Category: Herbs

Back to the Blogging Front

April 23rd, 2013 — 4:28pm
Pickled Peppers

Pickled Peppers

The silence on the blogging front does not mean that nothing meaningful has been going on at the Busy Gourmand.  The hiatus was a means of going back to basics and included a period of experimentation in the garden and in the kitchen.  There have been plenty of new recipes developed.  We have figured out better ways to get more out of the garden. And we have even been able to figure out improvements in the ways to use herbs and spices along with producing our own spices.

Preserved Meyer Lemons

Preserved Meyer Lemons

The new recipes will dribble out slowly as we are sure they have been perfected.  And the gardening tips and techniques will be shared so you too can have the freshest of herbs and spices in your kitchen.  As with life the journey from idea to recipe is often more interesting than the outcome.  We will include more narrative so you can figure out what the heck has been going on here in North Texas.

Deep Dish Pizza

Deep Dish Pizza

The recipes will be as diverse as deep dish pizza and a kind of hummus-like spread.  The new techniques will include smoking meats and peppers as well as the best way to use dried oregano (warning it can be a bit messy). I do not want to spoil all the fun on the front page of the blog.  If you want a syllabus of what is to come you can find out more at the link here.  In the mean time it is great to be back at the keyboard.  I hope our time away will prove fruitful for your cooking ideas as well.

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Layered Lyonnaise

June 18th, 2012 — 6:49am
lyonnaise potatoes

Lyonnaise Potatoes

My sister called the other day. Her complaint; she had too much basil from the garden and no idea what to do with it. I would have suggested pesto, but it is not one of her favorites. Instead I suggested pureeing the basil like pesto and making ice cubes with it for use when fresh basil is not available. Problem solved.

Then I realized that I had my own basil problem. Not only did we plant two new basil plants, but four basil plants sprouted in the garden from seeds dropped by last year’s crop. I use basil in just about everything savory just to use the leaves up as fast as possible. And it sometimes ends up in unusual places with some very nice consequences. Last night I prepared Lyonnaise potatoes layered with basil. Usually I would opt for some thyme with Lyonnaise potatoes. But the basil was delicious and added a depth of character that placed the dish in the “over-the-top” category.

I took the extra step of using the mandolin to cut extra-thin slices of potato and onion. Normally I would slice the potatoes free-style. But honestly the layering allowed a better dispersal of all the flavors. And the two layers of basil leaves really made the dish seem more like a potato galette without the crust. Come to think if it, a bit of crust might have been a great addition!

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Strange Beginning to 2012

April 6th, 2012 — 8:59am
Tornado Trying to Form

Tornado Trying to Form

With the Mayan calendar predicting the end of the world as we know it later this year, I have been keeping my eye on any strange occurrences, perhaps pointing to the final outcome. We had an unusually warm and surprisingly wet (no snow) winter this year. With all the predictions of a continued drought we are now well ahead of our rainfall for the year with some of the reservoirs releasing water to control flooding. What a difference a few months of rain can make. While we had a pretty nasty outbreak of stormy weather this week, including 10 tornadoes within 10 miles of here, our weather has been relatively quiet, albeit a bit cloudy. You can see a tornado trying to form in the picture above (hard to see but if you look at the gap in the trees you can see the clouds lowering).

bulb fennel

Finocchio Gigante di Napoli

We have had a few garden miracles this year. For the first time we were able to grow fennel in its bulb form, or more technically finocchio gigante di Napoli. Fresh out of the garden it has an incredibly mild taste. I used it to create a new rice salad recipe (sorry forgot to take a picture) and of course one of my favorites a salad of oranges and fennel.

perennial strawberry

The Miracle Perennial Strawberry Plant

Other garden miracles include a strawberry that acted more like a perennial than a fruiting annual. Kept in a pot it was planted last spring, made it through the heat of last summer, the mildness of the winter, and recently began blooming and creating strawberries all over again. Unfortunately the squirrels really like strawberries. They do not bother with the fruit ripening. So while it is nice to know we have created a perennial variety of strawberry I do not recall ever eating any of the fruit.

Another garden miracle is the blooming of the garden sage. I know that most sages will bloom but I have never seen the garden variety bloom, at least in Texas. It was moved to a new location to prevent overwatering which may be the reason for the blooms. It is just one more happy addition to the garden.

garden sage blooming

Blooming Garden Sage

With the increase in rain and the mild winter I went ahead and planted tomatoes and peppers about one month early this year. The result is that we have tomatoes getting ready to ripen and some spicy banana peppers almost ready to be harvested. Perhaps the signs for 2012 are unusual but certainly not so ominous.

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Everything Ham

July 12th, 2011 — 10:27am
Ham and Broccoli Casserole

Ham and Broccoli Casserole

Sometimes a sale leads to excess. In this case hams were on sale. Not the little bitty, plastic-wrapped, smoked, mystery variety. But the very large family-size variety that was spiral cut and coated with brown sugary goodness. The variety that would feed eight comfortably and leave enough to spare just in case someone stopped by at the last minute. With only two people available to eat this ham it was destined to be on our plates for awhile.

While some of us were preparing creative things for Bastille day (no doubt including a flyby by an Air France jet spewing blue, white and red colored exhaust), I was trying to dream up ways to eat this ham without having to freeze the leftovers. My experience with frozen ham is that it turns into a kind of jerky. While there is nothing wrong with jerky I prefer my ham a bit moister.

There was of course the original ham dinner which included the usual mashed potatoes and green beans. It was followed by pasta with ham and peas in a cream sauce, white beans cooked using the catalan method with the ham bone, and for a stretch a ham and broccoli, not sure what to call it, casserole. The depths to which I stooped to make the casserole will become legend. It included ricotta cheese, yogurt, and please do not laugh, “baking mix” (aka Bisquick). A substance I was not aware we even had until I did some “research” in the refrigerator in the garage. The place where you put things that you are “eventually going to use.” I would not report on this mishmash except that it tasted really great, a bit of sour and savory which contrasted with the smoky sweetness of the ham.

green eggs and ham recipe

Green Eggs and Ham

A list of everything ham would not be complete without consuming the last morsels along with some green eggs. In this case the green eggs and ham were concocted by adding a dollop of basil pesto to the eggs before scrambling and cooking. It brought me back to images of Dr. Seuss from my childhood and brought me forward to a very adult tasting scrambled egg. Not a bad end to ham week.

In honor of my friends celebrating Bastille Day, and to poorly paraphrase Charles de Gaulle: Vive la France! Vive le Jambon! Vive les Oeufs Verts!

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Herb Consciousness

December 21st, 2010 — 9:40am

Breakfast With The Herb Companion

We recently received a gift subscription to The Herb Companion.  This made a whole bunch of strange memories come flooding back as I was an avid budding herbalist in the early 1990’s. I was taking my cooking a bit more seriously and the natural adjunct to that seemed to be growing and using fresh herbs in my recipes. As with just about anything else I undertake I usually obsess about it to the point that I just do not want to think about it any more and I move on to my next obsession.

In those years I subscribed to The Herb Companion and would seek out books about herbs and their uses. I came across a very old volume from the early 1900’s that listed herbs along with their culinary and medicinal uses. Not wanting to just focus on the culinary aspects of my growing herb garden I decided to do a bit of research on the medicinal aspects as well. Without having the usual distillation equipment necessary to extract essential oils from the plants I was forced to focus primarily on teas. I suppose I could have worked on herb poultices as well but then I would have had to break a bone or walk through a patch of poison ivy to try them out. I was not willing to go that far with my research.

My first experiment was to see if I could tame an upset stomach with an herbal tea. In this case it was a mixture of lemon balm and mint leaves steeped in some hot water. The result was a very pleasant lemon-mint tea that actually seemed to do the trick. My stomach felt much better within a matter of hours. Of course without a control for the placebo effect it could have just been my imagination at work. Feeling full of good health there was not much need for medicinal teas. I did come across a reference in this herb book about catnip having hallucinogenic properties. Without any ailments to cure this seemed like a logical next step.

Following the recipe in the book I steeped some catnip leaves in hot water and allowed the mixture to cool. I drank the tea rather quickly, because the taste was not as pleasant as the lemon-mint version, and I waited to see what sort of shiny lights would appear in my vision from this hallucinogenic catnip. The only thing that seemed to stir was my stomach. Apparently my feline chromosome had been left off my DNA strands. I wound up with an extraordinary stomach ache of which I was sure I was not hallucinating.

No worries though. I had my lemon balm and mint remedy at hand. In a matter of hours my stomach was back to normal and the catnip was left for the cats to tear apart. Shortly after that I gave my herb book to a friend who was working through some chemotherapy. I told her to avoid any catnip and focus on the lemon balm and mint. I asked her to keep the book figuring that at some point I would find some other weird reference which I would have to try out, causing unexpected harm to my body.

With The Herb Companion I think I will just look at all the pretty pictures and skip all the references to medicinal uses. Just in case though, I always keep a bit of lemon balm and mint handy.

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Presto Pesto

August 6th, 2010 — 8:00am

Vegetable Lasagna with Ricotta and Pesto Filling

Our basil plants have slowly grown into small bushes. If I could just get them to last all year I would use them in the landscape like I do rosemary. One of our neighbors stopped by to comment on the landscape the other day and she asked why I was always taking clippings from the front of the house. I explained that I had two rosemary bushes and a small bay tree in the landscaping. She thought I was so clever. In reality the rosemary is much easier to take care of than other evergreens and the bay tree can be trimmed into a very nice compact evergreen shrub. It is nice that I can use them for cooking. It is also nice that they make great landscape plants as well.

The basil is kept solely in the back of the house in the vegetable garden. It is just easier to get the daily harvest and then grab a bunch of basil all at one time. This time of year I use the basil in just about everything. One of my favorites is of course using it in a basil pesto.

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In keeping with my need to keep life simple I have taken to making one big batch per week and using it in a variety of dishes. If you cover the pesto in a layer of olive oil in a tightly sealed container it should be fine to use for at least a week. I have given you a few ideas on how to use the pesto in the past with pesto pasta with chicken and lasagna al pesto.

I also try to work the pesto into some other dishes. One of my favorites is to add a bit of pesto to some mayonnaise (one tablespoon of pesto to two tablespoons of mayonnaise) and use the converted mayonnaise on sandwiches. It adds a nice depth of flavor to the richness of the mayonnaise. I also add it to the ricotta cheese when I am making lasagna (one cup of pesto per fifteen ounces of ricotta). It turns the ricotta a green color. But once again it really adds to the flavor of the lasagna. I made vegetable lasagna this week and the pesto really gave the dish a richness that the vegetables alone could not muster. I will not give you any recipes for these impromptu fixings. I think you get the gist of it. However, next time you make up a big batch of pesto just remember; it is not just for pasta anymore.

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A Word About Oregano

July 7th, 2010 — 8:00am

Italian Oregano

When I was making my Greek Pasta Salad last week I was struck by how important the herb oregano is to distinguishing this cuisine from others. In the eastern Mediterranean it is more common to mix citrus juice (most commonly lemon), olive oil, and a fresh herb to bring out the flavor of the dish. This contrasts with the eastern Mediterranean where it is more common to use a strong vinegar, mixed with olive oil to add a flavor contrast. The choice of a fresh herb makes each dish just a little bit different. In this case the choice of oregano was important to making the dish at least taste authentic, even if it was something dreamed up to use the leftovers in the refrigerator.

There are literally hundreds of varieties of “oregano” grown throughout the world.  Most of them are classified in the mint family while a small number are actually classified in the verbena family.  We grow three varieties; Greek oregano, Italian oregano, and Mexican oregano.  I primarily use the Greek and Mexican varieties.  The Greek variety is used in anything resembling Mediterranean cuisine, and the Mexican variety is used in anything resembling Latin American cuisine.  The Italian variety (origanum x majoricum) is actually a cross between Greek oregano and marjoram.  It tends more towards the marjoram end of the spectrum having a more subtle, sweet flavor.  When recipes call for marjoram (however rarely) I use this herb instead.  It does make a very beautiful ground cover with small pink blossoms during the hot summer months.  This is why I keep it around at all.

Greek Oregano

The Greek oregano (origanum vulgare hirtum) is essential to use in Mediterranean cooking, especially if you are using the herb in an uncooked form; in salads or a last minute addition to a soup or sauce.  I find that when it is cooked in a sauce most of the flavor disappears during the cooking process, even though this type of oregano carries more of the essential oils than any other type.  This is a similar to what happens more dramatically with basil and cilantro.  I usually add a bit more oregano to a sauce about 15 minutes before it is done cooking to make sure some of the flavor ends up in the final product.  The Greek oregano is also a nice addition to the perennial garden and attracts loads of bees and butterflies.

Mexican Oregano

Mexican oregano actually comes in two varieties, one of which is in the mint family and one is in the verbena family. The variety we grow (labiatae poliomintha longiflora), the mint variety, is native to Texas and is often grown as an accent shrub mostly because deer will not eat it. It has beautiful pink flowers and has a bit milder flavor than the Greek variety. I typically use it as a last minute addition to my Mexican dishes. This variety also attracts a lot of bees and hummingbirds. The other variety of Mexican oregano (verbenaceae lippia graveolens) is the more typical variety from the verbena family used in Mexican cooking. It is also a bit milder than the Greek variety. Due to its ease of cultivation in Texas and New Mexico, this variety often ends up in the store-bought versions of dried oregano. If you want dried Greek oregano make sure it says that on the container. Otherwise you are probably getting the less flavorful Mexican variety.

I find that oreganos of every variety are very easy to grow and tend not to be bothered by bouts of cold weather. Like just about every plant in the mint family they can be very invasive. My biggest problem is keeping them contained in a small area. A bit of ruthless pruning a couple of times per year usually suffices. If you have a perennial bed I highly recommend you put a couple of varieties in if not for the culinary use, then for the blooms during the summer and for the attraction of bees, hummingbirds and butterflies.

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Minty Meals

April 20th, 2010 — 8:27am

Grilled Shrimp with Minty Couscous

The spring herbs are beginning to come into their own. We have enough cilantro to open a Mexican restaurant. The parsley seems to be very happy. And of course there is the mint. It is a beautiful lush green color. I rub my hands in it every day just to get a good whiff. Unfortunately that is usually how close the mint comes to being used. It is just not something that I think of every day to put in a dish. Mostly because of its unusual pungency I always find that it is too easy to overdo it.

That is not fair to the mint of course. In moderation it should become a regular culinary herb. The usual internet search turned up lots of things relating to mint, mostly in the libations category. It seems that many other people are a bit perplexed about using the herb for consumption.

Well I borrowed a few ideas from a variety of recipes and came up with a minty couscous which I served with some grilled shrimp. It used the primary flavors of lemon and mint, and the brine flavor from some feta cheese. I guess we could call it Greek Minty Couscous, except that I have never been to Greece nor have I ever seen such a dish prepared in a Greek restaurant. I think we will just stick with Grilled Shrimp with Minty Couscous.

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Spring Gardening

March 15th, 2010 — 8:00am

The Kitchen Garden

Although it does not look like much we were able to plant the spring kitchen garden this week. Usually we have some leftovers from the winter greens garden melding in with the spring plants. But this year the winter was extremely harsh and the winter garden did not even last into January.

We call this the kitchen garden as it is right outside the back door. Once everything gets to growing we just head out the door and make some nice salads or have some handy herbs for cooking. The spring garden here includes cilantro and parsley. Once the temperatures hit the 80’s consistently these will bolt. When that happens they will quickly be replaced by basil and fennel.

In the main garden we took a chance and planted the pole beans, the purple bush beans and the cucumbers. Last year we planted too late and before you knew it the temperatures were in the 90’s and not very hospitable to these earlier plantings. We had a zero yield early on. The beans hung in there through the summer and once it began to cool we had a nice crop of beans in September and October. This year we would like to see a few in the spring.

Plants grow very quickly in this environment. It will not be too long before we are harvesting the lettuces, arugula, and spinach. You can find out why we go to all this trouble by reading my article Fresh is Best. Once these crops start coming in we will inundate you with fresh veggie recipes. In the mean time, stay tuned.

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Save The Squash!

November 25th, 2009 — 10:11am
Butternut Squash

Butternut Squash

With Thanksgiving right around the corner it is time for many people to make plans to torture their root vegetables and squash.  It is not enough that these vegetables have enough sugar to ice a cake. People seek out new ways to make them sweeter.  You know who you are.  You went out and bought maple syrup, brown sugar and mini-marshmallows to overwhelm the inherent goodness of all these great vegetables. Can anyone really tell me the purpose of a candied yam?

This Thanksgiving I have decided to save the squash from this sugary flood.  I realize that most of you were brought up to boil your root vegetables and squashes.  They indeed cook faster that way and it is handier to mash the bejeezus out of them making it easier to apply your maple syrup, brown sugar, and mini-marshmallows.  This year I ask your forbearance and try something novel.  Why not roast all those sweet vegetables?

Roasting, unlike boiling, will actually preserve and concentrate all those sugars built up inside the vegetables.    To bring out the flavor of the natural sugars you should actually add savory toppings.  It confuses the palate and makes the vegetables taste sweeter.  So a roasted vegetable with a little salt and black pepper will contrast nicely with all those caramelized sugars, you know the brown bits you get when roasting.  Or take a giant leap of faith and maybe add some oregano or fennel seed!

I know it is a lot to ask.  So go candy your yams, add maple syrup to your sweet potatoes, and add brown sugar to your carrots.  I only ask one thing.  This year can we just save the squash?  My suggestion on how to do so is here.

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