Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Putting the Herb Garden to Bed for Winter

Harvesting and Drying Roots

I've been the coordinator of the herb garden at 6/15 Green Community Garden for ten years now.  When I inherited the job it was a rubble strewn sloping weed patch with a large comfrey plant and a whole lot of lemon balm and mint.  I organized some members to double dig it and sift out the rubble.  The soil was amended with loads of compost and it was well worth all of the labor.  The soil is gorgeous - and if you're someone who loves to garden you know that soil can be gorgeous.

This was a really good year for the herb garden.  A lot of plants have gotten more established and are coming into their full glory.  Every year we add plants and it's now looking like a full lush garden with plenty of medicinal and culinary herbs.  However, the plot needs some order.  October is a great time to transplant so fellow member Elizabeth Kalin and I have spent some time the past two weekends working hard on making next summer even better.
We moved larger plants out of the paths so we could get into the plot with greater ease.  In so doing we moved the large marshmallow plants.  When I dug them up they divided easily so I planted most of them in the back of the plot and took home some roots to dry for winter.

Marshmallow root is a mucilagenous plant that is very soothing for inflammation and ulceration of the stomach and small intestine.  It's also useful for dry cough as it soothes the throat and expectorates.  It is also the source of the original marshmallow confection.  Commercial marshmallows substitute gelatin for the root.  I've searched far and wide  for a recipe and will try my hand at making the real thing this winter (to have with hot cocoa).  In case anyone feels brave and wants to try it:

Marshmallows from Real Marshmallow Root

1/4 cup dried marshmallow root
1 and 3/4 cups sugar
1 and 1/4 T gum tragacanth
2 cups water
2 egg whites, whipped,
2 t rosewater or orange flower water to taste

Simmer the toot in 1 and 1/2 cups of water for about 20 minutes.  Soak the gum in 1/2 cup water.  Stir the gum vigorously and plop it in the blender and cover and wait until the cooking root has made a slightly mucilaginous tea.  Strain out the root liquid into the blender and blend the root liquid with the gum paste very thoroughly.  Put this into a saucepan over a very low heat and stir.  It will be rubbery and will soften a little.  Add the sugar and whisk for a few minutes.  Quit when a candy thermometer reads 215.  Whip for two minutes.  Add the egg whites, beating a bit more to blend.  It will be very sticky.  "Pour" into a powdered sugar pan and wait to dry.  They are crunchy on the outside and melting on the inside when they're done.  Refrigerate.  (Recipe from lostpastremembered.blogspot.com)

We also dug up some angelica root.  The angelica plant has been a great source of amusement this past summer.  It was actually the original source of inspiration for making herb infused vodka.  The plant is an umbelifer in the same family as celery.  The stalk and leaves have a similar flavor and aroma but with a twist.  I discovered that it is the main ingredient in Chartreuse.  Angelica is good for indigestion, anemia, coughs and colds and is said to be warming.

Angelica root
The plant is in it's fourth year so this season it went to seed, which I collected in late summer.  Now it was time to process the dried root.  First I scrubbed it clean with a small vegetable brush and let it dry.  Then I began to untangle the massive thing and begin slicing it.  It's taken several days but I believe it's thoroughly dry now and ready to be stored in a jar for future use.  I make a cologne for men from an old recipe called Carmelite Water.  Carmelite nuns made it for King Charles the V of France in the 14th Century.  It calls for angelica root and I'm so pleased I'll be able to make it with a root I've grown and processed myself.

Angelica seed
Angelica root

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Custom Perfume Blending Workshop

In this three hour workshop students will learn the basics of blending and formulation to create their own custom perfume.  In a lovely intimate setting each student will gain an understanding of basic techniques and the raw materials used to create their own fragrance.  Participants will leave with a quarter ounce bottle of their creation.  No prior knowledge is necessary.

Saturday, November 6th
1 - 4pm
Park Slope, Brooklyn

Class is limited to five students
Cost:  $150, includes all materials
RSVP to info@herbalalchemy.net

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Infusing Vodka with Dried Fruits and Nuts

An Infusionary Tale

I've spent the better part of the last month brainstorming, shopping, experimenting and finally beginning to imbibe some fruit and nut infused vodkas.  After my summer cocktail tasting at Prospect Wine Shop working with herbs and summer fruits, my attention turned to the flavors of autumn and what I'd like to be drinking come October and November.  Here it is mid-October and my labors are starting to come to fruition, so to speak.

I began with nut vodkas, knowing that they had to steep longer that fruits or herbs.  My favorite nut is a toasted hazelnut so that kicked off the project.  I toasted them myself in a dry cast iron skillet on a carefully watched flame.  You have to pay attention it never smokes and that the nuts are turned regularly so they don't burn.  After a while you can hear the skins crackle and they start to release their aroma and get a bit golden colored.  When they get to the desired color transfer them to a bowl to cool thoroughly.  Once you can handle them rub the skins off one by one.  Now they're ready to be chopped.  As you can see these are a labor of love.  The end result is worth it.  Use about a quarter of a cup of chopped hazelnuts to one cup of vodka.  Shake them daily and let sit for about a month before filtering.

Toasting hazelnuts

I also made toasted walnut, almond and pistachio.  The walnut was good, nutty but wasn't distinctively walnut.  The almond was similar, maybe should be tried without the skins, but was much improved with a splash of pear nectar.  The pistachio, however, is divine, although I noticed that it can't age for too long or it can take on a soapy note.

Then I moved on to dried fruits.  Pears were a certainty and it turned out beautifully.  I had three kinds of figs to test:  organic Turkish,  pajerero and black mission.  The black mission fig vodka is a winner and is a beautiful purple color.  The fruit releases it's sweetness without being cloying so they're nice to sip alone or can mix with juice without getting too syrupy.  I used roughly about one third cup dried fruit to one cup vodka for about five days.

Black mission fig vodka
 After filtering them I got a better idea of what works and what doesn't and made more of the tastier things and drank the rest with friends.  Now it was time to play mixologist.  I took a good look at my essential oil collection and made up some new dilutions to play with.   I've added cardamom, clove, honey absolute, labdanum and sandalwood to the dilutions collection.

I have a lot of experimenting to do but the drinks are starting to take shape for the next tasting on Saturday, November the 13th, between 4pm and 6pm, Prospect Wine Shop, 322 Seventh Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  Check out their website at www.prospectwine.com for information on other tastings or stop by to peruse their extensive selection of fine wines and cocktail fixings.