid. It also contains substances that kill meat-spoiling bacteria and fungi. These same substances can also prevent infection in wounds.

In Modern medicine, the only current use of cilantro or coriander is as a flavoring for less pleasant tasting medicines.

However, there are those who advocate its’ use for, besides a digestive aid, treating infection and arthritis pain.

As with most herbs, there are those who swear by them, and those who say they have no effect whatsoever. Maybe it’s like regular medicine. Some things I can take and they work wonders, but don’t do a bit of good for my wife, and likewise, some things help her, and may as well be chalk tablets for me. I guess it kind of depends on your own body chemistry as well.

But to use it to treat digestion, colic, infection and arthritic pain, it is suggested that you drink it in tea form. To make a medicinal tea, use 1 teaspoon of dried leaves or crushed seeds (or ½ teaspoon of powdered seeds) per cup of boiling water. Steep for 5 minutes. Drink up to three cups a day before or after meals.

The worst that can happen is that you drink a bunch of stuff you don’t like. There are no known side affects of drinking too much.

In magic, Cilantro can be burned as an incense or as an oil in spells or rituals that deal with aggression, courage,, exorcism, healing after surgery, hex-breaking, lust, physical strength, politics, protection, sexual energy, sexual potency, and strength.

In Kitchen magic, the main use of cilantro seems to be in love spells and potions, Simmered in your favorite wine, sweetened with honey, strained and served warm, it is reputed to be a powerful aphrodisiac.

Finally, I want to finish by making mention of a very similar plant, Culantro (also known as Thai Parsley) similar to Cilantro in flavor Culantro is used by many South American countries as well as in Asia even more frequently than Cilantro. It seems to have a longer growing season, a higher tolerance for heat, and be almost interchangeable for cilantro in most recipes, so those in warmer climates may want to give this one a try instead.
(Photo courtesy of The Tasteful Garden, Used by permission)

I’m thinking some of each may be fun.

The following sites were particularly helpful in my research this week:
In Depth Info (Thanks Chef James)
The Tasteful Garden (Thanks Cindy)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Herb of the Week -- Marjoram

The herb of the week is Marjoram. (Origanum majoricum)

I have been avoiding Marjoram, because I wasn’t sure how to approach it. But I have now written about all of the rest of the herbs we grew this year, so I can’t put it off any longer.

Marjoram is a member of the Oregano family. It is similar in many ways to Oregano. The plants are closely related, the flavor is similar, and it is grown, harvested, cultivated, and used much the same, so I wasn’t sure whether to treat it as separate herb, or to just consider it an addendum to Oregano.

When I first started researching Marjoram, early this summer, I ran into a lot of different opinions and positions about Oregano and Marjoram. describes Marjoram as “Oregano’s calmer, sweeter, fraternal twin.” Their site then goes on to describe the subtle differences between the two, and finishes by saying that they are generally interchangeable in recipes.

Linda Gilbert, a journalist, cooking instructor and caterer, writes, in an article for Sally, That not only are many people confused, and labeling at nurseries confusing, but many experts get confused as well.

Now I don’t feel so bad.

Ms. Gilbert then goes on to point out that all Marjorams are oreganos, but not all oreganos are Marjorams. To further complicate things, there are many other plants that are neither oregano nor Marjoram, but that somehow get called such.

Mexican Oregano, (a close relative of Lemon Verbena) Cuban Oregano, ( a relative to Thyme), and
Puerto Rican Oregano (A colius family member), are all examples.

Then, to further complicate things, The most common variety of Oregano is also known as wild Marjoram.

One of my favorite quick reference sites for any herb, The Tasteful Garden, has an herb encyclopedia that has quick and easy descriptions of most herbs. Although they identify Oregano and Marjoram as different herbs, they group them together under the same heading.

This is because care and use of the two plants is so similar. They suggest using the two together, along with basil and thyme, for a well balanced blend of herbs.

And, in case you are wondering, Marjoram and Oregano are both members of the Mint family

So, now that I have thoroughly confused you, let’s get back to Marjoram.

The plant that I grew in my garden this year, and knew as Marjoram looked, tasted and smelled completely different from the plant that I grew and knew as Oregano.

Based on that difference, I am treating Marjoram as a separate herb. Keep in mind that the lines between the two blur a little though. This is good, because it allows you the opportunity to experiment on your own.

I like recipes, but I also like to just go in the kitchen and play. That’s the fun part of growing your own herbs. If you were paying $3-5 a bunch for herbs at the grocery store, you wouldn’t dare to experiment with them.

So, let's talk about Marjoram.

Marjoram is indigenous to the Mediterranean area and was known to the Greeks and Romans, who looked on it as a symbol of happiness.
Marjoram has a delicate, sweet, pleasant flavor with a slightly bitter undertone.
Traditionally used in meat dishes, Marjoram's mellow taste and enticing fragrance make it compatible with a wide variety of foods. Good in lamb dishes, as well as beef and veal and in soups or stews Marjoram blends well with parsley, dill, basil, or thyme.

Marjoram was called amaracum in Latin, which in turn was taken from Greek amarakos The origin of the Greek name is not known, but maybe it came from further East, Sanskrit maruva . Marjoram’s reputation as aphrodisiac in Roman literature is probably due to the similarity of amaracum to Latin amor or love, which is linguistically not related.

Marjoram needs a warm climate to fully develop its specific aroma, much of which, like Tarragon, (a non related herb) it loses when dried.

Despite the fact that dried Marjoram tastes and smells completely different from fresh Marjoram, dried Marjoram is a staple herb in much European cooking, in fact, it is such an important herb in sausage making that in Germany it is called Wurstkraut or “sausage herb“. In German cooking it is often combined with Bay leaves, Black Pepper, and juniper, and in fact is combined with those three in a traditional venison ragout.

Dried Marjoram has application among vegetables as well, being particularly suited for use with heavier vegetables, cabbage, root vegetables, legumes, etc. Sprinkling it liberally on fried potatoes produces a delicious alternative to boring fried potatoes.

Fresh Marjoram, on the other hand has a delicate flavor that blends well with chives and parsley in fish dishes or other subtly flavored applications

Marjoram is grown much the same as Oregano, in full sun to partial shade, in well drained, slightly lean soil. It is relatively hardy and can be grown as a perennial in most US Climate Zones.
It grows well in pots or containers and attracts bees butterflies and birds.

It can be started indoors from seed, 6-8 weeks before planting outside, and can be planted outside as soon as danger of frost is past. It can be harvested as soon as 6 weeks after it is planted outside.

When I add perennials to our garden, I seldom harvest anything the first year. I give them one year to grow into a good healthy plant and develop a root system that will help them live through Michigan's’ rough winters. But there is probably no real need for that, it’s just a personal thing that I do.

Marjoram can be harvested as soon as the stems are taller than 3” off the ground, and can be cut back to a 3” height. Like most herbs, cutting the ends forces growth lower on the plant and will result in a bushier plant.

Marjoram harvested before the first flowers appear will have a sweeter more true flavor. Marjoram harvested after flowers appear will be stronger and may have a slight bitter taste. This will be less noticeable if you plan on drying your Marjoram than it is in fresh Marjoram.

If planting more than one plant, be sure to allow room between them for air circulation to help avoid the occasional fungus that Marjoram gets.

Like most herbs if you water with a sprinkler, try to water in the morning,, to allow the water to all dry off the leaves by night. This makes them less attractive to insects, who come out at night and drink the water off leaves, as well as a less fertile breeding ground for molds and fungi.

The leaves of your Marjoram will probably die down soon after frost occurs, but the roots will survive and provide new plants the next Spring.

Marjoram can be used fresh, or it can be dried or frozen. Let me start you off with a few recipes to get your mind working. As always, Feel free to leave a recipe in the comment section, if you have a Marjoram recipe.

Marjoram Potatoes and Onions
prep time 15 mins
cooking time 40 mins
serves 4
4 medium potatoes peeled and sliced thickly
4 medium onions sliced
1 T Dried Marjoram
salt and pepper
Layer the potatoes and onions in an oven proof dish.
Sprinkle with the Marjoram, salt and pepper.
Dot the butter over the top.
Bake in a moderate oven 350 F for 40 mins and then serve

Or you may want to try:

Carrot, Apple and Marjoram Soup

2 Large white Onions (peeled and chopped)
2 T Sunflower oil
1T Butter
4 Apples -Jonathan, or other tart pie apples work best, (peeled, cored and chopped)
8 Carrots, (peeled and chopped)
1 t Salt
1 T Fresh Marjoram leaves
Black pepper, freshly ground

4 C Water

Soften the onions in sunflower oil in a heavy, covered pan, over medium low heat, until translucent. Add the butter and the carrots, stir well, then cover and allow to cook for 10 to 15 minutes (peek occasionally, don‘t let the onions brown); then add the apples. Continue cooking for another 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the apples have begun to break down. Add the water, bring to a boil and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then puree with a hand mixer, adding the salt, black pepper and Marjoram as you work.

Serve with fresh baked bread.

Medicinally, Marjoram tea has been used historically for relief from symptoms of hay fever, sinus congestion, indigestion, asthma, stomach pain, headache, dizziness, colds, coughs, and nervous disorders. It is a gently fragrant, calming herb that does have mild antioxidant and anti-fungal properties. Unsweetened tea can also be used as a mouthwash or gargle. Take 1-2 cups of tea per day for the therapeutic benefits.
Externally, Marjoram leaves can be ground into a paste (add hot tea or water, and a little oatmeal for consistency purposes, if desired), and used for the pain of rheumatism and for sprains. The leaves can be made into an oil for relief of toothache pain - drop a few drops of the oil on the affected tooth. Leaves can also be placed in cheesecloth or a coffee filter and placed under the tap for a fragrant and refreshing bath that is believed good for the skin.

It was believed that the Greek God Venus created Marjoram and gave it its’ wonderful sweet flavor and scent. The herb was said to the favorite of Aphrodite.
It was said that if you anointed yourself with Marjoram you would dream of your future spouse.

The ancients believed that if Marjoram grew on a grave it was a sign of the happiness of the departed spirit. Sometimes it was planted at grave sites to comfort the departed and ensure their eternal peace and happiness.

During ancient times, wreaths of Marjoram crowned the heads of bridal couples to symbolize love, honor and happiness. Marjoram was used by Hippocrates as an antiseptic. The leaves of the plant were often chewed during the Middles Ages to relieve toothache, rheumatism, indigestion and coughs. In ancient Egypt it was used for healing and disinfecting.

It was used in England at one time as an ingredient of snuff. They then decided to put it in their beer, as a preservative and to give an aromatic flavor.

In modern magic, Marjoram is used in love spells is carried it is protective. It is also placed around the house, a bit in each room, and renewed each month for home protection. It is grown the garden to shield against evil, or given to a depressed person to bring happiness It is also used in money mixtures and sachets.

Wiccans use Marjoram to promote a sense of peace and calm.

In kitchen magic, Marjoram is added to food to strengthen, physically and spiritually.

We grew Marjoram for the first time last year, and harvested it for the first time this year. It grew fast and quickly became a strong, healthy and happy player in our herb garden.