Herbal Harvest 2014

Every year I dry the herbs found in the herb garden for use during the winter months. You can see the technique used in the Drying Herbs post. I’m still using my American Harvest dehydrator to get the job done. However, since the time I wrote that original post, I’ve found a way to improve the potency of the resulting dried herbs. Each layer now has a solid sheet on the bottom. The solid sheet is supposedly designed for fruit leathers and for drying other liquids. The reduction in air flow means that the drying process takes longer, but it also means that fewer of the oils (and other useful elements) found in the herbs are wafted away by the air flow. As a compromise, you can always use the screens instead. The screens keep small particles from falling through, but they also reduce the air flow that robs your herbs of their flavor. The most important issue when drying herbs is to ensure you check their status often and keep the temperature at 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees C). A higher setting will cause the oils in the herbs to dry out and make your herbs less effective as a result.

I’m also finding that keeping the herbs as whole as possible for storage prolongs their life. You can’t store the herbs very well without crumbling them a little, but keeping the leaves as large as possible appears to help retain the oils. Crumble the leaves or even grind the herb to powder immediately before you use it to maximize the flavor. The less you process the herb, the longer it’ll store.

This year’s herb garden didn’t do well in some areas, but it did exceptionally well in others. The lime, orange, and chocolate mints were all quite potent this year. I tried a few cups of tea to see how they’d brew and I ended up using less than normal. My personal favorite is the lime mint. The chocolate mint is suitable for use in tea, cooking, and jellies—lime and orange mints are characteristically used for tea.

Herb potency varies from year-to-year based on environmental factors, so it’s essential to consider potency as part of using the herbs. I’m thinking about trying to come up with some sort of rating system that I can put right on the package before I store the herb so I have some idea of how much to use later. As a contrast to these three mints, the grapefruit mint hardly tasted like mint at all. Given that it has proven hard to grow, I’m thinking about using the space for another kind of herb.

Sage also had a wonderful year this year. The plants grew fairly large and are robust in flavor. I grew both golden pineapple and common sage. The golden pineapple sage has larger leaves and a stronger taste. It also takes a lot longer to dry than the common sage. In most years, it appears that the common sage actually produces more output, but this year the golden pineapple sage was the winner.

The thyme and rosemary were disappointing this year, but still usable. I actually have three kinds of thyme: lime, lemon, and common (also known as English thyme). Of the three kinds, the lime has the strongest taste when used fresh, but the common works best for cooking. I find that the lemon has a subtle flavor, but can be hard to grow. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any lemon thyme this year, but I did get enough of the other two to make up for it. The only kind of rosemary I can grow is common rosemary. I’m thinking about trying again with some other varieties next year, but the rosemary definitely doesn’t overwinter here in Wisconsin (as contrasted to thyme, which overwinters just fine).

I’ve talked about lovage before (see the Loving that Lovage! post for details). This year I ended up with a whole pint of seeds that I’ll use for canning and for dishes like cole slaw. It was also a decent year for leaves that will end up in soups and other kinds of cooking where a strong celery flavor is desirable.

Weather, soil, and overall care of your herb garden all determine what kind of crop you get each year. Working with herbs can be quite fussy, but also quite rewarding. The quality of herb you get from your own garden will always exceed anything you buy in the store, so the effort is worth it when you want the best results from cooking. Let me know about your herb experiences at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Rhythms of Fall

It’s the beginning of fall here in Wisconsin—my favorite time of the year. Everything is getting that tired look to it and the evening temperatures are beginning to dive a little more often into the 50s and 60s. The leaves are starting to change just a little. Soon I’ll be up in the woods cutting up dead trees for winter. It’s not nearly cool enough for the first fire yet, but that will come too. Soon I’ll have the smell of woodsmoke permeating the house as I enjoy the cool fall evenings in front of my wood stove.

Last week I began picking my grapes and apples. Both have produced abundantly this year. In fact, just one cane produced a little over 40 pounds of grapes. The apples are smaller than normal, but plentiful, weighing the trees down. The pears this year suffered from a lack of activity from helpful insects and an overwhelming quantity of the harmful variety. The point is that it’s a time for picking things and preserving them for the winter. There is a certain feeling that comes over you as you begin to bring things into the house and see the larder shelves swell with all you’ve produced. Most of the fruit will go into juice this year, which means my Victorio Strainer will work overtime.

As part of my fall preparations, I’m starting to dry the herbs that have grown all summer. My herb garden is a little limited this year because the weather just didn’t cooperate as much as it could have. Still, I have plenty of celery (actually lovage) seed to use, along with the dried leaves. The rosemary, two kinds of sage, and two kinds of thyme have all done well (though the rosemary is not quite as robust as I would have liked, it’s quite flavorful). The dehydrator is up and running now, helping me preserve the herbs I need for cooking this winter.

Of course, the herb garden produces more than just herbs for cooking—it also produces a robust number of items for tea. Right now I four kinds of mint growing: lime, lemon, chocolate, and spearmint. The first three are definitely used for drinking teas only because their subtle flavors are lost in other sorts of uses. The spearmint is used for tea, cooking, and mint jelly—that essential add-on for lamb meat. Rebecca actually had eight different kinds of mint growing at one time, but they have gotten mixed together over the years or were hit especially hard by this last winter. The herb garden will need some focused attention this upcoming spring to get it back into shape.

In some respects, the combination of a hard winter, a late spring, and a cool summer conspired to make this year less productive than most. It’s the reason that you really do need a three-year plan for stocking your larder to ensure that you have enough food for those years that are a little less plentiful. Fortunately, my larder has an abundant supply of everything needed to sustain life (and quite a large number of things we made purely for pleasure as well).

There are some fall-specific things that I’ll eventually take care of. You already know about the work part of it, but there is time for pleasure too. For example, I’ll take time for my usual picnic at Wildcat Mountain after the fall color begins to peak. So, how are your fall plans shaping up? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

The Glorious Benefits of Growing Your Own Herbs

You go to the store and pick up a jar of sage or a box of mint tea. In both cases, you’re buying an herb. The only problem is that you have no idea of how fresh that herb is or whether it’s actually pure. For that matter, you have no idea of how that herb was handled or whether it has pesticides applied. In fact, except for what the label tells you, you can’t even be completely sure that you’re getting the right kind of herb. A lot of people will tell you that the main reason to grow your own herbs is to avoid all the problems. They’re correct, of course. Nothing beats fresh herbs for taste, potency, and purity. However, this is only a small part of the story and if you grown your own herbs for just these reasons, you’re missing out on a much bigger picture.

Packaging is part of the problem when you buy an herb at the store. Sage makes a wonderful addition to tea, but the form it takes at the store makes it impossible to use in that manner. Mint makes a wonderful spice for pork, but you won’t be able to easily use it that way unless you’re willing to break a teabag apart to do it. When you grow your own herbs, you know that you’re getting just the best parts and you can prepare them precisely as you need them for whatever purpose you have in mind. The post entitled Drying Herbs tells you everything you need to know to prepare the herbs for use in whatever way you want.

Another problem with herbs you get from the store is cost. Some herbs are horribly expensive, which makes people avoid something that could make them healthier. The herbs provide some health benefits, but the main health benefit is that you can use herbs in place of salt and sugar to make food taste significantly better with fewer side effects. When you grow your own herbs you obtain a product that has higher potency because it’s always going to be fresher and it costs you almost nothing to grow.

The best reason to grown your own herbs are the varieties you can’t get in the store. This year I’m growing common thyme (the product you get in the store), along with both lemon thyme and lime thyme. Neither alternative variety is available in stores, yet each has a unique characteristic taste. The difference is subtle, but noticeable. I personally prefer using lime thyme when baking chicken because it brings out the flavor of chicken better. Of course, unless you grow your own lime thyme, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

An herb with a huge number of varieties is mint. My herb garden currently has the common mints: peppermint and spearmint. In addition, it has chocolate, lime, orange, and even grapefruit mint. There are many other varieties, many of which I probably don’t even know about. Every kind of mint has a unique taste, yet when you go to the store you have to settle for one or two of them. Only when you grow your own mint can you experience the broad range of possibilities that this plan has to offer.

The best part about herbs is that they take little space to grow and many of them are quite forgiving of growing conditions. All you really need is a window and a pot. If your window doesn’t have a shelf, you can always grow the herb in a hanging basket. There are a lot of ways to grow herbs with in your own home, on a patio, or just about any other place you can think of. I actually knew one person who had a pot of herbs in her car. I’m not entirely sure how well that worked, but she always had the pot there and the plant always looked healthy. Let me know your thoughts about growing your own herbs at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Growing Herbs (Part 1)

We have a number of gardens on our property and some of them are quite specialized. For example, Rebecca grows a wide variety of mint. She has the usual spearmint, of course, but she grows a huge number of other mints. My personal favorite is lime mint. It actually a lime flavor underlying the mint taste. I find it refreshing during the winter months. Lime mint shares most of the same characteristics of other mints. It looks like this:

LimeMint

Some of the mints she grows don’t even have mint in the name. Of course, there’s catnip, a form of mint enjoyed mainly by cats. However, there is also lemon balm, another favorite of mine because it has a perky flavor that’s good during the daylight hours (lime mint is more for the evening to relax). You can see by this picture that the two mints look similarthe best way to tell mints apart is to look at the leaf size and shape, and then rub a bit on your fingers and sniff.

LemonBalm

In addition to these mints, we also have orange mint, chocolate mint, and others. Rebecca will wait until these plants grow a bit taller and then take some (but not all) of the stalks inside for drying. She picks the individual leaves off and dries them in a food dehydrator. Another post will discuss this technique. We’re both strong advocates of dehydrating as a way of saving on storing costs and producing fat-free treats.

Lest you think our herb garden is entirely devoted to mint, we grow a wide variety of other plants as well. A favorite for soups is lovage, which has a strong celery taste. It grows as tall stalks with sparse leaves. Near the middle of the season the lovage plant will produce flowers. You can use the seeds as celery seed. Here’s what lovage looks like (we keep it in a tomato cage so it doesn’t blow over).

Lovage

I use a lot of rosemary and thyme in my cooking, so Rebecca grows quite a bit each year. Rosemary has somewhat thick, almost cylindrical leaves and a strong aromatic odor. It does amazing things for chicken, lamb, and pork. Because we eat a lot of chicken, we use a lot of rosemary. Here’s what the young rosemary plant looks like:

Rosemary

By the way, just in case you’re wondering, yes those are nut shells. We don’t waste anything, not even nut shells. They actually make a fine addition to the herb garden soil and keep it loose. Eventually, the nut shells rot down and make nice compost for the herb garden.

Most people don’t realize it, but there are several different kinds of thyme. This year we have lemon, lime, and orange thyme. All three have a thyme taste and small, but with subtle differences. The plants actually look quite different, so it’s somewhat easy to tell them apart. Here’s the lemon thyme:

LemonThyme

Notice that the lemon thyme has bits of yellow on its leaves. The leaves are also a bit rounder than other kinds of thyme. Compare the lemon thyme to the lime thyme shown here:

LimeThyme

The lime thyme leaves are larger, brighter green, and a little elongated when compared to the lemon thyme. These leaves also last the yellow spots on them (making it a less pretty form of thyme in my opinion). Our newest kind of thyme is the orange thyme, which looks sort of like the lime thyme as shown here.

OrangeThyme

However, as you can see, the leaves of the orange thyme are much darker. In addition, the stems have a significant reddish cast to them. All three are thyme, but each has subtle differences that will make a big difference in cooking. We’ll use all three types with meat dishes, just like the rosemary.

I can’t do our herb garden justice in a single post, so expect to see more as the summer progresses. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.