Category Archives: Herbs

Prepping for Pesto

For many years I’ve wanted to purchase the BIG olive oil.  But I could never really justify it.  Until now!

With five family members and a garden full of green stuff, it’s finally time for the big olive oil at our house.  This week I bought it in anticipation of making pesto.  While the basil in my garden isn’t quite ready to be picked yet, the arugula is going gangbusters and with the upcoming hot forecast it’s destined to bolt soon.

Since I was prepped for pesto-making, it was easy to throw together some arugula walnut pesto for my freezer this morning in between other household chores.

I’m at a point where I don’t use a recipe, but if you are looking for a starting point here are some measurements:

4 cups packed arugula leaves
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Start food processor and drop in garlic cloves.  Once chopped, turn off processor, add arugula, walnuts, salt and pepper.  Process a bit, then while leaving processor on, stream in olive oil slowly.  Continue processing until it reaches a nice saucy consistency.

I do not put cheese in pesto I intend to freeze.  It’s nicer to add the cheese later when using the pesto.  That way the cheese is fresh and I can customize the amount depending on how I’m using the pesto.

Pesto freezes nicely in small serving size containers.

Many sources will tell you to freeze pesto in ice-cube trays.   If this works for you, fine.  But I find that it’s hard to remove them from the trays and it makes my ice-cube trays smell like pesto.  Not good when I need to chill my lemonade.  The serving size containers are so much easier to work with.  They sell small and even very small sizes of these containers, perfect for pesto.  I will never go back to the ice-cube tray method again.  (Just thought you’d like to know!)

Pesto can be pricey.  To save money it’s possible to substitute a more affordable nut, as I did with my arugula pesto.  The traditional pesto nut is a pine nut.  These are delicious and I do use them, especially with a basil pesto.  But it’s fun to experiment with other nuts and the results are almost always delicious.

I also save money by adding cheese later.  Sometimes I don’t even add cheese since it’s yummy without.  Or I will just put cheese over a dish made with pesto, such as sprinkled over pasta or a pizza made with pesto sauce.  Don’t try to save money by using the green can of Parmesan in pesto.  Always use a real wedge of cheese (domestic is fine, imported is divine) and grate it yourself.

And of course, the number one money-saver idea I can offer is to grow your ingredients yourself.  Basil (and arugula) are very easy to grow in a backyard garden or in pots.  You can grow a large amount and really stock up the freezer for the winter.  Parsley, mint and cilantro can also be used for making pesto…. each has its own unique flavor.

Turning Herbs Into Beverages

When we moved into this house four summers ago the only herb I’d ever grown was a small pot of basil.  I knew that had to change, so the very first thing we did that next spring was install a raised bed specifically for growing herbs.

Construction of the herb garden was a priority when we moved in to our new house.

Since that time I’ve really developed a love of herb gardening and especially a love of cooking with herbs.  I can’t even imagine NOT having herbs now.  Food would not be the same.

This year I’m looking for even more ways to use my herbs.  Since eating them is such a delight the natural next step would be drinking herbs.  This past week my kids picked chamomile flowers for me so I could preserve them for chamomile tea.  The process was simple.

My son picking chamomile flowers.

After soaking them in some salt water for 10 minutes to get the bugs off, I laid them out to dry on a towel.  Once the water had evaporated off, it was time for the oven.

I preheated the oven to 200 degrees then turned it off.  I place the chamomile on a parchment lined baking sheet and put it in the oven for a few hours.  When the oven was completely cooled again I took the sheet out, preheated again to 200 degrees, turned the oven off once more and put the sheet back in for a few more hours.  In all, it took about 4 hours to dry the chamomile.

Dried chamomile ready to be put in a jar for later use.

Then, all I had to do was put it in a jar with a nice tight lid and store it for a cool fall evening in the future.  I do love time traveling food.

Chamomile tea!

As chamomile flowers continue to blossom on my plant I’ll continue the process and hopefully fill up my jar.

The lavender was looking equally inviting this week so I decided to use it in a simple syrup recipe.

Lavender buds are best harvested just as they open.  I carefully selected which stems looked the best and clipped those off with my kitchen scissors.  Once in the house I used the same bug removing process that I did with the chamomile.

Picked lavender, I used a couple teaspoons in the simple syrup.

Just right for harvesting, some buds are open, some are not.

Soaking the lavender in salt water to remove bugs.

The next day, when the lavender was dry, I removed all the purple buds from the stems.

To make simple syrup I combine equal parts granulated sugar with water and bring to a boil.  To make a flavored syrup, I toss in whatever herb I’m using before I turn the heat on.  This time it was the lavender buds that I put in.  Once the syrup comes to a nice rolling boil, I turned it off and let the lavender steep until the syrup was no longer hot but just warm.  At this point I take a coffee filter lined strainer and putting that over a container I pour the syrup through it so that the lavender buds are left behind and syrup drips through.

The result is a nice clear lavender-scented simple syrup perfect for a cup of tea or a classy cocktail!

I used mine with some rum and club soda for a refreshing summer drink.  Yum!

This process works great with all herbs.  I’ve tried it with mint and the results were delicious.  Makes a potent mojito or mint julep.

My next herbal beverage project will be drying mint for mint tea.  I have a very healthy chocolate mint plant that is ready to be harvested.  The best time to harvest mint (and most leafy herbs) is just before it bolts and produces flowers.

It’s nice to use a large quantity of mint too because cutting the mint actually keeps the plant healthy.  And I’d much rather use the mint to make tea than toss it in my compost.

These are just a few ideas, there are so many ways to use herbs.  Can’t wait to hear YOUR ideas!  If you’ve got a good one, please leave a comment.

Garlic Update

Remember a few weeks ago I was hanging my garlic in the garage to cure:

Here is my garlic 3-4 weeks ago.

Now the garlic has been brought in, cleaned and trimmed up for storage.  Looks pretty good.

Garlic is now ready to use.

I have a dozen or so bulbs in the garage curing, these were harvested later than this first group.  I’m not sure how long this garlic will last us (we use it up pretty quickly around here) but I’m happy with the crop this year, and the fact that I can cook with my own garlic.

I’ve already been using this garlic in dishes (including last night’s pesto) and so far it’s tasted great.

Growing Garlic

I’m a garlic girl through and through.  Truly.  If I was stranded on a deserted island in the middle of the sea, you can bet I’d ask for garlic.  To season the seafood I caught of course!  Along with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemons, garlic is my go-to ingredient, always in my pantry and (nearly) always in my food.  I just can’t enough.

So it makes sense for a gardener with a garlic bent to grow the stuff.  I first tried growing garlic two years ago, with okay results.  I planted in spring and had smallish but flavorful bulbs that season.  But it wasn’t the robust garlic crop I had hoped for.  So this year I’m attempting to redeem myself.

I started off this time by ordering garlic bulbs in the fall and planting them in early November.  (Wish I snapped a photo!)  This is so super easy, and much like planting tulips it takes a few minutes and the reward the following spring is worth many times the small effort put in during the fall.

Planting garlic is a breeze.  I just broke each bulb into cloves, and planted each clove just as I would a tulip bulb… about 6 inches deep, 10-12 inches apart.  A little mulch on top and they were ready for winter.

At the first sign of spring here in Wisconsin, garlic began to poke through the ground.

Garlic breaks through the ground.

As the season wore on, the garlic kept growing.  It is hard to mess this up… it doesn’t need a lot of watering or attention.  The only thing I did–which isn’t even necessary as far as I know–is to trim off the garlic scapes as they grew and began to curl around.  Doing this allows the garlic to put more energy into growing the bulbs, resulting in bigger more flavorful bulbs.  The added benefit of this practice is that I get to eat the garlic scapes, which are a delicious seasonal treat.

Garlic scapes.

The garlic scape is the flower of the garlic plant.

When the scapes curl around like this I cut them off the plant.

Garlic scapes are great in pesto.

Once the garlic starts to get that dried out brown look, it’s ready to harvest.  But a few weeks before, I pulled out a sample of young garlic (also called “green garlic”) to use with some salmon.  Unlike garlic in its’ familiar cured form, the green garlic is juicier without the papery wrapping around it.  It’s very fresh and the flavor is bright and spicy.

"Green" garlic and rosemary flavor this piece of salmon.

As for the curing process, I pull the garlic out of the garden when the green has turned 50-60% brown.  For a day or two I let the whole garlic sit out on the deck to air dry.  Once dry, I knock off the soil to prepare them for curing.  I’m going for mostly clean, but just rubbing the soil off–no rinsing with water.

At this point the garlic is tied up in bunches of about six and hung in my garage.  I put them in the garage because it’s outdoors but free of drafts and out of the sun.  The garlic stays in the garage for three weeks or until it has that papery garlic look and feel.

Harvested garlic dries on the deck and then is bundled and tied for curing.

String or twine works great.

This garlic will cure in the garage for approximately three weeks.

Once cured, I cut off the stems, dust off any more soil, and put them in an open box or basket for storage.  I keep my garlic in the basement and bring them up to the kitchen as needed.  Homegrown garlic tastes great.  I know where it was grown and what kind of soil was used.  And like most things you grow yourself, there is a good return on the investment.  I will get a few dozen bulbs that will last about six months.

Using the garlic is the best part.  During the growing season garlic finds its way into salad dressings and pestos.  I like to throw a whole bulb in with beets to roast in a foil packet.  Garlic goes great with poultry, fish and meats too.  In fact it’s hard for me to think of something I don’t love to eat with garlic.  It’s the perfect flavor to go with all those greens I grow.  Just sliced and sautéed in some oil, then throw the greens in.  Soups and stew, and especially sauces, salsa and bruschetta toppings are not complete without the addition of garlic.

While I’m sure there are more detailed instructions on how to grow garlic than I’ve provided here, I do think growing garlic is truly this simple and shouldn’t be over thought.  I remember when I thought there was some trick to growing garlic, but now I can see that it’s just a matter of planting in the fall and patiently waiting for nature to take its course.  Couldn’t be easier!

Gathering Greens & A Few Other Things

Washed, bagged salad greens are perhaps one of the greatest inventions of our modern times.  Sort of.  It’s completely convenient and easy to dump them into a bowl and dress them for a salad, or into a skillet to saute for dinner.  They are clean and crisp, and relatively inexpensive.  But when I think of the gross amount of water and energy used to bring those greens to my table, I cringe a little bit.

Somewhere out in California or Mexico, depending on the season, those greens were grown, washed, bagged, loaded on a refrigerated truck, driven to Wisconsin, kept cold by refrigeration until they made their way to my house and ultimately my mouth.

It seems ridiculous because it’s so easy to just plant a few seeds out in my yard and eat fresh(er) greens anytime I want (as the season permits) using virtually a fraction of a fraction of the amount of energy used to bring me those bagged, washed grocery store varieties.

Don’t get me wrong: I do occasionally treat myself to box or bag of grocery store salad in the dead of winter.  I’m not a purist by any stretch of the imagination.

But I am thoughtful about my greens, and thankful I can grow ’em myself 7 months out of the year.

I like to grow spinach, arugula, head lettuce, leaf lettuce, swiss chard and will be adding kale to the lineup this year.  In addition we also eat the tops of our radishes and beets.

When I’m ready to make a salad or saute something green, I head outside.  Using a kitchen scissors I make quick work of gathering what I need.  As I cut, I put everything directly into my salad spinner.

I take the salad spinner insert outside to harvest greens.

Arugula fresh from the garden, prior to washing.

Once inside I use the salad spinner to bathe the greens in very cold water… this perks them right up and brings them to the perfect temperature for serving.  At the same time they are getting nice and clean without the use of machinery or bleach or anything else those big salad growers out West are using.

I spin them dry in the spinner and we are ready to use them.

When I want to prep the greens in advance of using them or I just have more than I can eat at one time, I store them in a plastic bag with a paper towel in it.  This seems to keep them crisp and they usually last at least a week in the refrigerator, sometimes longer.

Bagged arugula is ready for the refrigerator.

If I discover a more earth-friendly way to do this that doesn’t involve plastic or paper towels I’ll be happy.  But for now this works marvelously for me.

Now on to a few other items.  This time of year tomato plants are growing very quickly and putting new leaves, branches and blossoms every day.  I am in the habit and pinching off the “suckers” that grow between the stem and branches.  It helps to develop a stronger plant.

"Suckers" grow at the point where the stem meets the branch. At this size they are easy to pinch off.

We’ve also had some excellent bird viewing around the garden these last few days.  Our robins have been carefully guarding their eggs.  I’ve noticed that they take turns, one of them tends to sit on the nest most of the time and when it’s the second one’s turn to be on guard duty he prefers to sit on the edge of the nest or in a nearby location.  The fence that hides our air conditioner seems to be a favorite location.

This nest is so sweet. It's getting more difficult to see and photograph it as the honeysuckle has filled in.

Mr. Robin on his favorite perch at night. He's noticed me taking his picture.

Here is Mr. Robin in the background and the trellis where the nest sits in the foreground. He never lets the nest out of his sight and is quick to run other birds such as cardinals out of the yard.

Mrs. Robin dutifully sits. I wonder if these lights surprised her the first night they came on.

A yellow finch stopped by for a drink at the honeysuckle. I've also spotted hummingbirds here.

And finally, I’ve been very busy putting all the starts and seeds into the garden beds this last week.  I’m happy to report that (for now) everything is in!  There will be some successive planting and late season planting later on, but the big spring dig is done and I’m very pleased with how it’s come together so far.

Herb bed and trellis with honeysuckle.

Vegetable bed with the grid still in place. I've planted using a square foot approach this year.

Garden to Table: Chives, Part 1

The first thing to be harvested from the garden each year are vibrant green chives.  I love to see these poke through the ground, sometimes they even make it through the snow.

Flowering chives are a very pretty element of the herb garden.

My favorite uses for chives include:

on scrambled eggs
in a salad
on potatoes, rice or any grain
on tomato slices
in a condiment buffet for nachos, tacos or other Mexican fare
sprinkled over grilled meats

My kids like to grab a chive while playing in the yard and snack on it.  I do that same thing once in a while!

Chives have an oniony flavor.  I sometimes use them instead of green onions.  Early in the season the flavor is more mild, later in the season the oniony-ness becomes stronger.

It’s easiest to snip the chives with a kitchen scissors.  This is also the tool I use to harvest them out of the garden.  I cut them about an inch from the soil.  They continue growing, so I can cut fresh chives for the entire growing season and never run out.

This week I made Smashed Chive Potatoes from a recipe I clipped out of the newspaper in 2005–before I even grew chives.  I just knew I’d have a garden someday and was always clipping out recipes to use in the future.  Now I have a virtual library of clippings.  It’s a bit chaotic, but also fun, to go rifling through the recipes and I feel so happy when I come across just the right one.

The recipe does not exist online (that I can find) so I’m sharing it here.  I really enjoyed it!  And my family did too.

Smashed Chive Potatoes
Tribune Media Services, from the April 13, 2005 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, skins on
1 ounce chopped chives, a few chives reserved for garnish
1/4 cup of good olive oil
2 tablespoons chicken broth
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and mixed pepper (red, white, black)

Cut potatoes into quarters.  (Don not peel.)  Boil until tender, about 15 minutes.  Drain and pat dry with paper towels.  Mash by hand or lightly with mixer.  (Do not overmix, or else potatoes will become gluey.)

Add chives, olive oil, chicken broth and garlic, and mix.  Add salt and pepper to taste and garnish with chopped chives.  Makes about 4 servings.

This is a one pot smashed potato recipe that makes tasty use of fresh chives.

Garden to Table: Chickpea Salad & Sweet-Sour Coleslaw

It’s the second to last day of March (a month that was more lion than lamb) and I’m kicking off my Garden to Table series with two delicious side dishes.  I have, in fact, harvested some parsley and basil from my indoor garden.  While they are a drop in the bucket of what will inevitably be an herb filled growing season, they are so very welcome!  I’m thrilled to share this dish with you as it is absolutely delicious. 

Simple and delicious.

Bon Appetit readers will recognize this recipe from the most current issue of the magazine, April 2011.  I couldn’t resist such a simple but satisfying example of how even the most meager use of fresh herbs can dress up something like a chickpea in way that makes it sing.

Basil leaves of the bush basil plant I started in February.

Parsley, plants are still small but there are enough leaves to add flavor to this dish.

Who knew chickpeas could be so satisfying? Notice how the fresh herbs punctuate this dish.


Here is where you can find the chickpea recipe:  Chickpea Salad with Lemon, Parmesan and Fresh Herbs.

The second item I used today from my garden was carrots.  Carrots?  In March?  Why, yes.  It’s a fact that carrots, if stored properly, can remain sweet, crispy and fresh for months… in this case half a year.  I only had a few left so I shredded them and put them into a crunchy Asian style coleslaw.  I learned to make this coleslaw using a Betty Crocker cookbook.  It works every time, even when I’m missing an ingredient here or there.  Today I was short the green pepper, so I just left that out.

Carrots harvested in September become March's coleslaw.

These two side dishes will be served tonight alongside some grilled Italian sausages.  It’s pretty cold outside–mid-30’s!–but that doesn’t stop a true Wisconsinite from grilling sausages.  It wouldn’t stop me from grilling veggies either! 

There’s no reason a gardener can’t infuse dishes with homegrown goodness year round.  It requires planning, but not so much to be an inconvenience.  And sometimes serendipity plays a role as well.  Things just fall into place once in a while and an ingredient presents itself at just the right time.  (I didn’t remember I had those carrots!  But I was sure happy to find them this morning when trying to figure out what to do with half of a cabbage.)

Since Betty doesn’t share her coleslaw recipe online, I’ve typed it out for you here.  It’s so good!

Sweet-and-Sour Coleslaw
Betty Crocker’s Cookbook Bridal Edition 2001

1/2 medium head cabbage, finely shredded (4 cups)
1 large carrot, finely shredded (1 cup)
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped (1 cup)
4 medium green onions, thinly sliced (1/4 cup)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup white wine, white vinegar or cider vinegar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Place cabbage, carrot, bell pepper and onions in large glass or plastic bowl.
2. Shake remaining ingredients in tightly covered container.  Pour over vegetables; stir.  Cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours, stirring several times, until chilled.  Serve with slotted spoon.  Store covered in refrigerator.

Happy Cooking!  And don’t be shy if you have recipes or ideas to share throughout the season.  I welcome links to recipes in the comments area or at my Twitter account @AGraciousGarden.

A February Kind of Project

Inspired by the salad mixes I’ve seen in the grocery store lately, I thought I might try to grow some herbs indoors to add to salad greens.  I especially like some cilantro thrown in to a salad, and since I use parsley and basil weekly anyway, they seemed like nice additions too.

My initial idea was to plant them in the cans I had leftover from my recent mega batch of chili.  Then, over the weekend while perusing a magazine, I saw this:

Herb-in-a-Can project on the pages of this month's Birds and Blooms.

Well, I guess someone else had the same idea.  At least I know it works!

And so I’ve recruited my kids to help.  Here is our herb project in photos:

Empty cans are a nice size for growing some herbs.

Not pictured is my husband using some sort of power tool to make drainage holes in the cans.  It’s important to provide a place for water to drain out of, and into.  Once these cans are planted, they will be put on a tray with pebbles or marbles underneath them to allow for proper drainage.

Next, let your child play with the cans. (This step is optional!)


We filled the cans with a soiless seeding mix.

Prepared for the mess, I covered our workspace in newspaper.

Cans are filled with mix, water is added and then some more mix to fill. Sure glad I put the newspaper down!


Seeds selected for this project: parsley, cilantro and bush basil.

We labeled the cans before we put the seeds in, just to be safe!

My son sprinkles the seeds on, we then cover lightly with the soiless mix.

Finally, the seeds are given a spritz of water.

Ready to germinate.

My next step will be to add the pebbles to this tray, then stash it in the bathroom until the seeds germinate.  Wait–did I just say the bathroom?  Indeed!  It’s the warmest room in our house and we always take advantage of the heat in there to germinate our seeds.  I do not have to use heat mats or grow lights to start seeds.  Bonus: the emerging seedlings LOVE the steam from the shower.

I’ll be sure to keep readers posted on this project!

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Time

What a difference a year makes.  The span of time between putting my first herb seedlings into a freshly filled raised bed and harvesting from second year plants is relatively brief–just over one year.  But for an herb, that one year makes the difference between infancy and adulthood.
In spring of 2009, I recruited my husband to build a raised bed to be used specifically for herbs.  Only 18 inches wide, it’s easily accessed from either side, and herbs have room to spill over the sides if necessary.  It also provides a nice border for the small patio garden where most of my garden grows.

Newly built raised bed with seedlings.


In 2009, I planted parsley, chives, dill, sage, rosemary, thyme, lavender, oregano and basil in the raised bed.  All grew, though some did better than others.  The rosemary never grew taller than six inches, and remained thin.   The dill did fine for a few weeks but seemed to go to seed very quickly, and since I did not sow a second or third crop we didn’t have any by the time other veggies were ready to harvest.

Overall, I was pleased with the abundance of parsley, chives, sage, lavender and oregano.  That summer I came to know the herb garden and all of it’s smells and flavors.

First year herb garden mid-season.

But it was the following year in which the herb garden really came into it’s own.  Early spring saw chives shooting up through the snow.  Soon after, tiny green leaves began to grow on what looked like dead wood of thyme, oregano, sage and lavender. 

Rosemary and parsley did not survive the winter.  It’s just as well.  I found a new spot in the bed for the parsley and moved rosemary to a pot where it has been much happier.  Now the rosemary can come inside with me for the winter and be used in winter soups and sauces.

Potted rosemary can live indoors or out.

Year two was one of pruning back.  The sage became huge, almost tree-like in the way it became thick and woody, stems reaching all over the place.  Chives needed constant cutting.  In fact, by the end of the season I removed three plants, knowing I wouldn’t need them next year.  This could free up space for something new.

The best part of the herbs’ second year was the beautiful flowers.  All edible, all beautiful.  And they attracted the most interesting insects and butterflies to our garden.  I can’t wait till next year when the flower show begins again.

Herb garden, year two. Basil in nearby container.

Lavender flowers delighted us all season.

A sea of herbs.

I wonder what the herb garden will look like in its’ third year?  Will it overgrow its small space?  Will plants come back just as healthy?  Will I need to replant anything?  I especially wonder about that parsley.  Biennial, it should come back this spring if conditions are right.

Time will tell how the herb garden will grow.  After two years with it, I know this: I’ll never have a home without an herb garden again.  Herbs brighten up our food, look and smell great in the garden and are a conversation piece for guests to our home.  They attract butterflies and hummingbirds.  My kids can’t help but grab an herb and munch on it while they play outside.  We’ve come to appreciate our herb garden more than we could have imagined when we first set out.  I simply love my herb garden.

Time Traveling Food

My siblings and I have often joked about the many mysterious foil packages in my mother’s freezer.  Big ones, tiny ones and every size in between.  Some labeled cryptically while others given elaborate labels complete with dates.  We have never been sure of Mom’s system, but we know it always involves foil and somehow–for her–it works.  My brother coined the phrase “time traveling food” to describe the meals that magically appear, having not been seen for months, now piping hot and served as if Mom had just made them.

Now I’m a mom, and a woman with a deep freeze.  And being a gardener, sending my food on a journey through time just makes sense.  After all, when there are bushels of basil ready to be picked it has to have somewhere to go.  I send it to my freezer, neatly packaged as pesto in serving size containers, labeled and ready for December’s pizza or January’s spaghetti.

Being a sensory person, my senses are thrilled each and every time I open one of my time traveling pestos.  The sweet smell of summer!  It’s here!  It’s here any day of the year, any time I want it… I can smell it, I can taste it, I can see the verdant green that hasn’t been seen in living color outside my window in months.  It is always at this moment–the moment of initial inhalation–that I question why in the world I didn’t grow double the basil and make double the pesto!?

Oh well, I will just have to ration the supply. 

Because in a few months I’ll be up to my ears in basil again and thinking where in the world am I going to put all of this!?

Angela's basil of 2010, now residing in the deep freeze!