Thursday, March 31, 2011

Herb of the Week - Weeds!

Okay I am a day late, but the good news is I have three for the price of one today. A friend pointed out that Monday was “Weed Appreciation Day.”  Now as herb growers we all acknowledge that herbs are weeds.  As I say in my lectures, "they don’t call it herbicide for nothing!”  My friend Leanne also reminded me of a quote by gardener Doug Larson who says “A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.”

So in celebration of this auspicious day  I thought it would make
                                   this week’s Herb of the Week – WEEDS

Here are a few good tips so you can appreciate “weeds.” The weeds I will focus on are:
  • Dandelion – which I wrote up as the herb of the week just recently (see this post)
  • Burdock
  • Plantain
  • Mullein 

Burdock is any of a group of biennial thistles in the genus Arctium, family Asteraceae. Native to the Old World, several species have been widely introduced worldwide. Plants of this genus have dark green leaves that can grow up to 28" (71 cm) long. They are generally large, coarse and ovate, with the lower ones being heart-shaped. They are woolly underneath Arctium species generally flower from July through to October.  The prickly heads of these plants (burrs) are noted for easily catching on to fur and clothing (being the inspiration for Velcro).

For many years I volunteered at the West Chicago Prairie pulling out, cutting down and removing burdock from a natural prairie where it is not a native plant.  It is so prolific a plant that it could easily swamp the more slow growing native species.  My thought once I learned that it has medicinal and food properties was if it becomes popular as a food, wild harvesters would take care of removing it from prairie lands and wonderful things can happen.  As part of my personal eradication campaign, I believe we should find better uses for burdock, including eating it.

The long taproot (up to 3 feet) of young burdock plants can be harvested and eaten as a root vegetable. While generally out of favor in modern European cuisine, it remains popular in Asia. Burdock root is very crisp and has a sweet, mild, and pungent flavor with a little muddy harshness that can be reduced by soaking julienned or shredded roots in water for five to ten minutes. I have cooked them with and without rice in my rice cooker.  Immature flower stalks may also be harvested in late spring, before flowers appear; their taste resembles that of artichoke, to which the burdock is related.  Julienned or shredded burdock root and carrot, braised with soy sauce, sugar, sake and sesame oil.

In the second half of the 20th century, burdock achieved international recognition for its culinary use due to the increasing popularity of the macrobiotic diet, which advocates its consumption. It contains a fair amount of dietary fiber (GDF, 6g per 100g), calcium, potassium, amino acids, and is low in calories. It contains a polyphenol oxidase, which cause its darkened surface and muddy harshness by forming tannin complexes. Burdock root's harshness harmonizes well with pork in miso soup. In parts of the US (notably western New York), burdock stalks are eaten as a substitute for cardoon. The stalks are peeled, scrubbed, boiled in salt water, and fried in an egg and breadcrumb batter.

Folk herbalists consider dried burdock to be a diuretic, sweat inducer for fever control and treatment of shock, and a blood purifying agent. Burdock is a traditional medicinal herb that is used for many ailments. Burdock root oil extract, also called Bur oil, is popular in Europe as a scalp treatment applied to improve hair strength, shine and body, help reverse scalp conditions such as dandruff, and combat hair loss. Burdock leaves are used by some burn care workers for pain management and to speed healing time in natural burn treatment. Burn care workers hold that it eases dressing changes and appears to impede bacterial growth on the wound site and that it also provides a great moisture barrier.


When we talk about plantain, normally the image of a banana plantation conjures up in our mind. But the common plantain is a small wild plant with leaves that grow mostly from the plant's bottom. The Plantain belongs to the natural order Plantaginaceae, which contains more than 200 species, twenty-five or thirty of which have been reported as in domestic use. The Common Broad-leaved Plantain is a very familiar perennial 'weed,' and may be found anywhere by roadsides and in meadow-land. It grows from a very short rhizome, which bears a great number of long, straight, yellowish roots, and a large, radial rosette of leaves and a few long, slender, densely-flowered spikes. The leaves are ovate, blunt, abruptly contracted at the base into a long, broad, channeled footstalk . The blade is 4 to 10 inches long and about two-thirds as broad, usually smooth, thickish, five to eleven ribbed, the ribs having a strongly fibrous structure, the margin entire, or coarsely and unevenly toothed. The flower-spikes, erect, on long stalks, are as long as the leaves, 1/4 to 1/3 inch thick and usually blunt. The flowers are somewhat purplish-green, the calyx four parted, the small corolla bell-shaped and four-lobed, the stamens four, with purple anthers. The fruit is a two-celled capsule containing four to sixteen seeds.

Plantago major
(you know you've see this at the playground)
Plantain has been used internally for inflammation of the skin, malignant ulcers, intermittent fever, etc., and externally as a stimulant application to sores. Applied to a bleeding surface, the leaves are of some value in arresting hemorrhage. The fresh leaves are applied whole or bruised in the form of a poultice. Rubbed on parts of the body stung by insects, nettles, etc., or as an application to burns and scalds, the leaves will afford relief and will stay the bleeding of minor wounds.

The common plantain has multiple medicinal uses and is highly valued by most herbal practitioners. In case on any injury, the herb is able to instantly check the flow of blood and also restore the smashed tissues. According to many herbal practitioners, the common plantain may be used as a substitute of comfrey to effectively treat bruises and broken bones. Ointments or lotions prepared with the common plantain leaves may be used to cure hemorrhoids, fistulae or anomalous channels in the skin as well as ulcers. When used internally, the herb acts as a diuretic increasing the outflow of urine, expectorant (a medication to treat coughs) as well as decongestant (a medicine that clears blocked nose). Herbal practitioners recommend the common plantain to treat conditions such as gastritis, peptic ulcers, diarrhea, dysentery, irritable bowel syndrome, congestion of the respiratory tract, loss of voice as well as bleeding in the urinary tract.

3 cups (180 g) fresh plantain leaves
1 cups (250 ml) pure liquid honey
1 opaque glass bottle

Crush the leaves in a food processor, drain and squeeze in cheesecloth. Combine 1 cup (250 ml) of the green juice with the honey and simmer for 10 minutes at low heat, stirring regularly. Let cool and pour into the opaque bottle.

Take this nectar 1 spoonful at a time like syrup to treat a cough; also use it to treat a sore throat, anemia, fatigue and eczema: 1 T (15 ml), 3 times daily.


The Mulleins also known as velvet plants are a genus of about 250 species of flowering plants in the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae.) They are native to Europe and Asia, with the highest species diversity in the Mediterranean region.  They are biennial or perennial plants, rarely annuals or sub shrubs, growing to 0.5–3 m tall. The plants first form a dense rosette of leaves at ground level, subsequently sending up a tall flowering stem. Biennial plants will form the rosette the first year, and during the following season is when the stem emerges. The leaves are spirally arranged, often densely hairy, though glabrous (hairless) in some species. The flowers have five symmetrical petals; petal colors in different species include yellow (most common), orange, red-brown, purple, blue or white. The fruit is a capsule containing numerous minute seeds. It gows in edge regions , on hedge-banks, by roadsides and on waste ground, more especially on gravel, sand or chalk. It flowers during July and August.

The plant has a long history of use as a medicine, and is an effective treatment for asthma and respiratory disorders. Extracts made from the plant's flowers are a very effective treatment for ear infections. Although this plant is a recent arrival to North America, Native Americans used the ground seeds of this plant as a paralytic fish poison due to their high levels of rotenone. One species, Verbascum thapsus (Great mullein), is used as an herbal remedy for sore throat, cough, and lung diseases. The leaves and flowers are the parts used medicinally. Fresh Mullein leaves are also used for the purpose of making a homoeopathic tincture.

Mullein is also the active ingredient in many alternative smoking blends.  It’s most unique use is as rod for use in the hand drill method of friction fire lighting.

Disclaimers – although these weeds have many medicinal properties, I do not recommend self medicating with them without experience or proper advice.  If you are interested in these plants, may I recommend some additional reading in:
  • Homegrown Herbs by Tammi Hartung  (2011)
  • The Natural Remedy Bible by Michael Tierra (2003)
  • The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants by Andrew Chavallier

Friday, March 25, 2011

Waffles of the World, unite! Today is International Waffle Day!

My husband is the breakfast champ.  I spent too many years working early morning waitress shift at a truck stop during high school to find any enjoyment making breakfast, but my husband lives to make it and the day does not really start without it (especially for him).  Chas has been ill this week and oatmeal and cereal for breakfast has been the height of my creativity.   However when he is well my husband makes great waffles.

This is his Belgian Waffle recipe:

Chas’ Belgian Waffles
Yield 5to 7

  • 1 ¾ cups cake flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbls. sugar
  • 3 eggs (yolks separated from whites)
  • 2 Tbls. melted butter or oil
  • 1 ½ cups milk
  • ½ to ¾ cup beer  (or add ¼ to ½ cup dry malt to milk adding more milk for volume)

  1. Blend dry ingredients in a bowl
  2. Beat egg yolks and add in oil, milk then beer.
  3. Make a hole in the dry ingredients and pour liquid in.  Combine in a few swift strokes.  Batter will be pebbled, like a muffin batter.
  4. Beat egg whites until stiff, fold into batter until just blended.
  5. Pour onto heated and oiled (or buttered) waffle iron, cook for 2 to 4 minutes depending on iron.

While looking through recipes trying to convince myself that I could make a more detailed breakfast, I did find these two savory waffle recipes that you can use for dinner rather than breakfast.  They have herbs and cheese and make a great base for serving a casserole or stew over.  I have not decided which one I like more, but well--- bacon!  Either way I like the idea of a waffle instead of potatoes or noodles as a base for a change of pace.  They smell good when they bake too!

Savory Waffles
Yields 6

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded smoked Gouda cheese
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 2/3 cup light sour cream
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil

  1. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, garlic salt, parsley, rosemary and tarragon. Stir in the shredded Gouda. Set aside.
  2. In another bowl, mix together the egg yolks, buttermilk, sour cream and vegetable oil until well blended. Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mixture, and stir until just blended. In a separate clean bowl, whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold into the waffle batter.
  3. Heat the waffle iron, and grease with vegetable oil spray. Use the recommended amount of batter for each waffle according to your iron. Close the lid, and cook until golden brown. Waffles can be held in a warm oven while the others are cooking. Serve with creamed beef or chicken.

Savory Bacon Waffles
Original Recipe Yield 8 waffles

  • 8 slices bacon
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 tablespoons dried parsley
  • 1 tablespoon dried rosemary
  • 2 tablespoons dried sweet basil
  • 1 tablespoon white sugar
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/3 cups milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon minced onion

  1. Place the bacon in a large, deep skillet and cook over medium-high heat until evenly browned, about 5 minutes per side. Drain the bacon slices on a paper towel-lined plate. Crumble once cooled.
  2. Preheat an oven to 200 degrees F (95 degrees C) to keep the finished waffles warm. Preheat a waffle iron and coat lightly with cooking spray.
  3. Combine the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, Parmesan cheese, parsley, rosemary, basil, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Whisk the milk, eggs, butter, and Dijon mustard together in a small bowl. Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and stir until just combined.
  4. Pour about 1/3 cup batter into each square of the preheated waffle iron; cook until golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Keep prepared waffles in the preheated oven until all are cooked.
  5. Stir the sour cream, sugar, and onion together in a small bowl. Drizzle the onion sauce evenly over the warm waffles. Sprinkle crumbled bacon over the waffles to serve.
 Enjoy these recipes on your Waffle Day!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review - Homegrown Herbs by Tammi Hartung

I have been searching (since I first started working with herbs) for an easy to read, simple to carry book that goes over the ways to grow, harvest, care for and use herbs.  That is a pretty tall order and short of tomes too heavy to carry without a footman, I have been disappointed until now.

What I found was a single book that tells me grow it like this, use it like this and by the way it is good for you like this, that is also small enough to carry into my garden as well as recommend it to others, especially those just starting out growing herbs.  Homegrown Herbs by Tammi Hartung is that book.

Who would have guessed that a book with such a normal sounding title would be filled with so much information?  This book can be read by beginners as well as experienced gardeners.  It is lavishly filled with color pictures and wonderfully written prose that gives you a feel for how, where and why Tammi Hartung gardens with herbs.  Everything from starting plants, to maintenance, to harvesting and preserving herbs is given in detail and the recipes for food and other products as well as step by step instructions for making tea, tinctures and salves are all top notch.  The book even has details of over 100 herbs some of which I have never even heard of before (which I did not think possible!)

But the thing that impressed me the most about this book was that never before have I found a book covering the medicinal and health uses for herbs also be a perfect guide to the art of growing and using them too.  My search is over!  The book is about 9 x 12 inches, paperback and only about 3/4 to 5/8 of an inch thick, yet the wealth of information in contains I have not found in books twice its size.  And it is so readable.  I got a copy on Monday and I have been enjoying just reading it ever since.  I know it is a reprint/rewrite of an older book, but somehow it is different, but since I did not buy the other one I cannot compare the two.

Of special note are the charts she has scattered through the text.  They talk about how to grow the herbs, how and when to harvest and a multitude of other pieces of information gathered together in usable lists that I know I will be copying and pasting into my garden journal.

Tonight I expect to go back through the text and gather information to use here and in my lectures as this book is filled with little tidbits to share.

If I have intrigued about this book by Tammi Hartung, Herb Companion Magazine is having a sale on books this week and they have 25% off the cover price of this book included in their sale.  Here is the link to the order form:  Homegrown Herbs

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Soapwort - Herb of the Week

Just in time for Spring Cleaning --
I thought I would detail Soapwort as Herb of the Week.
Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), also known as Bouncing Bet and Wild Sweet William, is a lovely plant that makes a great border in any ornamental or herb garden.  The narrow, bright green, oval leaves grow to 4 inches long.  It bears pale pink flowers in clusters form mid-summer to fall.  The plant can get between 12 and 36 inches tall with a spread of 24 inches.  Cultivars including ‘Dazzler’ have creamy splotches on the leaves and ‘Rura Plena’ with double, deep pink flowers are also available.
The stems and roots of this plant contain high concentrations of Saponins which when extracted works just as commercial soap does.  This is where the name comes from.  Historically it was what early settlers used prior to the production of commercial soap in the 1800s.  It is still popular to use for washing in the Middle East.  Museums use it to clean tapestries, wood furniture and pictures.  You can us it to wash delicate items too!
The use of Soapwort goes back perhaps as early as the 8th century B.C.  The name comes from the fact roots produce a foamy lather when mixed with water.   Historically it was used for washing woolens and for washing sheep when shearing.  In Medieval times fullers used it to finish or size cloth.  It was once used to treat a number of ailments from rheumatism to syphilis, but is no longer recommended as large quantities are capable of destroying red blood cells if taken internally.
To Grow
Hardy in zones 2 to 8 the plant is a perennial that prefers full sun, but will tolerate part shade.  It likes a neutral to alkaline loamy soil that is well drained and a bit moist.  It can be propagates by softwood cutting, division and seed.  Always set seed or started plants after the soil has warmed and threat of frost has passed.  Avoid planting by ponds as saponins are poisonous to fish.
To Use
The leafy stem should be harvested in summer throughout the growing season.  Wait until late fall to harvest the rhizomes or roots.  All can be dried for later use.  Soapwort is generally upsetting to the digestive system and should not be taken internally.  Although the Saponins make it less than tasty, as a soap substitute it is wonderful.  You can use it to make shampoos, laundry soaps and other cleaning products.  You generally add a scent to these products because soapwort on its own does not smell that great.

Soapwort Washing Solution
½ oz. dried crushed soapwort root (1 oz. fresh root)
    Or 2 large handfuls of roughly chopped fresh stems
1 ½ pints of water (3 cups)
A bit of rose or lavender water or Eau de Cologne (to cover the smell of soapwort)

Soak the soapwort in water overnight.  Bring water and soapwort to a boil in an enamel pot and simmer 20 minutes.  Allow to cool and strain.  Will keep for a week in an airtight container.  Can also be used as a rinse to relieve itchy skin.
Use this to wash your hair (just remember to keep it out of eyes), your clothing or even your pet. Rinse with clear water.
Soapwort & Herb Shampoo
This is a very fragrant and stimulating for your scalp. It prevents dandruff and promotes hair growth.
1 cup soapwort
1 cup Nettle
1 cup Spearmint
1 cup Rosemary
and for a rich chestnut appearance cloves
about 4 cups water, distilled


Place soapwort in a glass or enameled pan pour over it 1-1 1/2 cups water. Bring this to a boil and lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Cover it and let it steep until cool strain it into a bottle that closes tightly.  Take the three other herbs and cloves and place them in a glass or enamel pan and pour 2 cups of water over them.  Simmer them after bringing to a boil the same way.  Let them steep for at least 2 hours, then strain.  The liquid left will be very dark brown. Mix this with the soapwort mixture at a 1:1 combination.

When you add the nettle, rosemary, spearmint and cloves let it infuse for at least 60 minutes but overnight is better. In the morning you can add a couple drops of your favorite Essential Oil to add fragrance. Pour into bottles.  Shake well before using.  This won't give you a head full of suds as commercial ones will but the cleansing is undeniable.

This blend is essentially for brunettes.  If you have lighter hair, substitute chamomile for the rosemary and lemon or lemongrass for the cloves.  If you want deeper conditioning you can add fennel to it as well.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Happy Spring! Let's talk Fragrance

This morning my favorite weather man Paul Conrad was on Michigan Avenue celebrating the first day of Spring.  He was wearing a lamb suit and later he wore a couple others.  It was an amusing way to start a Monday!  He also mentioned that it was National Fragrance Day. 
Fragrance perfume
Over the weekend, I discovered this great recipe for making your own Rose perfume, so to celebrate Spring here is a rose fragrance recipe to try:
Rose Petal Perfume
3 oz. vodka
1 Tbls. Rosewater
1 cup scented rose petals
2 vanilla pods
10 drops oil of roses
10 drops petrigrain oil
5 drops ylang-ylang

Measure out the vodka and the scented rose petals or pull the petals off the rose heads if the are whole flower heads.
Lightly crush the vanilla pods amend steep them with the rose petals in the vodka.  Cover and leave for a week
Strain the vodka and add the rosewater.  Stir very well.
Add the drops of essential oil stirring constantly.  Bottle and leave to mature for four weeks.  Strain again through filter paper and finally bottle for use.
Fragrance Gardens
My love of herbs is only enhanced by their magical scents.  I love to touch and shape and even rub the leaves between my fingers to release the smells into the air.  As a result I have planted scented geraniums in terra cotta pots and placed them near the entrance to my home.  You would brush them as you entered releasing the scent and bringing it into the house with you.  Keeping in mind my penchant for theme gardens, I pulled together this list of plants for a fragrance container you can put on your patio for scent and beauty. 
  • Annuals and Tender Perennials
    • Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
    • Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)
    • Pineapple Sage
    • Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans)
    • Scented geraniums (Pelegoniums)
    • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
·         Perennials
    • Lemon or Lavender Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
    • Violet (Viola odorata)
    • Chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus).
·         Scented varieties of both
o    lemon verbena
o    rose-scented geranium,
o    English lavender (L. angustifolia)
o    French lavender (L. dentata),
o     peppermint (Mentha piperita)
o    basil (Ocimum basilicum)
o    Sage (Salvia officinalis)
o    fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
o    chamomile
Fragrance in Bloom the Scented Garden throughout the Year by Anne Lovejoy
The Little Book of Scented Geraniums by Adelma Simmons
The Aromatherapy Garden by Julia Lawless

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tidbits from Phyllis Shaudys on using herbs

Recently I was cleaning off my desk and found I had pulled out my copy of Phyllis Shaudys' The Pleasure of Herbs: A Month-by-Month Guide to Growing, Using and Enjoying Herbs (Storey Communications, 1986).  This was the first book I had on herbs when I started growing and using them.  It was recommended by my friend Elizabeth and I still refer to it on a regular basis.  I now have two copies, this one, and a hardback reprint from Barnes and Noble from 1997.  That means that I can truly use this as a resource and carry it out to the garden, haul it around to lectures and bring it with me to farmer’s market and other shows I do.  It is beginning to look well loved as you can see.

Phyl (as she called herself) recommended actively marking your herb books so you could easily find things you wanted again in future.  However, she suggested you mark the books with a marker or a highlighter.  I cannot do that!  It is probably the historian in me, or maybe the museum curator I was for more than 20 years, but marking a book in any permanent way is beyond my sensibilities.  Instead I fill them with slips of paper marking the pages.  Occasionally I also write in them in pencil. 

The great off shoot of marking a page this way is the rediscovery of what I was thinking when I marked it the first time.  Was it the recipe, the clever wording, or the gardening suggestion which can all be found on the same page?  I realize quickly that this method gives me a fun way to reinvestigate my books.  I open to a marked page and try to remember what I was thinking on the day I slipped in the marker.  In the process I usually find something I overlooked the first time or some tidbit I am now curious about which I may not have been at the time.

I am willing to admit that perhaps there are too many slips in some books, and in a desire to remove some from Phyl’s book I started going from marker to marker so that I could collect the ideas in my computer or in a notebook and take the slips out to save the binding.  I spent several hours on a cloudy rainy March Saturday doing just that, but I am not sure I saved the book much wear and tear.  The top photo is the slips when I started; at the bottom is when I finished.  Oh well!  A well-written herb book is full of discoveries!

Here are a few things I discovered (or rediscovered as the case may be) as I went through Phyl’s book looking at my previously placed book marks.

  1. If you love silver, have you though of a Silver Garden?  Plant gray santolina, dittany of Crete, eucalyptus, horehound, lamb’s ear, lavender, mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and other artemisias like Silver King, Silver Queen, Silver mound and wormwood.  Come fall you can weave these silver plants into amazing seasonal wreaths.

Quick Caraway Cheese Bread
4 cups flour
½ cup sugar
2 Tbls. baking powder
2 tsp. salt
2 eggs, slightly beaten
½ cup vegetable oil
2 cups grated Cheddar Cheese
2/3 cup crumbled bacon
2 tsp. caraway seeds

Grease bottom and sides of two of a 9x5x3” loaf pans.  Place all ingredients, except bacon, cheese and caraway in a large mixing bowl.  Beat on medium speed ½ minutes scraping sides and bottom constantly.  Stir in remaining ingredients, divide batter into prepared pans.  Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes.  Cool in pans for 10 minutes, remove from pans and cool thoroughly.  Makes two loaves and freezes well.

  • 2.   Closet bouquets of moth repellant herbs make interesting and timely gifts for the coming season.  Dried branches of rue, tansy, wormwood, southernwood, mint, lavender, rosemary, pennyroyal and thyme can be used alone or in any combination.  Best if wrapped lightly in cheesecloth (so dried leaves don’t mess up the closet floor) and tied with colorful loops of ribbon for hanging.

  • 3.   The enjoyment of lavender and roses extends far beyond their beauty and fragrance in the gardens; as fresh arrangements in potpourri and for years to come in sweet sachets, bags and pillows.

  • 4.   Treat yourself and others to fresh or dried “Mixed Cooking Herbs” equal parts of thyme, savory, and parsley with smaller amounts of marjoram and / or lemon thyme.  This can be used for everything!  Try it instead of salt on meats, fish, vegetables, eggs.  Add chives or onions or lemon juice or peel if desired.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Irish Soda Bread on St. Patrick's Day!

I knew I had to post something for St. Patrick’s Day or my grandmother Gillespie would rise up and swat me, so instead of the traditional Corned Beef and Cabbage, I thought a soda bread recipe would be great.  And I found one with herbs in it.  This uses caraway seeds to give bite and crunch which mixes well with the sweet and smushy raisins.  I make mine in a loaf pan because our oven makes round loaves dry.

Irish Soda Loaf (adapted from Cooking Light)

3 3/4 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 pound cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 2/3 cups raisins
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup buttermilk
1. Heat the oven to 400°. Butter a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Cut or rub in the butter until the mixture is the texture of fine meal. Stir in the raisins and caraway seeds.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk two of the eggs to combine. Whisk in the buttermilk. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Put the dough on a floured work surface, pat into a loaf, and put into the prepared pan. Beat the final egg to mix and brush the top of the loaf with it. Using a sharp knife, cut a 1/4-inch-deep lengthwise slash down the middle of the loaf leaving a 1-inch margin at either end.
3. Bake the soda bread in the middle of the oven until well browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes. Turn the loaf out onto a rack and let cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Have a Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rue - Herb of the Week

Ever heard of a March hare?  It is especially unlucky to meet a hare when setting out on a journey. Hares acting oddly might be shape-shifters or "were-hares." These dangerous hares can only be dispatched by a silver bullet, or a bullet dipped in rue or rowan tea.

So I chose Rue as Herb of the week

The word “rue” means “to regret,” and the herb of the same name is associated with regret, sadness and bitterness in biblical writings and literature. Rue (Ruta graveolens) is a bitter herb native to the Mediterranean and Southern Europe. The genus and common names come from the Greek word "reuo" meaning to set free.  Historically it was known for breaking the spell of witches.

It has several religious uses including being used to sprinke holy water which gives it the name "herb of Grace" in some circles.

A member of the Rutaceae or citrus family, it is an evergreen perennial with bluish-green leaves that grow in groups of six or seven off the semi-woody branches. The mature plant reaches about 2 1/2 feet tall. The leaves smell bitter and medicinal when cut or crushed. Rue produces many small four-pedaled flowers in mid- to late-summer. The foliage has an almost lacy look to it, although the leaf sections are not thin and pointy but rounded.

Rue is a dangerous herb that can cause powerful cramps, hallucinations and twitching.  Even a small amount of contact will cause photo toxicity (an ultra sensitivity to the sun) leading to severe burns and blisters.  

To Grow

Rue is easy to grow. The tiny seeds, if strewn onto a garden plot or a container of potting soil and covered with a light sprinkling of soil and moistened, will sprout in a week or so. Tiny light green seedlings look delicate, but are sturdy and will grow quickly into a foot-tall plant. Pinching the tops will make them grow bushier. Rue will grow well outdoors in poor or rich soil, with little attention. Inside as a houseplant, rue needs regular watering and bright light to grow well. 

They have an attractive and showy flower that contracts well with blue or purple flowers on surrounding plants.  From late spring to fall  rue bears clusters of bright yellow 5-petal 1/2 diameter flowers with a dimpled green center.  It dies not have an attractive smell, however.  The flowers will turn into hard green seed-heads that dry into brown husks and open to reveal and drop many tiny black seeds.

There is a myth that Rue will thrive if you steal it from a neighbor.  If you decide to grow it by division, you will need to wear gloves, as many people have a reaction to the herbs essential oils. I stole my original seed from the Morton Arboretum one fall and mine is doing very well!

To Use

Rue is considered poisonous and should be used at your own risk.  The volatile oils in the plant leaves can cause various reactions in different individuals, so although it has some historic uses which I mention below, I am not sure you should try any of them at home.

Historically it was believed to restore eye sight and sprigs were soaked in water or made into a tea then used as eye drops, as rue water refreshes red, dry eyes and irritated eyes. It was used in ancient times as an antidote for poisons and for protection from evil. In Italy, it was used to make the alcoholic drink grappa all ruta. It can be simmered in coffee as they do in Ethiopia to add a lemony flavor. Small snippets of fresh rue can be added to meat and egg dishes during cooking. Dried rue repels insects such as fleas and lice and is good to tuck into pet bedding.

This herb provides a sharp, spicy, and mildly bitter flavor and is used in some sausage meats served in the Middle East, such as merguez. In times past, Rue was believed to have many medicinal qualities due to the alkaloids, flavonoids and the volatile oil it contained. However, medical experts now believe that there are too many risks in the use of this herb and thus urge caution when consuming it, especially in large quantities. It is considered to be a poisonous plant.

This post was updated in Janaury 2017 with new photos and information.
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