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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Herb of the Week -- Garlic

The herb of the week is Garlic.(allium sativum )

I have been putting off writing about Garlic because I have been trying to decide if it is a real herb or not. It is generally classified as an herb, but all of the other herbs I grow, I use the leaves, or sometimes an occasional flower, whereas when I harvest Garlic, I discard the leaves, and just use the bulb.

But I finally decided that if Chives, which are the smallest member of the onion family are an herb, than it stands to reason that Garlic, the largest member of the onion family must also be an herb.

Wikipedia defines herb as: A plant that is valued for it’s flavor, scent, or other qualities.

Based on that definition, I suppose just about everything I grow is an herb.

But there is another reason I chose Garlic this week. September is National Cholesterol Awareness Month, and Garlic is one of six herbs that have been proven to reduce "bad" cholesterol. The other five are all herbs that I have never grown, although I may consider doing so in the future. So far, largely thanks to being fortunate genetically, and eating, by choice and by necessity, a diet that is not heavy in meat, Cholesterol has not been a huge problem for me, (knock on wood, toss some salt over my shoulder, rub a garlic clove, all those other superstitions.) But I know that each year I get less young, and although I hate to admit it, even to myself, I'm just not a teenager anymore. As the years take their toll on me, Cholesterol is something that will be more of a factor, so by taking some basic preventative measures now, maybe I can slow down the sands of time a little and make the next half a century of my life more enjoyable than the last half century.

Garlic is native to central Asia, but its use spread across the world more than 5000 years ago. It was worshipped by the Egyptians and fed to workers building the Great Pyramid at Giza, about 2600 BC. Greek athletes ate it to build their strength. Garlic came to the Western Hemisphere with some of the first European explorers, and its use spread rapidly. In the United States it was first cultivated in New Orleans by French settlers. Missionaries brought it to California, where it is grown today.

Gilroy California is home of the Annual Garlic Festival, the last week of July, where visitors can try everything from Garlic Aspic to Garlic Zucchini. The big winner this year in the garlic cook-off was Spicy Garlic Butter Cookies with Garlic Goat Cheese and Honey. I have never tried these, but have included a recipe below for the brave and adventurous among you.

The word Garlic, near as I can tell comes from the old Anglo Saxon Gar meaning spear and Leac, (leek) . The word Leek, at various times in history has defined not only the plant we know as Leeks today, but also any member of the onion family, and any herb with a grasslike appearance, So Gar-Leek would simply be a spear shaped grass, with bonus points given if it belonged to the onion family.

And it doesn’t hurt to remember that onions are a member of the lily family. Isn’t it neat that our herbs and flowers are all related? Maybe at the Lily Family Reunion, Garlic is like Uncle Bob, the smelly, lumpy one, over in the corner.

But seriously, Garlic, while sometimes getting a bad rap, is one of the most coveted and useful herbs in our garden.

There are three primary types of Garlic. Common Garlic, Hard-Neck Garlic and Elephant Garlic. Of the three, Common Garlic is the most common, hence the name.

Elephant Garlic grows bigger bulbs, but is somewhat lacking in flavor. In fact, one of my sources said it “has absolutely enormous cloves, but has no garlic flavor worth mentioning.” I personally wouldn’t be quite so harsh. I have tried it, and it sort of tastes like garlic, but it certainly is weak garlic.

Of the Common Garlic there are two primary types. Artichoke, and Silverskin.

Artichoke varieties, generally have either very white, or white blushed rose outer skins with a row of decent sized cloves around the outside, and irritatingly smaller, thinner cloves in the interior. These are harder to peel and cook with, but are the ones that lend themselves best to braiding and will keep the best through the winter.

Silverskins have the strongest flavor, and have numerous small cloves. They are very white, with a soft brittle skin which breaks away easily, but provides very little protection in the root cellar.

Hard neck garlic gets its' name from the tough stem that grows up the center of the bulbs. It is usally surrounded by 7-12 cloves and will have very little outside protective layers.

Most garlic used today, and what you find in the grocery store is Softneck Silverskin Common Garlic.

Growing Garlic is incredibly easy. Folklore says that Garlic should be planted on the shortest day of the year. While this may be fine for those in Europe, the ground here is generally frozen in mid December. My mother always planted her Garlic in the fall, and then covered the garden with leaves. This was her way of putting the garden to bed for the winter.

You can buy seed garlic from a nursery or garden shop, if you like to spend a lot of money unnecessarily, but as a general rule, you can just buy it at the grocery store.

The serious gardener will buy several heads of garlic and the pick off only the biggest cloves to plant, using the smaller ones in their own kitchen.

The bigger the clove is when you plant it, the bigger the head of garlic will be when you harvest it.

Plant garlic with the flat end down, and the pointy end up. plant single cloves 4-6" apart in rows about 12" apart. Garlic will work in a container, but keep in mind that the mature plant may well be almost 3' tall, so plan accordingly.

Once you plant it, Garlic is relatively maintenance free. You just leave it alone until it grows and blooms and then, when the plant starts to die off and turn yellow you harvest it.

You can cut the tops off and dry the heads, or, you can braid the tops into an attractive Garlic Braid.

Jane, at The Thrifty Countrywoman, recently wrote a post detailing how to braid onions. Garlic is braided the very same way. You can read Jane's post here.

No matter how you choose to keep your garlic, remember that it is important that it be kept dry, or it will mold.

Once you have an ample supply of garlic laid in, there are all sorts of things you can do with it.

I just want to throw in a few recipes, just to get you thinking:

Garlic Dip

8-10 lrg garlic cloves
1/4 tsp sea salt
Juice of 1/2 lemon or to taste
4 tbl extra-virgin olive oil

Add the garlic and salt to food processor bowl. Process and add oil through the feed tube very slowly. Add lemon juice, again very slowly; process until the mixture is very creamy, like mayonnaise.You MUST add the oil VERY slowly or it won't mix properly. It just ends up being very oily

Spicy Garlic Butter Cookies with Garlic Goat Cheese and Honey:
Makes 20-25 cookies
1 cup all-purpose flour (unbleached preferred)
½ tsp cayenne pepper
¼ tsp baking powder
1 stick plus 3 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
¾ cup sugar
5 cloves roasted garlic
3 ounces goat cheese, softened
3 cloves roasted garlic
Hungarian paprika
Method of Preparation:
Whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and cayenne pepper in a small bowl.
Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the cloves of roasted garlic and beat for another minute or until cloves are incorporated. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture. Mix until just combined. Form dough into an 8″ to 10″ log (approximately 2″ diameter) and wrap it in plastic wrap. Chill dough until firm.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Cut log into 1/8″ to ¼” slices and fill ungreased large baking sheet(s), arranging slices about 1″ apart.
Bake cookies until the edges are golden, approximately 12 minutes. When pulled from heat, immediately indent center of each cookie with the back of a spoon. Cool on the sheets then transfer to wire racks to completely cool.
Meanwhile, combine softened goat cheese and 3 cloves of roasted garlic in a small bowl, combining well.
Once cookies have cooled completely, add a good-sized dollop of garlic goat cheese mixture in the center of each cookie. Drizzle some honey over each, add a dash of Hungarian paprika and serve.

Garlic Soup

26 garlic cloves (unpeeled)
2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
2 1/4 cups sliced onions
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
18 garlic cloves, peeled
3 1/2 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
1/2 cup whipping cream

1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)
4 lemon wedges

Preheat oven to 350°F. Place 26 garlic cloves in small glass baking dish. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake until garlic is golden brown and tender, about 45 minutes. Cool. Squeeze garlic between fingertips to release cloves. Transfer cloves to small bowl.

Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions and thyme and cook until onions are translucent, about 6 minutes. Add roasted garlic and 18 raw garlic cloves and cook 3 minutes. Add chicken stock; cover and simmer until garlic is very tender, about 20 minutes. Working in batches, purée soup in blender until smooth. Return soup to saucepan; add cream and bring to simmer. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat, stirring occasionally.)

Divide grated cheese among 4 bowls and ladle soup over. Squeeze juice of 1 lemon wedge into each bowl and serve.

Garlic has a long history of folklore, superstition and magical uses,

In ancient times, people used to eat garlic before making a journey at night. It made them belch and gives one a foul breath. The primitive belief was that evil spirits would not come within the radius of that powerful smell.

German miners took cloves of garlic with them into the mines to ward off evil spirits. It is no wonder that garlic's Sanskrit name means "slayer of monsters".
Throughout other parts of Europe, India, China, Japan and Asia Minor, garlic is used as protection against the evil eye and witchcraft
The Koreans of old ate pickled garlic before passing through a mountain path, believing that tigers disliked it.
According to Islamic tradition, garlic is said to sprout any place where Satan placed his left foot during the time that he was being driven from paradise.

In Cuba, it is believed that if one wears a necklace of 13 garlic cloves for 13 days, jaundice will be cured. In England, nannies used garlic to treat whooping cough by putting it inside children's socks. In parts of Europe, people believe garlic can cure smallpox, leprosy, the plague and other infectious diseases. Also, it is said to prevent dropsy, sunstroke, hysteria and cure intestinal diseases.

Superstition aside, medicinally, Garlic is one of the safest herbs, and as such can be taken often. It does, however, have its drawbacks, as we all know. Bear this in mind when using remedies (especially internal ones), and cut back when family and friends start avoiding you.

Garlic has scientifically-proven medicinal properties. Allicin, has anti-bacterial properties that are equivalent to a weak penicillin. It appears that cooking garlic weakens the anti-bacterial effects considerably, however, so don't count on cooked garlic with meals for much in the way of a curative.

Garlic has been used at times, to treat wounds, ulcers, skin infections, flu, athlete's foot, some viruses, strep, worms, respiratory ailments, high blood pressure, blood thinning, cancer of the stomach, colic, colds, kidney problems, bladder problems, and ear aches, to name a few.

It is believed to cure worms in both people and animals - try giving the dog a clove of garlic daily (good luck, he's not going to like it).

Eating garlic raw is probably the most potent way to take it. However, due to the obvious lingering odors associated with this, a tincture can be made by soaking 1/4 pound of peeled and separated garlic cloves in 1/2 quart of brandy. Seal tightly and shake every day. Strain and bottle after two weeks

There are a variety of various pills, capsules and other garlic preparations available at health food stores. It is important to note that in most cultures where eating garlic has seemed to be beneficial to ones health, it has been raw, untreated garlic that did the trick.

If you like it enough to eat it raw, the odds are good that your health will benefit from it.

Personally, although I don't eat a lot of raw Garlic, I believe that Garlic is a necessary ingredient in just about every dish I make.

It may not make me healthier, but it sure makes the food taste good!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Herb of the Week -- Stevia

The herb of the week is Stevia (stevia rebaudiana).

Technically, Stevia describes about 250 plants closely related to asters and sunflowers, which are mostly native to South America, but Stevia Rebaudiana, also know as Sweetleaf or Sugarleaf, is commonly referred to simply as Stevia, and it is the plant I want to address this week.

This plant was a fluke for us. I had seen something online where I could request a free sample of a non-sugar sweetener. Always looking for new ways to eat sweet without adding ‘junk to the trunk‘, as it were, I sent for some and when they arrived I read about the product. Seems they were a crystal made from a plant called Stevia. So, when I saw Stevia plants at the nursery this spring, I thought, “What the heck, let’s try some”.

A bit of history here, Stevia was banned from the United States for a while, then, when it was allowed, the FDA only allowed it to be sold as a nutritional supplement, or an additive, they didn’t allow it to be called a sweetener. It wasn’t until December of 2008, that they finally allowed it to be sold as a sweetener.

Stevia is 30 to 40 times as sweet as sugar, and it appears, that there is a rapidly growing market for this plant. It is widely used worldwide, in Japan since the 1970’s, in China since the 1980’s, and more recently Canada, and is gaining acceptance in the US as well.

The plant is somewhat unattractive and unassuming , but seems to be very hardy and low maintenance.

There does not seem to be much information available as to the origin of the name, although there is a bit of controversy over the pronunciation. While some people pronounce it Stee-vee-uh and others prefer Steh-vee-uh, it seems the proper latin pronunciation is Stay-vyuh. However, like many words, this one has become Americanized and the most common pronunciation here is Stee-vee-uh.

So, now that we've got that out of the way, let’s talk about growing it.

Organic gardeners in particular should find stevia an ideal addition to their garden. Though nontoxic, stevia plants have been found to have insect-repelling tendencies. Their sweetness seems to be a kind of natural defense mechanism against aphids and other bugs . Perhaps that's why crop-devouring grasshoppers have been reported to bypass stevia under cultivation.

While tolerant of most soil types, Stevia prefers a sandy loam or loam. Any well-drained soil that produces a good crop of vegetables should work fine. Stevia will grow well in partial shade, but will do equally well in full sunlight.

In North America, Stevia survives winters only in the warmest areas such as southern California, Florida, and Mexico. In colder areas, Stevia is planted after the last frost and treated as an annual.

Planting from seeds is difficult and can be discouraging, so I would recommend buying some plants from a nursery. The ambitious gardener may then take cuttings and winter them inside for next year. The less ambitious gardener, or the one with less room than ideas, like myself, may finds it easier, and ultimately more rewarding to simply buy new plants next spring.

Stevia prefers well drained soil, and care should be taken to avoid water puddling or pooling around the roots, as it seems particularly prone to root rot.

Stevia will do well in a container garden, or a pot as long as it is at least 12” deep and 12” in diameter.

Plants should be spaced at least 18” apart, as they can reach up to 30”” tall, and, with the right tricks can bush out and grow 18-24 inches wide. Not knowing those tricks, I have three Stevia plants that are tall and spindly and did not bush out very much at all.

Pinching off the tops of the main stem, and then subsequent stems, will result in a shorter bushier plant. Flowers should be removed as soon as the buds appear. , Because it is a member of the “Aster” family, once flowering has begun, not a single normal leaf will be produced. Removing flower heads will not encourage new leaves.. Failure to harvest plants before several flowers have opened, will allow these flowers to impart a bitter/dirty flavor to the leaves.

Your strategy for harvesting your Stevia plant will depend on the region you live in and whether or not you intend the plant to overwinter. The later in the year you can wait to harvest, the sweeter the leaves will be, as the plant continues to produce steviocides. A full harvest will probably occur in late September or early October.

If you intend to keep your plant over the winter, remove the leaves from the top of the stem down to about 4-6” above the ground. If, like me, you plan to replant, the just cut the entire stalk.

The stem is not nearly as sweet as the leaves, but does have some steviocides in it, feel free to experiment by using it to stir your tea.

The leaves are traditionally dried, and the powdered, in a blender or coffee grinder. The powder can then be used as a sweetener for tea, or other beverages, or in many other recipes.

Not all Stevia plants are created equal, so you will want to experiment with yours, but it has been claimed that one teaspoon of powder can equal the sweetness of one cup of sugar.

Of course, the green flecks can be unattractive if using Stevia to sweeten something like whipped cream, for example, so there are other ways to extract the flavor.

Hot liquid will release the steviocides, so steeping the leaves in hot water or, whirling them in a blender with hot water, and then straining the bits will give you a sweet water.

One article I read, suggested heating a cup of vodka to just below boiling and then adding it to one cup of finely chopped leaves. After letting it stand for 24 hours and straining the leaves out, the resulting liquid can be used, a few drops at a time, to sweeten a variety of beverages, or for many other cooking applications, where precise measurement is not critical.

Of course, Stevia can be picked as needed throughout the growing season, and One fresh stevia leaf is enough to sweeten a cup of tea or coffee or a glass of lemonade. Or you may try adding the leaves to baked beans, barbecue sauce, salad dressings, etc.

Medicinally, Stevia is fairly new to the scene, various studies have found the leaf to contain proteins, fiber, carbohydrates, iron, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin A, Vitamin C and an oil which contains 53 other constituents. Quality Stevia leaves and whole leaf concentrate are nutritious, natural dietary supplements offering numerous health benefits.

It is sold in some South American countries as an aid to people with diabetes and hypoglycemia. Studies have also indicated that Stevia tends to lower elevated blood pressure but does not seem to affect normal blood pressure. It also inhibits the growth and reproduction of some bacteria and other infectious organisms, including the bacteria that cause tooth decay and gum disease. This may help explain why users of Stevia enhanced products report a lower incidence of colds and flu and why it has such exceptional qualities when used as a mouthwash or added to toothpaste. Many people report significant improvement in oral health after adding Stevia concentrate to their toothpaste and using it, diluted in water, as a daily mouthwash.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of Magic, superstition, or folklore surrounding Stevia, perhaps because it is still so new on the local scene, although Brazilian and Paraguayan native cultures have been using it for centuries.

The plant was an experiment for us this year, we have used the leaves to sweeten herbal teas and have been pleased with the results.

I look forward to playing with it more in the future and intend to make it a regular plant in our garden.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Herb of the Week -- Lemon Verbena

The herb of the week is Lemon Verbena

Lemon Verbena (aloysia triphylla) also sometimes called Lemon Bee Brush is a deciduous perennial shrub native to South America where it can reach 10 to 15 foot heights. Here, in cooler climates, it generally is more restrained. It grows well year round in zone 9, in other zones will do well during the warm months, but should be taken inside during the winter.

Not to be confused with the 250 or so different species of beautiful flowering plants in the genus Verbena, Lemon Verbena, a completely different, but related plant, has a somewhat disappointing flower, but makes up for it with an incredible scent.
Although a cousin of Verbena, the flower that share a common name, Lemon Verbena differs in that it produces only 2 seeds per flower, while true Verbena produces 4 seeds per flower.

Once it was discovered that it was not truly a verbena, the plant was given the name Aloysia in the early 1800’s named after Maria Louisa, Princess of Parma, wife of King Carlos V of Spain.. One only has to smell the leaves of the plant to know where the better known name Lemon Verbena came from. The Triphylla part of the name is a nod to the fact that leaves generally grow in clusters of three, although this is not always the case. Many plants will have four, or even five leaves per cluster.

In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s Mother Margaret Mitchell states that Lemon Verbena is her favorite scent.

Not being an avid fan of Gone With The Wind, I have to admit that I had not heard of this plant before, so when we added it to our garden this year, it was a new and exciting mystery for me. I love plants like that. They give me a chance to play, to try new experiences and learn new things.

Lemon Verbena has a long history as a sacred and medicinal plant. Garlands and wreaths of it were commonplace at festive ceremonies as well as its use in teas and drinks for ceremonial occasions and for bridal posies and festive parades. Considered to be a calming and gentle medicine, its history is lost in the mists of time. But every village square and place of worship had lemon verbena planted around it and hedges of it protected graveyards, inns and places of family gathering.

Lemon Verbena is a fast growing plant that Likes full sun, but will tolerate some shade, likes fairly dry soil, and does not require a lot of extra care. If you want tall, spindly, branches, you can just let it go, or if you want to keep it shorter and bushier, pinch off the ends of the stems from time to time, to force new growth. These tender leaves you just pinched off are the best for culinary use, as the larger older leaves tend to be a bit tough.

Leaves can be harvested as needed or as available throughout the year, or stripped from twigs and branches as you prune the plant to fit the space you have available for it. Commercially it is harvested once during full bloom, and once again at the end of the growing season.

The plant will lose it’s leaves in the fall, like most deciduous trees, so, it is not a bad idea to harvest them when you see the first one drop, rather than wait for them to die and dry out and look bad.

The leaves are useful for many things. Where grown commercially, oil extracts are provided for use in cosmetics and toiletries.

Culinary uses for Lemon Verbena seem to be mainly desserts and beverages, although the tender leaves can be used chopped up in salad dressings or in fruit salads, or left whole as a garnish for chilled drinks. You can also use the leaves in cooking fish or poultry or add it to marinades. You will get the lemon taste, but be aware you wont have the acidy “tang” of lemons. Try adding a few leaves to the pot when you cook rice, easily taking them out when the rice is done.

Another very easy way to use the leaves is to steep them in milk, the milk then used as an ingredient for puddings, cake or cookie icings, or homemade ice cream -- for anything calling for milk that would be pleasant with a lemony addition.

6-10 leaves can be buried in a cup of sugar, and left to sit, then use the sugar, like the milk above, in anything that would benefit from a light hint of lemon.

Pastry chefs have been known to put a few leaves on the bottom of a cake pan before they pour the batter in. The heat releases the oils into the cake as it bakes. Just remember to peel off the leaves and throw them away when you take the cake out of the pan.

Try an infusion of Lemon Verbena in Olive Oil, with just a bit of garlic, brushed over skewered chunks of summer squash, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, green peppers, and onions, grilled to perfection as a gourmet addition to any picnic or barbecue this summer.

Or you can make your own “Mrs. Dash” type seasoning, to use on a variety of different foods, I like it on Baked potatoes, steamed vegetables, or cottage cheese.

Herb Seasoning

1/2 cup dried dill weed
1 tbsp. dried lemon verbena
1/2 cup dried minced onion
1 tbsp. dried lovage, or celery seeds
2 tsp. garlic powder
2 tbsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. paprika
1 tbsp. dried marjoram

In batches, grind all ingredients together. Store in an airtight container out of the sunlight and away from heat.

Want some more ideas?

Blend Lemon Verbena with Lavender and Rosemary for a massage oil.

Mix dried leaves with whole cloves and stick cinnamon, for air fresheners, put some in cheesecloth in your vacuum bag to freshen air while you clean, or in the back of your drawers, (it may be uncomfortable to sit down if you misinterpret which drawers I am talking about.)

Tie a bunch of fresh Lemon Verbena sprigs over the hot water tap and make a scented bath. This helps tired muscles relax; aching shoulders release their tension and even the nasal passages are opened by the strong refreshing scent. Lemon verbena has the ability to help break down cellulite, as well as to exert a soothing, healing and toning effect on the skin.

Add 1 cup of boiling water to 15-20 leaves, steep for about an hour, remove the leaves and use the water as a hair rinse, after you have used shampoo and conditioner, leaving your head feeling and smelling fresh and clean.

Medicinally, the best way to use Lemon Verbena is by steeping it to create a tea.
Place four leaves in a cup of boiling water, let it stand for five minutes, stir, strain, add a slice of lemon and a touch of honey and sip slowly to ease tension, anxiety, stress and indigestion and to reduce fever. Its calming, soothing properties seem to ease a feverish cold, relax muscles, ease asthma, colic, flatulence and diarrhea.

Personally, I would add a mint leaf or two, both because I like the way Mint and lemon combine, both the aroma and the taste, and because Mint and Lemon Verbena share many of the same benefits.

A word of caution. Although it is not officially a narcotic, Lemon Verbena tends to be very relaxing when consumed as a tea, so you should be careful when driving or using heavy machinery after drinking it.

Lemon Verbena is reported to have a positive effect on the liver and is recommended by herbalists in tea form for recovering alcoholics.

There seems to be a difference of opinion when it comes to the magical properties of Lemon Verbena.

Hoodoo magic teaches that Lemon Verbena is said to break up old conditions and clear away unwanted things and people. You can make a “Break-Up Packet“ to bring strife to a couple and cause them to divorce. Simply steal a piece of clothing or use a photo from each, (a lock of hair will work as well), place Lemon Verbena between the two items to sour the couple, wrap the items in cloth, and bury the packet under the doorstep where the couple must cross over.

Meanwhile more traditional earth magick holds that Lemon Verbena is bound to the moon and water. It is used in spells associated with healing, health, friendship, love, and success. Historically, it is a symbolic plant used to transmit messages between lovers.
Carry Lemon Verbena in a charm or sachet to find love, or burn it as an incense when doing spells related to success. Drink as a tea to ease emotional pain after the break-up of a relationship or other personal hurt. Soak leaves in wine for several hours, strain, then share the wine with the object of your affection to influence love.

I’m afraid you’re on your own on this one, use it whichever way you want, I cannot guarantee the result….

Strictly as a point of information, and I cannot stress strongly enough that I do not endorse, suggest, or recommend this, many of the South American Native cultures believe that the plant will cure snakebite and is an antidote for poisons, and they carry a packet of the seeds with them, to be chewed if bitten by a poisonous snake or spider, or exposed to poison in any other way.

I think I’ll end with a much better way to use Lemon Verbena, and one I DO endorse and recommend, came to me, courtesy of a UK Organization, known as The Herb Society, where I found the following recipe in one of their articles: (its written in “British” but it looks pretty easy to translate…)

Strawberry Lemon Verbena Dessert

Serves 3- 4

A small handful of lemon verbena leaves
45g (1½oz) Sugar Cubes
340g (12oz) Ripe Strawberries (hulled)
250g (9oz) Mascarpone Cheese
Few springs of tender lemon verbena for decoration.
Method - Put the Lemon Verbena leaves into a mortar or strong bowl, with the sugar cubes. Pound with a pestle or the end of a rolling pin, until the sugar is crushed, and the lemon verbena leaves have disintegrated, colouring the sugar a beautiful green.
Now crush the strawberries with a fork (a food processor is too harsh). Gradually work the crushed strawberries into the mascarpone cheese, with enough of the verbena sugar to sweeten to taste. Spoon into individual dishes or glasses and serve topped with a spring of tender lemon verbena and a strawberry dipped in verbena sugar.

Now, I’m suddenly hungry…….

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Herb Of The Week - Mint

The herb of the week is Mint (mentha).

The name Mentha, comes from the Greek mentha. According to legend Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, had an affair with the nymph Menthe. Hades’ jealous wife Persephone found out about the affair and chased after Menthe and violently trod her into the ground. Hades changed Menthe into the plant we know today as Mint. To help Hades overcome his grief at losing his lover the Mint plant was given a delightful aroma which can be enjoyed anytime the plant is touched or walked upon.

Although Mint comes in over 500 different varieties, we have only 3 varieties growing ourselves: Peppermint (mentha piperitas), Spearmint (mentha spicata), and Apple Mint (mentha suaveoloen).

Mint is very easy to grow and is an ideal herb for a beginner. But there are some things to watch out for.
Mint spreads very quickly, and if not controlled will take over an entire garden. The best way to grow Mint is in a container, but if that isn’t practical for your purposes, there are several ways to keep it under control.

Coffee cans, with both ends cut off. Sections of PVC pipe, at least 8” in diameter and 10” long. Clay drainage pipe sections. Even a mesh bag, like the kind lemons are sold in, or an old t shirt with the neck and sleeves sewn shut. All of these will discourage the spread of Mint.

Mint grows best in partial shade and in moist soil. Planting it in dry sandy soil, or in full sun will also discourage the spread of the plant. Or you can simply dedicate one raised bed to nothing but Mint.

It is important to note I did not say any of these things would PREVENT the spread of your Mint. I am telling you right now. If you plant your Mint in the ground, no matter how hard you try to contain it, it WILL spread. That’s ok. As long as you control the spread, and slow it down, you can pick, cut and dig the shoots and new growth and keep it under control.

Mint spreads in two ways. It sends shoots, or runners, (similar to roots) under the ground. New leaves will grow off these runners. Mint also will tend to fall over as it gets taller, and will send out root systems wherever it touches the ground.

I hope I didn’t scare you off with all that. Mint is very hardy and spreads quickly, but it is also fun to grow and fun to use.

To grow the best Mint, start with transplants. Most good varieties are hybrids and won't grow from seed. The plants grown from seed will not be as hardy either.

Mint can be harvested two or three times during the growing season, with a heavy harvest at the end of the season.
Cut Mint with scissor, to avoid unnecessary damage to the stems. If you cut leaves from the top of the plant it will encourage bushier growth at the bottom, cutting from the bottom of the plant tends to lead to spindly awkward plants.

Mint, like many of the other herbs I have addressed in past weeks, can be used fresh, or frozen or dried.

Use Mint to flavor vegetables—cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, eggplants, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, and zucchini. You can add fresh Mint to cold and hot soups and beverages.

A bit of fresh Mint chopped finely and sprinkled over fresh cut cubes of pineapple makes a unique and refreshing combination.

Medicinally, Mint has a remarkable reputation with indigestion, for calming the nerves, for soothing sleep and recurring sickness. Many herbalists claim it aids virility and can be used against Migraine. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 tablespoonful of chopped fresh leaves and leave to stand for 30 minutes. Take as required a tablespoon at a time.

It is said that Mint in tea form aids upset stomachs, flu, and can be used to ease hiccups. Inhalations of the leaves in boiling water is recommended for head colds and asthma. Mint tea used instead of aspirin is great for headaches, particularly pre menstrual headaches. Nervous headaches can be relieved if you lie in a dark room with fresh peppermint leaves on the forehead. Aids the respiratory and circulatory systems. An anti-inflammatory and an antiseptic. Ideal for treating indigestion, flatulence, varicose veins, headaches, migraines, skin irritations, rheumatism, toothache, and general fatigue.

In Magic, Mint is used in travel spells and the bright green leaves can be used in money and prosperity spells. Fresh Mint laid on the altar will call good spirits.

Spearmint is used in all healing applications, especially in aiding lung diseases. Smelled, spearmint increases and sharpens mental powers. Place it under the pillow for protection while asleep.

Peppermint has long been used in healing and purification spells. Its presence raises the vibrations of an area. Smelled, it compels one toward sleep, and placed beneath the pillow it sometimes offers one glimpses of the future in dreams. It is rubbed against furniture, walls and floorboards to cleanse them of evil and negativity. Many believe that peppermint excites love, and so can be added to this type of mixture.

In Irish Folklore, A bunch of Mint tied around the wrist will ward of infection and disease as well as cure disorders of the stomach.

Mint Recipes:

Minted Carrots

8 to 10 carrots cleaned and cut into slices (cooked until tender)
1/2 stick butter melted
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 TBSP washed finely chopped Mint

When butter is melted add the brown sugar and cook on medium heat approx. 5 minutes.

Add drained carrots to butter/brown sugar. Mix well, coating all of the carrots. Just before serving add in the chopped Mint. Stir well coating all and serve.

Mint Iced Tea
4 cups fresh Mint, chopped
1 gallon water
1 cups honey
1. Gently simmer chopped Mint leaves in a covered pot for 10 minutes. (Note: Covering your pot with a tight-fitting lid prevents evaporation of the volatile, aromatic oils in mint, keeping the flavor more intact)
2. Add honey, stirring until it dissolves.
3. Cover and let steep and cool for several hours or overnight. (This makes a strong, potent tea, maximizing the calcium and other nutrients in the mint.)
4. Chill overnight. Serve in a tall glass with ice. Float a fresh Mint leaf for a garnish for those special occasions.

Personal Note:
A recent experiment I did with Spearmint, Lemon Verbana and Stevia produced a very nice herbal tea. I used about 10 Mint leaves 5 Lemon Verbana leaves and 1 Stevia leaf.

I chopped them all up together, wrapped them in a coffee filter and steeped them in a teacup of boiling water.

You may want to adjust the amounts to your own taste.

Cucumber-Mint Salad
2 large cucumbers
½ cup minced red onion or chives
1 cup plain yogurt
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp vinegar
½ tsp salt
½ tsp coarse-ground black pepper
2 Tbsp fresh Mint leaves, chopped fine
1. Slice the cucumbers in either thin rounds or half-moons.
2. Mix with the minced onions.
3. Blend yogurt, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, and Mint together.
4. Toss dressing with cucumbers and onions and serve immediately.
Make this recipe in small batches. If left to sit overnight it gets watery, so try to make just enough for a meal, and toss the dressing just before serving.

Growing up in a strong religious non-alcoholic family, I had no clue what any alcoholic drinks tasted like, but as a teenager I was an avid fan of Mark Twain, and I often pictured myself sitting on the veranda of a southern mansion, with Mark Twain, dressed in Colonel Sanders suits, and drinking Mint Juleps as we watched boats go up and down the river and talked about politics and life.

I am not sure I would like a Mint Julep, having learned how they are made, they seem a bit strong for my taste, but the image still lingers, so I want to finish with the directions for making a Mint Julep:

First make a Minted Simple Syrup:
In heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, stir together 1 C water and 1 C sugar until sugar dissolves. Increase heat slightly, then simmer 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take pan off heat, add 1 bunch Mint leaves, and steep 15 minutes. Strain, then refrigerate syrup until cold, about 3 hours.

To highball glass or silver Julep cup, add 1 oz. minted simple syrup, then 1 cup crushed ice, 2 oz. bourbon, and splash of water. Add additional crushed ice to almost fill glass. Stir well and garnish with mint sprig.

So that just about sums up Mint. If anyone is looking for me, I'll be out on the veranda with Mr. Twain.....