Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dew on the Mint Plants

 Whew......  Life gets so hectic sometimes.   The kids get involved in complicated projects, gardens need to be tended to, the laundry pile threatens to actually hide the washing machine, and then a small pile of helpless creatures that needs to be bottle fed every couple hours usually turns up and the day goes from busy to a bit insane.    This has been the rhythm of my life lately, and I find myself trying to find ways to unwind and relax.    So, I slip on a pair of worn out tennis shoes and head out in an early morning misty rain to contemplate herbal teas. 
     Growing, drying, and making herbal tea is an extremely easy, and satisfying project that anyone can handle.  Here in Virginia, there are several herbs that are carefree and easy to grow.   These include all the mints, bee balm, lemon balm, lemongrass, stevia, and anise hyssop, lavender.   Then there are some slightly harder, but still rewarding herbs to grow for tea.  This list may include licorice root, horehound, chamomile, and hibiscus.  
         Harvesting of your herbs should be done on a dry day after the dew has evaporated.    I try to cut my  leaves just before the plant flowers.   This results in the highest concentration of flavor and scent in the dry leaves.   Roots should be harvested in the fall.   The fairly invasive herbs (such as mint) can really be harvested whenever they have a good stalk of green leaves growing.  Your biggest problem with the mints will be keeping up with the harvest and keeping them from overtaking your more obedient plants.  
       Once you have the leaves/ stems cut a simple way to dry them is to just hang them upside down.   I like my dehydrator and use that for most of my drying.   I have also heard of people using their hot car on a sunny day.   The key is quick heat with some air ventilation.   Dark is best also- if you have a hot attic with a fan that works very well.  After the leaves are dry and crumbly, they can be stored for a long time.   Light and heat are the things that will break down the herbs, so try to store them in a dark, cool spot.   I put mine in mason jars in the back of the pantry.   I feel that glass or stainless steel work better than plastic for keeping the herbs air tight.  
        After your herbs are dry, they can be used for tea at anytime.   I use about 1 TBSP dry herbs per cup.   ( Fresh is great too, when available,  just use 2 TBSP per cup)   Just heat your water to boiling, remove from the heat and add herbs.  Let them steep 3-5 min or to taste.   Sweeten, Strain and then enjoy your tea. During the summer, I like to make a big pot and then chill it in the fridge to serve cold.   Here is also a great way to get your kids to drink healthy herb teas (like nettle, oatstraw, etc)  If you make the iced tea and then freeze it in popsicle molds or make shaved ice with it later--  somehow my kids drink way more tea in popsicle form than hot tea form.       

After you have your tea dry you can experiment with many different flavors and combinations.   You can also  purchase herbs from the local health food store to add to your own or supplement what you can not grow.   I have purchased herbs lately to make a few different blends for some garden shows that I am doing this spring.   Here is a good basic recipe to follow for a simple tea blend-

    1 part flowery ( chamomile, calendula, wild rose petals, etc)
    2 part earthy  ( raspberry  leaves, nettles, etc)
    1 part fruity  ( rose hips, hibiscus, lemongrass, etc)
     1 part cooling ( peppermint, spearmint, etc)   

This picture above was one of my favorite new tea blends that I created this spring.   I am calling it  "Leave your troubles at the gate"  because it was made to help one relax and calm down after a stressful day.   It passed the "kid test" here in my household so I am passing the recipe along to you and your families....

     2 parts chamomile
     2 parts spearmint
     1/2 part lavender buds
     1/2 part cinnamon chips
     1 part passion flower  


Friday, April 6, 2012

Ideas for Kale

                 Kale is one of the healthiest foods that we can eat.  It is absolutely loaded with vitamins, and  it is a powerhouse and superfood of nutrients.   Unfortunately, in my family, it is also a food that I normally have to cook, disguise, smother, and then serve in small portions.  So, when a well meaning neighbor gave me two large, black trash bags full of kale this week, I was a bit overwhelmed.  Wasting food, especially REAL food, makes me feel rather ill  and so I racked my brain for something to do with all this kale.  It was then that I thought of my new dehydrater that was just waiting to get broken in.    I decided to try some kale chips and was thrilled to find  a great way to store lots of kale.    And here is the real kicker... My kids love them!       So here is what I did, and I would love to hear other ways you have found to serve this nutritous vegetable. 
1-   The first step was to clean and chop the kale.  This actually took the longest time for me out of all the steps.    Next time, I will get my kids to help with this part.   However, since I was uncertain how the chips were going to turn out, I hated to prolong the torture by also making them prepare such a large ammount of kale.   Basically, just rinse it and tear the leaves from the stems.   Simple, just time consuming.

2-    Next, I prepared a dressing for them in the Vita-Mix.  I tried 3 different ones for 3 separate dehydrator loads of kale.   The first used olive oil, honey, garlic, nutritional yeast, cardamom, and turmeric.   My next recipe included olive oil, honey, lemon and nutritional yeast.    The last one used olive oil, honey, Bragg's liquid aminos, lemon juice, and some ginger.   The last one turned out great, but the kids also really liked the second batch.  The first one did not go over quite as well.   I don't really have exact measurements, but you want to pour the mixture over the kale and then massage it into the kale until it is limp  and shrinks down to about half the original ammount.    (see above photo).   For an entire dehydrator full, I use somewhere around 1 cup olive oil, half or 3/4 lemon, one spoonful of honey, one small piece ginger and maybe 1/4 cup Braggs.   If you like nutritional yeast, then try about 1/3 cup.    Experiment with what your family likes.   The kale should be covered, but not dripping.   
    3-  Next came the easy part-  I dehydrated the kale at 110- 115 degrees.   ( Don't go over 118 and it is still considered "raw" because the enzymes are still intact.)   It took me about 5 hours,  but just keep an eye on it.  If your trays are really full you may have to turn the kale or wait longer.    It was during this step that I got a big smile.  The kids were actually "sneaking" into the back room and stealing kale out of the machine before it was even finished!    Oh the small joys of motherhood!   When it is done, the pieces are crisp and flavorful.   They can be stored in airtight containers in a cool, dark place.   My chips are in mason jars in the pantry.    Also, I have read that you can do this process in the oven if you do not have a dehydrator.  I don't know much about it and have not tried it.   However, it might be fun to try for those who don't have a dehydrator.      The above picture shows my final product--  very beautiful! 
    4- Clean up and enjoy the kale chips!   Hopefully, your kids will relish them also!     My chickens got all the stems and leftover pieces.   They enjoyed the scraps and then we get exceptional eggs later.