Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas Herbs

I did a pair of posts last month on Holiday Spices, and this is in a similar vein but with more herbs and a few more traditions.  I have also included a recipe or two to go with some of the items.

Herbs play a rich and varied historical role at Christmas time and many favorite traditions surround these wonderful plants and their uses. Here are some traditional Christmas herbs to enliven your festivities with a few out of the ordinary recipes to try them:

  • Clove: The lovely rich spicy fragrance of cloves is very much part of Christmas and was traditionally used this time of year to provide lovely aromas in the warm rooms of the home. Clove studded oranges, pomanders, are a very traditional Christmas craft.

Spiced Door Sachets

A broken vanilla bean
2 whole nutmeg crushed
10 whole cloves
4 cinnamon sticks, broken

Cut a 6″ diameter circle out of cotton fabric. Place the spices in the center of the
fabric. Gather the fabric up to enclose the spices and tie with one end of a
7 inch long gold ribbon. Tie the other end of the ribbon to a doorknob. Whenever
the door is opened or closed, scent will be released into the room.

  • Lavender: It is said that Mary draped Jesus’ robes and blankets on lavender bushes to capture the scent. This herb is also credited with changing Mary’s robes to blue from the flowers. Lavender is a very important and familiar fragrance, which also can help treat insomnia.

Lavender Dryer Bags
5” x 5” cotton muslin or cheesecloth squares (2)
Sew large "tea bags" out of the muslin or cheesecloth squares, leaving an opening at the top to fill with lavender. Sew the top shut. No need to sew fancy, just place the squares together and sew a single seam along the top about ¼ inch from the edge.  Roughly squeeze the bags before tossing in the dryer with wet laundry. When laundry is done the scent is light, not overwhelming at all.  Especially nice to use on loads of bedding (sweet, fragrant dreams).  Bags are reusable! When the lavender is no longer doing its job, take a seam ripper and open about 2 inches on one end, empty the bag, refill and sew shut. For one last kick at the can, crush the used lavender and toss it around your carpet. Let sit for about an hour then vacuum.  Tip: Make more than one dryer bag so that the same bag isn't in one load after another, alternate them so each bag has a chance to cool down before being used again.
  • Mistletoe: This herb has played a role in Christmas celebrations for centuries and many people have fond memories of being kissed under this herbal sprig. It is interesting to note that this herb was a symbol of love before Christ or Christmas. The berries on the mistletoe sprig are supposed to be removed as each kiss is taken; however, since these berries are poisonous this probably is a tradition best left in the past!
  • Rosemary: Traditional legends say that anyone catching the scent of rosemary on Christmas Eve will have happiness and good fortune. This herb can also make a charming tiny Christmas tree trimmed with decorations or just a pretty festive bow. This herb was scattered on the floors of homes in medieval times so that the pungent pine like scent rose as people walked across the room.  I enjoy cooking with it for holiday dinners.

Rosemary for Remembrance

Make a rosemary essential oil inhaler. Inhalers are small containers about the size of a tube of lip balm for carrying a scent. To use one, take it apart, add a few drops of rosemary essential oil to either a cotton ball or cotton rod, and screw the whole thing back together. Some containers are made of metal and come in a rainbow of color choices, or you can purchase a more simple plastic model.   Rosemary for improved memory.  You can also use lavender essential oil for relaxation or peppermint to ward off depression.
  • Costmary: Costmary exudes a wonderful balsam scent and is called Bible leaf.   The large leaves were often pressed into bibles to use not only as a page marker, but the scent was believed to help you stay awake. The legend is that Mary created a healing ointment from costmary for various ailments.
  • Rue: This herb is considered to be an herb of grace and The Roman Catholic Church used brushes fashioned from rue to sprinkle holy water during mass. Grace is a very important part of Christmas and rue is still used in several countries to make Christmas crowns for celebrations. Crushed rue seed can be added to soups, salads and sauces for seasoning and flavoring. Dried rue repels insects such as fleas and lice and is good to tuck into pet bedding.
  • Peppermint: Peppermint is a popular flavor and taste for the holiday.  In candy, teas and decorations this flavor can not only freshen the breath, release stress and settle the stomach it is good for treating depression.

Peppermint Bark
  block of white chocolate
  peppermints or candy canes

Microwave white chocolate about 2 minutes. Stir so it won't stick or burn. Stir in peppermints or candy canes you have finely crushed. Pour in a cookie sheet, lined with wax paper. When set, break into pieces.

  • Ginger: It simply would not be Christmas without gingerbread cookies, and gorgeous gingerbread houses. This spicy flavor warms us and can be wonderful for treating digestive issues.

Basic Ginger Bread
1 cup maple syrup
1 cup sour cream
1 egg, slightly beaten
2½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
6 tablespoons butter, melted
Sweetened whipped cream for topping

Blend maple syrup, sour cream and beaten egg with a whisk or spoon. Sift dry ingredients together and stir into liquid mixture, beating well. Add melted butter and mix thoroughly. Grease and flour a loaf pan (9x5x3-inches) and bake at 350º for 35-45 minutes (junior loaves, 7 3/8x3 5/8x2¼, 35-40 minutes; mini loaves, 4½x2½x1½, 25-30 minutes) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm, topped with sweetened whipped cream. Makes 8 servings (one large loaf, two junior loaves, 6 minis).

  • Bay Laurel: A bay tree makes a lovely decorative mini Christmas tree and is easily planted in the spring to provide bay leaves for soups and stews. This herb can also be used for pretty wreathes and table arrangements as well.

This last recipe uses several of the herbs listed above, including Bay!

Herbal Tub Tea
The ultimate tea is one in which you soak your entire body.  I make and market four different tub teas/bath bags, but I have crafted many more.  They are a great way to enjoy the healthful benefits of your garden and really are simple to make.  You can use a muslin bag or a tea ball.  And if you are feeling gifty you can package them cutely in a tea cup or mug.

Making tub tea really depends on what benefits you want to access.  Use a combination of several herbs to give the widest benefit.  You can mix and match and try what works for you!

Stimulating - Rosemary, lavender, peppermint, lemon balm
Relaxing - lavender, chamomile, elderflower
Refreshing - lemon balm, basil, spearmint, oolong tea
Invigorating – raspberry leaves, bay leaves, mugwort
Cleansing – sage, thyme, lemon verbena, green tea

Once you have crafted your combination of herbs, shoot for a total volume of about ¼ to ½ cup, place them in a cotton bag, coffee filter, or square of fabric.  This giant tea bag can be placed in the bath where the warm water will cascade over it as you fill the tub, or you can make a stronger more healing infusion by boiling the tea bag for 15 minutes in a small sauce pan with about 1 cup of water, then pouring the resulting tea into the filled tub.

If you enjoy these recipes, please check in on our daily Advent Calendar for more holiday theme herbal recipes.

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