Archive for the ‘herbs’ Category

Living in Interesting Times: Tough Herbs


Joyous Ostara/Passover/Easter, happy Spring, or whatever you choose to celebrate when life is returning to the soil. “Spring is Christ, raising dead plants from their shrouds” Rumi said, and any ordinary yard shows us the truth of it.  These are strange times indeed, and the best way to keep yourself safe is to stay home when not working. Gardeners and permaculturists are used to staying home, and have plenty to stay home for. This is the glory season for greens and herbs.

I have written before about one of my favorite plants, bronze fennel, and you can find that post here. Today I’ll just remind you that it is very ornamental most of the time and you can easily sneak it past your homeowners association if you are unlucky enough to have one. Pollinating insects adore it, and so do I. It will take two or three years to reach a good size, so start now.

in the spring I like to make herb pesto used to have on hand for all kinds of seasoning uses. Essentially, pesto involves garlic in some form, herb leaves, nuts of some kind, and olive oil. I typically add the cheese at a later stage.

Don’t make pesto just by throwing together all the herbs you have. Herbs have strong flavors, and some contemplative tasting, sniffing, and thinking is called for to make sure you have a coherent and appealing flavor picture. I made this one yesterday morning, picking the  fennel first, and decided to go with the anise flavor and chose anise hyssop and a fruity mint, a couple of stout sprigs of each, and two stalks of green garlic.

in my opinion, proper pestos are made with a mortar and pestle. Use the food processor if you must, but please, don’t even think about using the blender. Blended leaves all acquire an off, grassy taste. Wash the herbs, remove tough stems, chop the leaves coarsely, and peel the green garlic down to tender parts and finely slice it crosswise. Pound the garlic in the mortar with a good pinch of salt until it is pretty thoroughly crushed, then add the chopped leaves and pound to a chunky paste. Then add nuts of your choice and decide how finely to crush them. The herbs had a Sardinian taste so I added roasted salted pistachio kernels and pounded them only until coarsely crushed. Pound in a little really good herbaceous olive oil, then stir in more oil to the consistency that you want. Check for salt.

It smelled so good that I was eager to eat some right away, so for lunch we had fresh handmade egg linguine with half the herb pesto, a couple of glugs of additional olive oil, and some top notch Parmesan. Yum. The rest of the pesto went in a jar, and later that day I stirred up some sourdough bread dough and left it to rise in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day I took the dough out of the refrigerator mid-morning and let it come to room temperature for a couple of hours. Then I patted a loaf’s worth of the dough out into a large somewhat erratic rectangle on an oiled board, smeared it thickly with the rest of the pesto, and then topped it with grated Romano. This was rolled into a long loaf and left to rise on a baking sheet, then slashed across the top, brushed with more olive oil, and baked in a preheated 425 degree oven until done. After cooling on a rack for 15 minutes, it was ready to break into beautiful fragrant chunks and eat as an Easter lunch full of the flavors of the season. Butter was excessive, but that didn’t stop us.

The amount of pesto to make is a very individual decision. The flavor of this one is subtler than it sounds, and I picked a nice sized bouquet of fennel leaves and ended up with about a cup of pesto, divided between the two dishes here.

The Winter Kitchen: Pipian Verde


My recent Mexican cooking binge began with darker richer flavors but a spell of warmer weather got me thinking about pipian verde, which is complex but fresher and more spring-like in flavor. I became determined to develop a paste for it so that I could have it on short notice.  Pipian verde is a highly variable sauce based on herbs and thickened with ground seeds, often pumpkin seeds. It’s simpler than the more complicated mole verde but can be surprisingly similar to it. When I first ate it in Oaxaca more than a decade ago it had a flavor that I have not come across before, and which I later identified as hoja santa. This is a fascinating large perennial which grows well in warmer parts of our country, and in fact I noticed it growing wild near San Antonio, but my mountain area is too cold for it. The dried leaves are readily available but are a pale shadow of the taste of the fresh leaves, which resembles authentic sarsaparilla. Ebay came to the rescue, and I found a seller who sent me eight of the large leaves impeccably wrapped up in damp paper towels so that they arrived in perfect condition. There are as many pipian verde recipes as there are cooks in Mexico, so I can’t say that yours has to contain the special leaf, just that mine does. I also think that fresh epazote is necessary, and it’s available at my local Mexican grocery. Again, don’t use dried.
This makes a lot of seasoning paste. It’s concentrated and will be diluted in the final dish. It freezes well. You’ll need a blender.

My ingredients (study some recipes online and your ingredients may vary):

5 fresh poblano peppers

2 fresh jalapeño chiles, only if your poblanos are mild or you love fire

1 cup raw pumpkin seeds

9 medium-sized tomatillos

1 medium onion, peeled and sliced

5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

stems (just cut the washed bunch in half vertically) of one bunch cilantro, chopped

1 cup steamed spinach or other mild greens (I used foraged lambsquarters)

1 fresh hoja santa  leaf about 8” long

1 bunch fresh epazote, about 1/2 cup chopped

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 cup home-rendered lard or avocado oil

Roast the poblanos (and jalapeños if using) under the broiler, turning frequently, until blistered all over.

Use tongs to transfer into a plastic bag, wrap in towels, let “sweat” for about 20 minutes, then peel off the skins, remove and discard stems, veins, and seeds, and set the peeled flesh aside.

The tomatillos can be roasted under the broiler until cooked through (requires close attention) or cooked in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, turning frequently, until they have a few dark spots. Then add enough water to prevent burning and cook until soft. Set aside.

Toast the raw pumpkin seeds in a heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring continuously, until they swell and darken a bit but don’t let them brown, which ruins the flavor. As soon as they’re ready, pour them out of the hot skillet into a bowl to cool.

Chop up the various fresh leaves and stems into small pieces, crumble the oregano a bit, chop the steamed spinach or similar if not already chopped.

Put the cooled pumpkin seeds in the blender and blend to the fine-crumbs stage but don’t let them turn to butter. Add all other ingredients except the lard or oil and blend, adding a little water if needed to keep the blades turning. I like to keep some texture in mine.

Now, the final step that makes everything meld. Heat a large saucepan or a wok with the lard (more authentic) or oil (more readily obtainable) over high heat and pour in the seasoning paste to “sear.” Careful, it spatters furiously. Cook over high heat, stirring and scraping constantly, for a few minutes until the entire potful is boiling hard. Turn off the heat and (cautiously) taste and add salt to taste. Let cool, and package in suitably sized containers for refrigeration or freezing.

Now it can be used to sauce pork, chicken, or fish, diluting to the right consistency with good broth appropriate to the meat or seafood and adjusting the salt as needed. Roasted salted pumpkin seeds and/or some fresh cilantro leaves make a good garnish.  It’s great in a soft taco or sope  with a slice of fresh panela cheese and a crumbling of the far more intense cotija cheese on top.  My favorite use for it is shown at the top of this post: pan-grill some very good shrimp with salt and garlic, add a cup of pipian paste and 1/2 cup of shrimp broth per pound of shrimp and cook briefly until the sauce comes together, adjust seasoning as needed but keep the sauce very thick, and serve with an endless supply of good hot fresh tortillas.


For lunch in 10 minutes, use pipian verde paste diluted half and half with broth, bring to a boil to thicken, and adjust seasoning. Heat tortillas. Scramble two or three eggs with a little salt to taste until fairly firm. Cover a plate with the sauce, heap the eggs in the middle, sprinkle with chopped cilantro and a handful of roasted salted pumpkin seeds (darker squash seeds here,) and add a red dash of salsa macha. Eat with soft tortillas. Yum.

About those tortillas: in general I stick to a low carbohydrate diet, but when in a Mexican phase I don’t. Simple as that. Without rice, beans, and the endlessly creative uses of masa, it isn’t real Mexican food as far as I’m concerned. So I watch my portion sizes, eat one main meal a day and some light snacks, and try not to stay in a Mexican phase for too long. But it’s worth it.

Dressing Up the Greens

My fanaticism about leafy greens is no secret,  and I have said in the past that if you keep them prepped and ready and preferably pre-cooked, you will eat a lot more of them. In the summer I try to keep horta, the Greek cooked greens mixture, in the refrigerator and see how many ways I can use it.
Although in general I eat low-carb, I do sometimes bake sourdough bread because I have a very good starter and it would be a pity not to use it now and then. Well, actually, I do it because sourdough bread is one of my favorite things and I allow myself an occasional relapse. The last time I made sourdough, I put a lump of dough about the size of a softball in the refrigerator, and a few days later I got the urge to use it.
If you have the dough and the horta ready, a greens calzone is a very easy thing to produce and looks rather spectacular. Pat the chilled dough out into a large thin circle, pile horta on half of it, top with generous layers of grated Parmesan and torn-up mozzarella, fold the bare half over the top, brush a beaten egg over the top dough and sprinkle with coarse salt, cut some slits in the top, and bake at 425 degrees until cooked through and browned. Ten minutes of actual hands-on time and some oven time when you can do other things.

If you don’t happen to have bread dough in the refrigerator, many stores and pizzerias now sell fresh pizza dough.

Species in my current batch of horta: lambsquarters, chard, walking onions, green garlic, broccoli leaves, mulberry shoots, wild lettuce tips, parsley, thyme.  Really a tiny number of species this time, but still awfully good.

Nettle Ale, and notes on the Drinkmate

One of the nicest things about having an active permaculture garden is that you have strange plants around you in all phases of growth and you’re led to read and to experiment. A couple of months ago I found myself eyeing my healthy nettle patch, where the nettles were almost three feet tall and well past the greens phase, and wondering what could be done with them. I got on the Internet and came across British recipes for nettle beer. I was curious about it because the cooking water from nettles has a strong and distinctive taste that I don’t find exactly pleasant, yet people reported liking the ferment. Well, no harm in trying. I started with three gallons of water in my huge stockpot, and picked (with sturdy leather gloves) about 75 nettle tops. I also added 10 large hops leaves and 10 large Concord grape leaves on grounds that, if the brew was revolting, at least it would contain some resveratrol and chalcones. I boiled all this at a full rolling boil for fifteen minutes, and then let it cool. I fished all the plant material out with a strainer scoop, pressed all the residual juice out and returned it to the pot, and gave the pressed mass of leaves to the chickens. No sense in wasting those nutrients.
I brew by instinct and not by recipe, and I think the next step is the most important: TASTE THE COOLED JUICE AND THINK ABOUT THE FLAVOR before sweetening the liquid. The sweetness will be fermented out, so it’s important not to think of it as part of the finished flavor.  Don’t think in terms of a recipe that you’ve read. Think about what it needs to improve the flavor, and try to supply that.  This juice was not promising, with a strong nettle taste and little other flavor. It lacked any acidity so I added the juice of four oranges and one lemon, giving it a light but pleasant acidity. I decided to go with the strong herbal flavor and added a large angelica leaf and stem, which would remain in the fermenter during primary fermentation.  I also added back the squeezed rind of one of the oranges. Use organic if you do this. Next, I needed to give the yeasty beasties something to eat. I sweetened with one pound of organic sugar per gallon of water, for an eventual alcohol level of 4-5%, just above near-beer, and pitched a yeast intended for hard cider. This all went into the primary fermenter, where it bubbled merrily for a couple of weeks. When the bubbling slowed, I racked it into a clean fermentation bucket, leaving the angelica leaf and rinds behind with the sediment. I tasted  the brew at this point,  and to my surprise the distinctive nettle taste was completely gone.  I could taste the aromatics from the oranges, a slight and becoming touch of bitterness from the angelica and hops leaves,  and an overall mild herbal flavor, and while the brew  still tasted raw and unfinished, it was pleasant.  After another two weeks, it was racked into a keg and put under carbonation.   Chilled and  carbonated, it has become one of our favorite choices for a quick glass of something-or-other in the evening.  It is blessedly  low in alcohol and good with light meals like salads. It tastes best sweetened slightly with a drop or two of liquid stevia or similar added to a glassful. We like it so much that I promptly started another batch dubbed Stinger Brew II,  but this time I left out the oranges and just added the juice of one lemon to a 4 gallon batch.  When primary fermentation is finished and I rack it off for secondary fermentation, I will taste and see if it needs any more acidity, and I plan to dry hop it at this stage because my hops should be in full bloom at that point. Where Stinger I is more like a light herbal wine, Stinger II will be more like a light true ale.  If you really want it to taste like a beer rather than a wine, you could use malt syrup  or malt extract  to sweeten the juice, but I like the more winey  quality that comes from using sugar.

So, as I am always saying, embrace the experimental nature of cooking, brewing, gardening, and life.  If I did this commercially, I would have to keep very exact measurements for consistency between batches and would have to try to maintain each batch exactly like the one before, since that is what customers expect.  But my ingredients are variable, my process is variable, I am variable, and I do not want two batches that taste the same.  This is very freeing.  Liberating yourself from the tyranny  of the recipe is one of the nicest things that can happen to a cook and brewer.

Beer, wine, and mead can be carbonated by charging with some sugar, bottling in swing-cap bottles, and waiting. But there are easier and surer ways. If I want a large quantity carbonated, my husband oversees a kegerator made for refrigerating and carbonating 5 gallon kegs, and then the bubbly stuff is dispensed via a tap. It’s very handy, but needless to say, you don’t necessarily want 5 gallons of any one thing. In those cases, I use the Drinkmate. It’s a sleek carbonation device that uses smaller CO2 canisters and special bottles to carbonate a liter or less at a time in just a couple of minutes. There are a number of carbonation devices on the market, and they all work just fine for carbonating water. The Drinkmate is different because it will carbonate any liquid. Carbonated juice could be delicious if you drink juice, and it occurs to me that sparkling mint tea would be delicious in the summer.You can read more about the device here. If you want to buy one, you can get it here. Replacement CO2 cylinders are available at Bed Bath and Beyond, and empties can be traded in there for half-price new cylinders. Order a few extra bottles when you order your Drinkmate. I’ve noticed that when plain carbonated water is available in the fridge, I drink more water in total, and sparkling water is better with meals than plain water. Carbonation also brings out the flavor of water kefir, which I make in large quantities. With or without a drop of sweetener, it’s delicious.