It looks like I will be drinking a lot of herbal tea this winter. With a little mint added to it as well. Not that I mind tea but I am a coffee drinker. I consume at voracious speed about 12 cups of java a day. The tea inspiration comes not from my needing to slow down the caffeine addiction, nor to ease the obvious withdrawal systems of caffeine addiction. The inspiration to drink more tea this winter has come from my garden.
This spring I greatly expanded my herb gardens. I planted three tiny little lemon balm plants in one garden and a lemon verbena in a 12 inch pot on the patio next to my grilling deck. Like most herb gardens the initial result is disappointing since they take so long to get growing and actually produce something. In June however the herb garden(s) exploded and actually looked overcrowded.
I began taking the much needed cuttings and gave the plants their first haircut of the season around the 21st of June. Low and behold the garden returned to its orderly fashion not seen since Mother’s Day. Since then I have taken three additional cuttings. My garage now looks like a Middle Ages apothecary shop with dried herbs hanging in bunches all over the place. I will soon need to hang wire grids below the path of the garage door to hang more bunches from. I have everything from Chamomile to Coltsfoot hanging in various stages of drying. I just don’t know what I am going to do with all this stuff!
So I will be making lemon tea from the lemon scented catmint, the verbena, lemon balm, regular catmint and the pineapple scented mint. Just for old thyme Middle Ages sake I will probably add the Roman Chamomile flowers and perhaps a little dried basil to the tea. Basil you might ask? Why not, it has to go somewhere. When I drink tea I like old world musty, strong murky teas almost like the grogs concocted by the Middle Ages pharmacists. A little touch of basil in the tea bag will add the deep flavor and aroma kind of like roasted dandelion root gives to dandelion tea.
So what about the thirty cucumbers we picked last night on what was supposed to be a BUSH cucumber plant not a sprawling vine? Some will go into salads, many went to the neighbor across the street and the rest will go to flavor some vinegar and future crops (meaning tomorrows pickings) will be pickled.
Herbal vinegars are very easy to make and add extra dimension and depth to what is ordinary. Vegetable vinegars may seem an oddity but are interesting and flavorful additions to the winter kitchen. To make a vegetable vinegar first choose you favorite style of vinegar. Wine vinegars, cider vinegars and plain old white vinegar are prime candidates. Proportion of vinegar to vegetables is very important to get the most flavor. In fact most people making homemade vinegars for the first time to not use enough flavoring ingredients. The best ratio to use for vegetable vinegar is a 1 to three ratio one cup of veggies to three cups of vinegar. Peel and seed the vegetables of desired and place in a non reactive container. Then simply cover the veggies with vinegar seal the lid on the container and wait. After a week taste the vinegar. If the flavor is to your liking strain the vinegar into a bottle of your choosing, seal the lid and store. If not put the vinegar away again and try next week. For really flavorful concoctions strain out the original veggies, add fresh veggies put the vinegar back in and store for another week or two. Make sure you label the bottle with what kind of vinegar you just made.
This same process can be used for making herbal and fruit vinegars. Contrary to popular belief it is not necessary to heat the vinegar before pouring over the flavor mixture. The only time you may consider heating the vinegar slightly is when using spices that tend to be a little woody. Heating the vinegar then helps release the oils stored in the harder storage area of spices.
Canning vegetables and fruits is a great way to have the taste of the garden all winter long. However if not done correctly the results can be hazardous. A method to preserving the harvest of the season without the long canning process is to pickle them. Always start with sterilized clean jars. If you are using metal lids make sure they are not rusty. I had an overabundance of chile peppers last year and had to pickle them if I were to enjoy them. I found that not only did they taste great but the heat mellowed considerably compared to the flame thrower intensity from when they were fresh picked.
Choose you veggies from the garden and wash completely. Remove any blemishes or bruised sections. Combine in a pot 1 part vinegar, 1 part water and 1 tsp pickling salt per pint of liquid. Bring to a boil for one minute. Then pour carefully over the veggie mixture leaving no air space at the top of the jar. Add some pickling spices if you wish. Store the concoction in a dark cool place for three weeks before serving.
One note if using chiles or other small peppers whole. Poke wholes in them so the vinegar and spices can get inside the fruit. As well this will help the chile settle to the bottom of the jar and remove air pockets.
As for those fresh cut herbs. Cut them in late morning after the dew has dried. Always cut herbs for drying when they are free of dew drops or rain. Best flavor is late morning as well as just before flowers open. Tie into small bunches and hang them in a dark warm well ventilated area. They are ready for use when they are as brittle as fall leaves. Tie them tightly though. Herbs dry they shrink. Loosely tied bunches will end upon the floor. I use binding wire for good tight bunches that stay together.
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