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Gifts from the Herb Garden

By Vicki Blachman
Freelance Writer

Create gifts with the harvest of your herb garden and you've not only captured its vibrant fragrances and flavors, you've captured time. (Honestly, no "thyme" joke intended.) Your gift reflects the moments you spend creating a unique and thoughtful gift, and forges a connection to centuries of herbal tradition. Although preserving the seasonal bounty may have been the original reason for storing herbs, we can borrow a few simple techniques from the past to create a wide variety of welcome presents.

To begin our discussion of herbal gifts, I'd ask one thing: Can you make tea? I'd also give fair warning that herb enthusiasts are a territorial bunch and we often consider something "ours" that you may not have thought of as an herb - such as roses, irises, and sometimes chiles. (I just added that chile part hoping to stake an early claim for one of my favorites.)

We appreciate the textures and colors of herbs in our landscapes, but many of us fail to enjoy the full benefit of their wonderful scents and flavors in cooking and crafts simply because we don't realize how easy it is. With their combination of beauty in the landscape and usefulness in the home, herbs may even be considered perfect plants. But, more often than not, herbs are like zucchini. There are times you have a lot more than you need. Lots of basil at the end of summer, lots of cilantro or dill just as the winter chill gives way to spring, or lots of marjoram just about any time. Having a couple of simple techniques for dealing with the abundance will keep your garden healthier and yield the added bonus of gifts ready to go at a moment's notice.

This leads to my tea question. Cooking or crafting with herbs may be a rich tradition influenced by many cultures and using a variety of skills, but a surprising number of impressive and welcomed gifts can be made by doing nothing more than steeping a flavoring agent in a liquid; in other words, making "tea," more accurately known as infusions. Cordials and liqueurs, herbal oils, honeys, vinegars, simple syrups, and a surprising number of beauty treatments are easily prepared this way with a minimal investment of time. And if you transfer the flavors or scents to a dry carrier such as salt or sugar, you've opened up another chapter in gifts from the herb garden.

There are a number of reasons to transfer the flavors of your herbs to a carrier rather than just storing the leaves. One is that a carrier such as alcohol or vinegar has a much longer shelf life than fresh herbs. Although plant material will begin to break down as it steeps in the liquid, we can strain out the leaves and preserve appearance and flavor at peak levels once the maximum amount of essential oil has been extracted. Some herbs, such as scented geraniums, have a fuzzy or fibrous texture that may be pleasant to touch but less than enjoyable to consume. We can instead enjoy them in teas, fruit salads and jellies by transferring their scents and flavors to a carrier such as a simple syrup or fruit juice.

HERBAL VINEGARS
Many people want an exact recipe, but when it comes to combining herbs, the only difficult part is learning to trust your nose. If sprigs of Mexican oregano and sage smell good together, why not try them in a vinegar with a few dried chiles and cloves of garlic? A zesty combo of lemon thyme, lemon peel, lemongrass or lemon verbena and lemon basil? Go for it! Dried Szechuan or Thai peppers, fresh ginger root, star anise and garlic chives in rice vinegar would be perfect to brighten a stir fry. Ferny fresh dill with its interesting flower umbels is beautiful, flavorful, and not at all just for pickles. Summer or winter savory with peppercorns will add zip to green beans. Salad burnet, garlic chives and nasturtiums in seasoned rice vinegar make a beautiful oil-free accent for salads or cooked vegetables. Mexican mint marigold by itself or with bay leaves, chives and garlic cloves. Rosemary with orange peel. Rosemary, garlic and whole peppercorns in red wine vinegar. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme? Of course! Use what you have and don't feel tied to a rigid recipe. And remember you can enhance any notes of clove, anise or citrus you detect in the various herbs by adding the whole spice or curls of fresh citrus peel to your infusions. Whole cardamom, crushed nutmeg, whole mustard or fennel seeds add complexity - even a roasted coffee bean or two! Add garlic or garlic chives for depth, and peppercorns and fresh or dried chiles for heat and interest.

I start with large "prep" jars - clean glass jars that hold at least two liters each. These can be French canning jars, crocks, gallon-sized glass pickle jars, or any large non-reactive container with a lid. To begin, gently pack the jar full of herb leaves, soft stems and blossoms. Whole spices, garlic cloves, citrus peel and chile peppers can be loose in the jar, just as long as everything remains below the surface of the vinegar. All of the original plant material will be strained out and replaced later when poured into gift jars. So don't worry too much about appearance. Some sources call for using distilled vinegar or cider vinegar as a base; but I use only what tastes good by itself, usually a good quality wine vinegar. Although red wine vinegar is the perfect complement to some flavor combinations, rice vinegar is my favorite all-purpose choice. It has a soft character that doesn't overwhelm the subtle flavors in herbs or the foods with which it might be used. And because it's clear to pale amber, it doesn't affect the color of other ingredients when used in cooking.

Pour enough vinegar into the prep jar to cover the herbs. Don't heat the vinegar as that will diminish desirable acidity. Generally, steeping at room temperature anywhere between one and two weeks will give you a well-flavored result. But if you've waited until the last minute and need to rush the process, you can place the loosely covered jar outside in the sun for a couple of hours for a jump start.

If your jar has a metal lid, you need to place a piece of plastic wrap loosely over the top before putting the lid on as vinegar corrodes metal. For long-term storage, remember it will eventually break down the rubber gaskets of canning jars as well. During the year, I strain my vinegars approximately every 3 months to remove plant material that has begun to break down and to inspect the jars. When flavors are well developed, your vinegars can be decanted into individual gift jars, or new herbs can be added for further complexity. If you keep a prep jar "brewing" all the time and a couple of gift bottles on hand, you can pour off a quick gift any time.

When ready to prepare your vinegars for gifts, be sure to decant one last time through a coffee filter or fine sieve. Pick fresh herbs for the gift bottles, leaving the leaves and blossoms attached to a section of stem to keep everything from floating to the surface. Use small bamboo skewers to hold fresh garlic and dried peppers in place for a pleasing presentation. Complete your gift by including suggestions for use. Depending on your blend, they can be used to deglaze pans and add color and flavor when cooking meat, to finish and brighten saut‚ed vegetables, or as part of a simple but flavorful vinaigrette. You'll find most people need no encouragement to use every drop of this flavorful gift.

HERBAL OILS
For liquid oils, follow the guidelines for herbal vinegars with one very important difference. Do not use garlic cloves in oils that will be stored without refrigeration. The oils provide a low oxygen, low acid environment that is ideal for the growth and subsequent toxin production of the bacterium that causes the illness botulism. Because we can't control the storage conditions after a gift goes home, it is safer to completely avoid the use of garlic when making flavored oils.

Any light flavored oil can be used. I generally choose a monounsaturated oil such as peanut, olive or avocado but avoid "EVOO" (extra virgin olive oil). Why pay a premium price for the flavor of EVOO only to cover it up with herbs? Grapeseed oil is a good choice for stir-frys due to its higher smoking temperature; but, although it's also considered a "healthy" oil, I find the fishy notes of canola oil make it a poor choice.

Remember when choosing herbs or flavoring ingredients for oils, a single or simple flavor is often best. After lightly packing the prep jar with herbs, cover with your oil of choice and use a skewer to remove air pockets. You can also gently press the herbs against the side of the jar from time to time to release the flavors. You may be tempted to warm the oil to help speed up the process. But remember that heating speeds up the breakdown of oils, diminishing shelf life and making them rancid and foul smelling. Better to plan ahead. At room temperature, two weeks is ample time for flavors to develop; or keep oils refrigerated if storing for longer periods of time. They still become flavorful and when the oil is brought to room temperature, it will return to a clear and liquid state. Pick fresh herbs for gift bottles, as covered in the directions for vinegars.

My introductory sentence on oils specifies "liquid" oils for a very good reason. When it's seasonally impractical to keep an herb growing for fresh use, my absolute favorite method for preserving is to combine the leaves in a blender or food processor with the smallest amount of oil necessary for blending to a smooth paste. I store these frozen in plastic freezer containers. While not practical for all of your gift giving, these frozen oils can be creatively packaged for those special family and friends living nearby.

SIMPLE SYRUPS
A trio of simple syrups makes a unique presentation. I particularly like to put small bottles of faint-green mint, pale-yellow lemon/fresh ginger, and pink rose petal/scented geranium syrups together in a basket as a hostess gift. Be sure to include suggestions for use such as tossing in fruit salads, drizzling over muffins or cake, and of course, to "gussy up" the beverage offerings at holiday meals. Rosemary syrup is a surprisingly delicious addition to lemonade; spearmint syrup is a natural in mojitos. And when offering iced or hot tea to guests, simple syrups transform this basic beverage to an entirely different experience.

You can make your syrups in different ratios of sugar to water. For our gifts, we'll make one that's just right for a variety of uses - from sweetening beverages to flavoring fruit salads - equal parts of water to granulated sugar.

Bring 2 cups water to a boil and stir in 2 cups of plain granulated sugar. Boil gently and stir until the sugar dissolves completely - there should be no visible crystals. Add the herbs or other flavoring agents and allow to steep until completely cooled. You can also leave the herbs in the syrups, refrigerate up to a month, then reheat and strain when you are ready to package them in gift jars.

Lemon verbena, rose petals (grown without pesticides, of course), most varieties of mint, fresh ginger root, citrus peels, rosemary, and a variety of scented geraniums all make delicious simple syrups.

CORDIALS, LIQUEURS, VODKAS
These infusions are generally made by steeping herbs, spices, simple syrup and sometimes fruit into a good quality alcohol such as vodka or brandy. Commercially-made flavored vodkas may bring a premium price, but are among the easiest to prepare as they have few ingredients and require no simple syrup. For citrus, peel a lemon or orange in a long continuous strip approximately 1/2 inch wide, avoiding the white pith as much as possible. Place the curl in the bottle of vodka and allow to steep. For a wonderful "fire and ice" combination, place whole peppercorns or fresh chiles on a bamboo skewer in the bottle of vodka and freeze for at least two weeks to develop flavors. And get a headstart on several popular cocktails by storing 1/2 to 1 cup of fresh peppermint or spearmint sprigs in a bottle of vodka or rum. Beautiful blue borage blossoms, that classic ingredient of a Pimm's Cup cocktail, also make a beautiful addition when packaging your vodkas.

This is my version of a classic recipe for "Thunder of Zeus" given to me by Madalene Hill nearly 30 years ago.

Thunder of Zeus
1 liter brandy
1-1/2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
3-inch stick of whole cinnamon
1 whole vanilla bean, split lengthwise

Make a simple syrup of 2 cups sugar with 2 cups water. Combine all ingredients in a large glass prep jar and allow to steep at least two weeks. To serve this taste of tradition, add a splash to well-chilled white wine. (I have also used a small amount to deglaze the pan when roasting poultry.)

TEAS AND TISANES
Herbs from your garden may be dried gently for use alone or in a base such as green or oolong tea. Traditionally, a tisane is an infusion made using any herb or leaf other than true tea, Camellia sinensis. Blends are best kept to a minimum so that the subtle qualities of the herbs may be enjoyed. Some herbs traditionally grown in Texas for use as tisanes include basil, bergamot, borage, catnip, chamomile, lemon verbena and mint.

Rose Petal/Lemon Verbena Tea
This is a great example of using a dry ingredient as a flavor carrier. The dried tea leaves not only bring their own flavor and qualities to the beverage, they absorb and preserve those of the rose petals and lemon verbena. The resulting blend is both beautiful to look at and deliciously flavored. In a large bowl, toss equal parts of dried organic rose petals and freshly picked lemon verbena leaves with gunpowder tea. Package this in a clear jar and label with brewing instructions. It's ready to give immediately after blending, but improves with storage.

If the roses from your garden aren't completely free of pesticides, purchase dried rose petals. They're available at many markets selling Middle Eastern foods.

BATH AND BEAUTY
Bath and beauty products make good use of the wide variety of scents in your herb garden. Again, just learn to trust your nose. Consider any fragrant leaf or colorful bloom from scented geraniums, lemon verbena, lemon grass, mint, rosemary, sage, thyme, lavender or roses.

BATH SALT
Here's another example of transferring scent to a dry carrier. As a general rule, to each cup of Epsom salts or coarse sea salt, add 1 cup of coarsely chopped herbs and petals, 2 tablespoons baking soda and 2 tablespoons borax. You can also boost the scent by adding up to 1/4 teaspoon of an essential oil. Combine well and package in plain muslin bags with drawstring closures. These bags are often found in stores where bulk loose teas are sold.

SKIN FRESHENER
Pack your prep jar with fresh or dried rose petals and a variety of rose-, lemon-, or mint-scented geranium leaves. Cover with witch hazel and allow to steep until well scented, usually about one week. Strain before putting in gift jars with fresh blossoms or large sprigs of scented geraniums still on the soft stems to prevent floating.

So in this season of gift-giving and tradition, why not combine the two in unique handmade gifts from your herb garden? Preparing your herbal gifts can be a welcome retreat from the stress of shopping malls and deadlines, and they're certain to delight recipients throughout the coming year.




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