Sunday, June 8, 2014

Poisons to Potions: Herbs Have power to flavor Culinary & Cocktail Recipes and How to Grow Herbs

Hippocrates wrote: "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Words to live a healthy life by.

This Herbal News post is from my recent Homegrown Garden Tea Party – How to Grow a Summer Herb Garden talk for the United Way of Greater Mercer County.
Photo courtesy: Angela Scibilia UWGMC

I realized a lot of foodies and gardeners are keen to learn how to grow and use herbs.
Photo courtesy: Angela Scibilia UWGMC

Besides adding taste and flavor nuance to culinary dishes that span the spectrum from peasant country heritage to haute cuisine recipes, herbs are the magic in cooking, fairy tale love potions and sinister herbal poisons – referred to as the “Silent Weapon” during the Middle Ages. 

Throughout history every culture has traditions and tales to tell about how its herbs are used to heal, to clean, and how they play a starring role in religious ceremonies. 

The Greeks traced their discovery of poisonous plants to Hecate, the Goddess of Sorcery.
Ahh, love that girl power!
The Greeks believe Hecate’s whipped up her first potion using Aconite, the very pretty flower known as Monk’s Hood. 

Shakespeare was fond of using arsenic as a character plot. 
Bella Donna or deadly nightshade got its name because women would use eye drops made from the plant to dilate their pupils – believed to be a sign of beauty.
Ah, and people think Botox is extreme...
But then Marc Anthony’s troops were supposedly poisoned with bella donna by Scotland’s King Duncan.

The real curiosity is why do herbs hold our fascination for more than 5,000 years and yet are so little understood.
In English, even the pronunciation is different on either side of the pond.
Yanks say “erb” with the “H” silent, and the Brits give the “H” a fiull-on breathy sound – just like the man’s name.

In many ways I think herbs are misunderstood because they are ubiquitous  -- so that we take them for granted, perhaps.

Today, more than 30 percent of modern drugs come from botanicals. 
The World Health Organization estimates 8% of the Asian and African world use herbal medicine as primary health care, including the Ayurveda system and its pursuit of living in tune with nature.

Medicine men, shamans, witches, healers and herbalists (and even the big pharmaceuticals) all employ plants for their natural antioxidants, anti-aging, disease-preventing and alleviating powers.

Lore and Legend

Vervain or Verbena, referred to as the “Holy Herb” is associated with the divine or supernatural and is believed to have been used to staunch Jesus’ wounds from the Cross.

Basil is worshiped as a goddess by Hindus. 

Rastafarians consider cannabis to be a holy plant.

Because Mistletoe bears fruit at the time of Winter Solstice it was used in Druid Britain as symbol of immortality. In Celtic mythology, it is considered a remedy for barrenness and an antidote to poison.

Native American Medicine Men and woman – embraced the intimate connection with plants and medicine believing that plants were given to them by the creator to heal people.  To induce spiritual experiences they used four “Sacred Herbs:”
Sweet Grass  (purifies and cleans)

Growing Herbs

Herbs are flowering plants with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavoring food, in medicine, in perfume.

Herbs play well with other plants – they’re versatile and are great partners for fruits, vegetables and ornamentals.
I once designed an extended edible garden where each plot in the bed was color coded and filled with a mixture of that color but different textures and shapes. 
It is gorgeous.

Have fun with the partnerings: a Pizza Garden is a mix of basil, oregano and tomato.  

Bear in mind there are very many cultivars of herbs. There is not just one fennel, for example; rather you can enjoy the herb Foeniculum vulgare. Fennel Purpureum with its bronze purple leaves, or Foeniculum dulce, Florence fennel for its anise-flavored bulbs.

Grow a diverse crop of herbs – and vegetables.

Overall, herbs can be grown from seed, cuttings, or as starter plants.

The seed catalogs that brighten a winter’s day are the “Look Book” of the garden-scene: botanical art, colorful cultivars and species, organic and hybrid, exotic and heirloom – theirs is a special language and an intoxicating presence that you can get lost in a dreamy haze of garden delight.

I recommend planting after Mother’s Day in temperate zones of 6 through 9 ish. 

We start our seeds indoors under the light in late winter/early spring and they are good to go by this time as well.

Grow a mix of annual and perennial herbs.

Purchase your plants and seeds from a grower you know and trust.  Often the big box stores import the plants where growing conditions may not be optimum and they travel great distances in tight spaces where they can pick up diseases. 

The tomato blight we experienced in the not too distant past was a result of bad circumstances. 
Food thought leader and James Beard award-winning chef, Dan Barber wrote a New York Times Op Ed piece about this issue. 

He wrote, (in part),  “Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast. (Fungal spores, which can travel up to 40 miles, may also have been dispersed in transit.) Once those infected starter plants arrived at the stores, they were purchased and planted, transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses into backyard and community gardens.”

Support your local growers.  

Planting Herbs

If not planting in the ground, herbs are ideal grown in containers. 
Plant near where you will use them – adjacent to the kitchen and grill.

If not using classic container pots, think creatively.  
Anything can be used as a pot – shoes, dishes or cups, urns, toys, and sports equipment!
I'm demonstrating how to pot up an herb garden in my hanging Garden Pendants   
Pot up containers with an eye to the overall look of color, texture and size utilizing this easy to remember method:

  • Thriller: tall or statement plants
  • Filler: bushier filling plants
  • Spiller: vines or hanging plants
    The United Way offered a variety of herb to sell, Jacks Nursery, Pennington 

Wash out all pots & containers from last year.
Sterilize the pots and pruning equipment.  A 10% bleach solution is most often recommended.
I prefer to use white vinegar.

If the containers don’t already have drainage hole in the bottom - place broken clay pieces from spent pots or use stones.  The idea is to allow the water to drain away from the plant to prevent root rot.

Herbs are so versatile, in fact, that they inspire a category or style of healthy, beneficial method of gardening referred to as Companion Planting.
Growing certain herbs with or near other herbs, vegetables, or flowers offers a way to increase yield naturally, reduce the need for chemical applications for pest control and encourage healthy, beneficial growing. 

A Mother Earth Living post I researched subsequent to the United Way Herb Talk summarizes the Companion Planting quite well.  
The only recommendations I can take issue with from my own experience is my sage and rue are quite simpatico – as is the rosemary and basil. 
Love that writer Lauren Holt notes how basil benefits flavor of tomatoes, oregano, peppers and even asparagus.   
See, there is more to the idea of that Pizza Garden than just happy gardening haiku.

Gotta love the benefit of growing chamomile – it’s a wonder team player that helps pretty much every other plant – and us.  And well, it is pretty all by itself.


There are many self-watering planters available with a built in water reservoir.
If not using an irrigation system to water the containers, you can purchase the glass globes with long stem that when filled with water will drip drain into the potting material to nourish the plant.
Photo courtesy: Angela Scibilia UWGMC
If this is too fancy and takes a bite out of your purse, you can drill holes in PVC pipes and insert water bottles to act the same way.

Remember to water the roots, not the leaves.

Best to water mid-morning or early evening.

Don’t over water.
Occasional misting is good.


Herbs are carefree and if planted in the ground don’t need fertilizer.
You might need occasional fertilizer if container planting.

Deadhead the flowering part of the plant to encourage growth. 
Especially so when growing basil.
Pinch out to produce compact, bush plants and maximize crop yields.  If the plant sets seeds it will tend to stop flowering.

Keep the plants clean; take out spent or damaged leaves.
Good horticulture hygiene practice cuts down the risks of pests and diseases – especially for young plants.

Evergreen herbs, including rosemary, chamomile, and sage should be trimmed regularly throughout the growing season.

Some herbs need support for their trellising. 
Tuteurs, wooden framework, a fence, obelisk, drying rack, or a statue are all good choices that also add whimsy and charm to the garden while serving a function.
Trellising allows the plant to wind or grow up and also aids in air circulation.

In the garden bed or container, plants benefit from mulch: it helps retain moisture and mitigate weeds.

Get creative here too. 
Mulch can be sea shells, stones, cocoa shells, pebbles, beach or tumbled glass, marbles, pine cones or white pine needles – especially for the acid loving plants like blueberries. 

Be sure to label your herb plants. 
Too often we forget what it is that was planted and then hesitate to use them.

You can use the markers that come with the plant – or get creative and make plant markers writing the common or botanical nomenclature on store-bought beauties, popsicle sticks,
or stones.

Spoons and forks work so well, too. After all, you are going to eat these beauties!

Harvest herbs when you need to add them to your recipes.  Many harvest the herbs in the morning when the aromatic oil in the herbs is at its peak.
Herbs – like other plants - grow best when nurtured with sun, water, and love.

Culinary Uses & Cocktail Recipes

Herbs are used in most every recipe. 
Dried herbs are more potent that fresh – up to three times more punch -- so use accordingly.

Remember to eat the herbs’ flowers. 

To name just a few you will enjoy eating: Nasturtiums, Arugula, Agastache – Cornflowers, Clove Pinks, Daylily, (their buds and petals are like water chestnuts).

Edible flowers look gorgeous on the plate, in a salad or when crystalized, on pastries and baked treats.

Pot marigolds are like saffron and can be used to color rice, butters, cakes, or sprinkled in salads)
Primrose, and scented leaved pelargoniums and sunflowers are glamorous eat-treats, too.

Think of using herbs to infuse honey and salt.

Lavender flowers work in ice cream or vinegars or crystalize them and violas and pansies, violets, begonias, Johnny-jump-ups, rose petals, lilac, borage, pea, pinks, scented geraniums for cakes, cupcakes and puddings.

Crystalized Flower How-To
Use a recipe of beaten egg whites, a few drops of water or vodka to coat the just-picked flowers and paint the blossoms, following by a sprinkling of fine sugar and dry on a wire rack or paper towels.
Store the crystalized petals you don’t use (really?!) in a tin till next time.  They’ll keep for almost a year.

Flavor Companions

Don’t know what herbs go with what dishes?

Onions, Garlic, Chives – Allium family members are terrific in salads, soups, sauces, egg dishes, eat the leaves and bulbs

Dill – feathery anise flavored leaves in fish dishes and as garnish

French Tarragon – Anise flavored herb for egg, fish, and chicken dishes or salads.

Lemon Grass – work great in Southeast Asian and meat & fish dishes

Cilantro – The foliage is a good citrusy flavor in Mexican and Thai dishes and added flavor to make guacamole sing

When grilling, check out my Examiner Grilling column post column to learn that herbs cut down on harmful carcinogens and how to add to marinades or used in shish kabobs.

Herbal Inspired Cocktails & Drinks

Here are some fun and tasty drink suggestions that will expand your herbal imbibing:

Borage – use the pretty blue flowers and freeze into ice cubes.
The plant’s cucumber tasting leaves are a great garnish for drinks (or in salads.)

Chamomile – the daisy looking flowers are superb for tea (and as a hair conditioner!)

In fact, any kind of herb can be used as a tea, including Thyme and Sage, which are helpful to heal a sore throat.
Lemon Grass leaves are used in Tisane or tea.
Every kind of mint: pineapple, chocolate or orange are joyfully refreshing used in iced teas and as a garnish.

Shaken or stirred, Shiso Martinis use fresh lime and the mint-like shiso leaf for a bracing alternative to the standard martini. 

According to Jessica Wohlers, Brooklyn’s top-tier mixologist, “Herbs are great to infuse in wine, sherry and syrups. 
“Syrups are the best way because it’s easy and you just add a bit to a glass of wine, champagne or Presecco, a spirit or even beer,” Wohlers explained.

A veteran of bleeding edge cocktail emporiums including the Clover Club and
the Flatiron Lounge where the secret to success, according to NY Magazine, is owner-partner Julie Reiner’s cheflike approach to the cocktail craft.

Wohlers has been a featured mixologist in a recent NY Post for her culinary cocktail prowess.
The willowy and talented Wohlers embraces the stand-up taste and intriguing flavor options herbs afford a creative cocktail maker.
Two of Wohlers’ favorite herb-inspired cocktail recipes are:

Gardener’s Sangria
The drink uses rosemary-infused red wine, Oloroso sherry, homemade citrus syrup, Angostura and Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6 ( )

Mix all the ingredients together, pour over ice and garnish.

You have to love Regan describe his early attempts at creating his and Mardee’s Weekend Alchemist attempts when creating Regans’ Orange Bitters No.6.

 “Strolling around a store that supplies witches, warlocks, and gremlins with the potions and what-not I found everything I needed to make Baker’s formula, and I added some gentian, cinchona and quassia to the mix for good measure…” 

Wohlers goes on to describe another good herbal drink on her current cocktail menu:

Red Sky at Night
The colorful cocktail (Naturally she’d highlight a dramatic, color-imbued sassy drink – Wohlers is also a fine art painter and stylist) uses hibiscus flower infused white rum, pear liqueur, lemon juice, Demerara syrup (a simple syrup made with demerara or turbinado sugar that gives it an almost caramel flavor found in happy tropical drinks) and Angostura bitters, shaken and served up.

Use herbs including thyme or lavender to infuse drinks as varied as lemonade, champagne or spritzers.
Love Lillet? Who doesn’t?  It’s so refreshing for summer, too. ( )  
Replace the orange slice with basil a sprig of cucumber or cinnamon, tonic, and basil

Not inclined to liquor? There’s an abundance of online recipes to harvest including this one:

Herbal Soda             
1/2 cups sugar
3/4 ounce fresh herbs, such as basil, lemon verbena, mint,
tarragon, or thyme
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Sparkling water or club soda, ice for serving

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