A Decent Herb Garden

Someone recently asked me for  basic pointers on an herb garden that includes medicinal herbs. The thing is that many herbs are of course both culinary and medicinal. “Let thy food be thy medicine,”as Hippocrates said.So I will just mentally wander around my garden and try to organize the ones I see. But before I do that, I would just emphasize that most culinary herbs prefer well-drained soil and sun, with some sand and maybe some wood ashes added. Don’t add much nitrogen; it will make herbs grow lush and leafy but not as strong flavored.


yes, that’s Thai basil on the right

Basil– Well, there are so many cool basils, for medicinal use as well- they call them Tulsi in India, and there are a lot of African ones as well. My favorite is Besobila, the pretty Ethiopian Holy Basil. I saved some seed out of some besobila I got for Ethiopian cooking- they use the dried seedheads. Smells a bit like pineapple and has a great compact growth habit. Wonderful for headaches, colds, vitality, and spiritual funks. But of course you have to have Genovese basil for pesto, and Purple for salads. Pinch the flowering spikes off and it will grow back double, like the Hydra in the legend of Hercules.

Rosemary is a must have, and very efficient, since they grow into monster fragrant bushes, feed bees, counteract the carcinogens in roasted meat, perfume the house while cooking, and counteract depression, especially in Mediterranean types. I hear they make a rosemary hair rinse for dark hair as well. Who knew?

Tarragon is hard to grow for me- the French kind, so I don’t know much about it, but a bit in a jar of vinegar infuses wonderfully and it is so good in pickles.  It needs protection from gross physical violence and my cats are always digging it up. When we lived in France we had a giant bush. I guess it likes a cooler damper, more catless environment. The Russian kind is less delicious.

Catnip, speaking of cats, is tough as a boot, spreads readily, feeds the bees, amuses the felines, and makes a nice tea for whiny babies of all ages. It is very perennial. My husband hit it with the tiller and it made babies everywhere, like a starfish.

Parsley (Italian is tastier) has more vitamins than oranges, and should be used as a vegetable- giant handfuls chopped fresh into everything. You can’t beat it in Tabouleh. Also freshens the breath, says Nicolas Culpeper. It is biennial, so save seeds every other year and be sure to work some into the soil early, as it is not happy sprouting when it gets too hot and dry.

Sage is also great for tea, I think for the same reasons, and is of course good with meat. It is available in many different leaf colors and can grow to be quite a bush. My friend has a purple one that is three feet by five. It is definitely relaxing, good for digestion, and helps with unwanted sweating.

Thyme is sensitive about drainage, and is very pretty and delicious with lentils, chicken, salad, everything. There are a zillion kinds with different variations and flavors. Wonderful in tea if you are catching a chesty cold. It is quite antimicrobial. Plant in the front- it is short, some kinds even to the point of crawling between flagstones, and it won’t tolerate competition from other plants. English Thyme is softer and broader leafed, and Mediterranean types are more woody and resinous.

mentha nigra piperata

This is the most vicious black peppermint; mentha piperata var. nigra

Mint is a water lover and quite invasive, so plant in a sunken pot where there is a leaky faucet or something. Frankly, I ripped mine out and stomped it into a ditch, where it flourishes and smells great when mowed. Great with meats, tabouleh, juleps, easy to tincture and make home made creme de menthe. Alcohol and oil infusions are great externally as liniment for injuries. I have spearmint; very sweet and a calming tea and face lotion, and  mentha nigra, which is industrial strength. There are many types, from huge hairy Apple Mint to delicate creeping Pennyroyal, which is not for eating, especially if you could be pregnant.

Lemon Balm, also called Melissa,  is a lemon scented mint looking perennial, very vigorous and spreading. The tea of the dried or fresh plant is delicate and lemony, and works very well for headaches. The crushed or chewed leaves are apparently a great remedy for cold sores and herpes lesions, perhaps antiviral. I have been given a facial with the tea, mixed with Rose Geranium.

Rose geranium is a tender perennial but you can overwinter it as a houseplant as it grows well in pots and roots easily from cuttings.  It has small pink flowers and fuzzy hand shaped leaves that are redolent of roses. A Victorian favorite, it is a strong astringent and makes a nice face wash as well as lovely potpourri. I have heard of people laying a leaf flat in a cakepan before pouring on the dough.

Bergamot, or Monarda, is a spectacular plant, also mint family, prettiest I think in the scarlet variety. It has a feathery crown of flowers bursting out of a pincushion of bracts. It is the flavoring for Earl Grey tea. It is a good 3-4 feet tall, and perennial, but does clump neatly. The tea is calming on many levels, and probably antimicrobial, since there is something of oregano and marjoram in the fragrance.

I have regular Oregano and Greek Oregano. The regular has pinker flowers and very delicate stems, while the Greek has a more resinous flavor and thicker stems. It is of course great in Mediterranean food, but I also love it in tea. I find that it always makes my stomach better; probably the fragrant bitterness stimulates my liver.Oregano is about a foot tall so it can go in front of taller plants.

Fennel liqueur is similar to anisette

Fennel liqueur is similar to anisette

Fennel is very useful; Bronze is pretty and very tough in zone 7, but does not bulb up for finocchio the way white fennel does. They are perennial, although the most symmetrical bulbs come from the first season. We use fronds for garnish, bulbs braised and in salads, and we tincture seeds for liqueur. Also use seeds in baking and some Italian dishes. They are great for stomach ailments and as a digestive- are used as such in many countries. The pollen is the latest expensive spice I hear.

Coriander/cilantro is a threefer annual; the fresh leaves are delicious, especially in Asian and Latino food, and chelate heavy metals very well. The flowers are pretty, although the flavor becomes sweeter as soon as it bolts. The seeds are used in Indian cooking, like my yummy spicy Indian style venison curry and are great for digestion. It is very prone to bolt and then you are pretty much done with the fresh use stage, so we plant it in the fall for early spring use, outdoors and in the cold greenhouse. Keep it watered and plant it in the damper part of the garden, and not too sunny. Grow it from seed, although it takes a good 10 days to sprout.

Lavender can be used in cooking. I have had delicious lavender cookies and ice cream. I have used lavender infused almond oil to rub my feet- it was so relaxing I felt as if I’d had a nap. Just strip the flowers into the oil and let it sit on the back shelf of your car for a week during sunny weather, then pour it through a thin cloth and squeeze it out well. If there is any water on the bottom pour the oil off of it or it will spoil. Lavender is the ultimate aromatherapy for calming down when you are stressed out. It really does work. Important to grow it in sandy, well-drained soil and a sunny spot, or it will languish and die. You can grow it from seed although starts are not expensive. I have a friend who grows it all around a small stuccoed chapel they have built near their house. It is the loveliest thing.

Dill is another annual that bolts quickly. There are a few varieties that promise to bolt slowly, and a bronze kind that is beautiful. I use a lot of dill in my cucumber pickles, which are good for the intestinal flora, and the dill promotes digestion, so I make an effort to grow it, but it hates our hot summers. For me it does best in shade.

Baltimore Fish Pepper

Baltimore Fish Pepper, a historical variegated pepper!

Chilies– You might not think of hot peppers as an herb, but they are pretty, edible, used for flavor and medicine- of course they belong in an herb garden. Chilies are tender perennials, -if you just have a few you can save time keeping them in pots. I am a chili freak and have a few that require a very long season, but your basic cayenne grows well as an annual. Warms the body and thins secretions, kills germs. Some are very tall and can need support. The ornamental ones are just as hot, and I have had a lot of fun with Baltimore variegated Fish Pepper, a deep purple Peruvian chili I call Purple Bullet which is nearly black, and tiny chiltepins.

Garlic is a great thing to grow- plant in September, harvest in June/July. I have a whole big blog post on that one. We have braids all over the house, although they are withering now. It also thins and heats the blood, and kills germs. People used to tape it to the bottom of feet for the flu. When you taste it in your mouth you are good. Some French friends used to grow it in the back of the herb border. They are stately until they turn yellowish when it is time to harvest.  However I grow it in the regular garden.

Valerian is a pretty flower; tall and lacy. The root, which I gather in late winter when I am separating the clumps and preparing the beds, is great for sleep issues. We had a buddy who was sort of becoming a nuisance because he didn’t sleep, wandered around all hours, and was grumpy to people. I gave him a couple droppersfull of Valerian root tincture and he slept 16 hours. Everyone was delighted. Its sedative properties are good for the heart.

 Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, (perennial) is good for the heart and relaxation, like a nice comforting hug from your mother. I planted in a shady acid patch of ground because I dug it up on a mountain in WV. It seems to like it. The lion-paw shaped leaves make a row with little pink flowers, which are followed by spiky seed heads. It’s about two feet tall but tends to sprawl. It is a valuable medicine plant so I don’t mind that it reseeds, but yes, it does.

 Honestly, though, there are so many fun herbs to try, and so many medicinal herbs to grow. These are just a few of my favorites that are easy to grow. A wonderful resource for herb information and seeds is Richo Cech’s Horizon Farm. His website, his catalog, and his books are really easy to read and full of good information.

Todo es Medicina: Herbs, Tinctures and Liqueurs

december 2013 blog 012 When I was maybe seven, my wonderful grandmother gave me a book called The Herbalist, by Joseph Meyer. Her friend Margaret Freedman may have done the dustcover, which is a wonderful medieval woodcut of an apothecary’s garden, but I think it was a very shrewd gift on her part. Many is the afternoon nap I spent studying the discolored entries, the Latin names, the medicinal parts, the medicinal virtues, the dosages.  Many is the afternoon I spent wandering in the woods, looking for a cathartic or emetic plant to slip into the sandwich of a classroom bully. It is not difficult to imagine me as a nerdy little girl with glasses; a budding herb granny.

Yesterday I saw a sign at Walmart which reminded me why I don’t go there much. Over a bottle of pills was a sign that said “Take Medicine Not Myth.” Ok, excuse me, but that is nothing but pharmaceutical propaganda. Who thought up thalidomide? When I burned my face with an explosion of boiling hot glue, the ER nurses fed me percocet and recommended that I not apply my traditional Chinese herbal burn cream. I looked like Freddy Kruger. I threw up the percocet and used the burn cream, and the burn clinic specialist at John Hopkins the next morning was amazed at how much the inflammation had gone down. I was married a month later and the burns were completely faded and smooth.


Passionflower vine, center, and ground ivy, small artichoke plant  upper right.


Many of my women friends who are experiencing sleep difficulties because of approaching menopause come to me for my Valerian root tincture. I make it from the plants in my flower bed. It helps them to sleep. Ashwaghanda tincture gives me energy and positive attitude to blast through my chores; they call it Indian ginseng. It is tricky to grow in our climate but I usually have enough for the year. Pokeweed eases any little twinges I get in my right foot where I had a postoperative bone infection years ago. Chamomile, peppermint, lemon balm, catnip, bergamot, and passionflower leaf tea are soothing to my husband when he gets in from a long drive all full of caffeine.



Oregano or thyme tea eases a tricky stomach and is delicious. Mugwort saves the day when you have overindulged in fried chicken. I will say that Immodium/Loperamide is hard to beat when you have Montezuma’s Revenge or Dehli Belly, but that’s just because I’m not taking the time to search out the right herb, boil it up, and wait for it to work.

herbalism books

three books from my shelf

OK, so yes, you must know how to identify these plants. Learning to identify medicinal plants is is a passion not unlike bird watching. I have been interested in this all my life and I am still learning. I like A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs: Of Eastern and Central North America (Peterson Field Guides)-James Duke rocks, but there are many wonderful field guides. It takes time to acquire the descriptive vocabulary and be able to know what you have found at what time of the year. Until you do, buy them. It is possible to make a very bad mistake. Carrot, Angelica, Osha, Parsley, and the deadly Water Hemlock are all in the same Apiaceae family. You could easily mistake Hemlock for Angelica and die horribly. Some boy scouts mistook Hemlock for some kind of wild carrot. They were saved, but it was touch and go. Penn Herbs has a large selection and is cheap. Generally you want “tea cut” herbs; not powder.

Tea is the simplest way to take an herb. Most herbs just want boiling water poured over them, like black tea. Some plants should be infused in cold water, and some need to be decocted, which means “cooked down.” Roots and barks need this. Some plants need to be concentrated, like the very bitter Boneset, after straining off the plant material.

Tinctures are a very convenient way to take herbs. Most tinctures are done with alcohol, and while there are complex formulas for tincturing dry or fresh herbs, etc., it is also easy to make a simple folk tincture which is good for home use. I came across tincturing by way of liqueurs: one day when I was making mint juleps I noticed that an hour later the remaining drips of bourbon had turned green in the glass with the sugar and crushed mint. I tasted it. Yum! A light bulb went on in my head. I immediately threw various herbs into white rum, the most successful of which were lemon verbena and peppermint. The peppermint mixed with honey or simple syrup makes a delicious creme de menthe except that it eventually goes from green to brown. I then realized that orange peels in alcohol soon became orangey, fennel seeds became anise flavored, barks and roots gave off their flavors- anything resinous works very well. The oils and resins are soluble in alcohol, and then the alcohol preserves anything watery.

december 2013 blog 015

eau de vie means “water of life.”

The French eau de vies that are so delicious are just this sort of tincture. Eau de vie, by the way, means water of life, as does uisce beatha, in gaelic, pronounced whiskey be-ata (almost seems like it could mean happy water, since beata means happy).  Aquavit comes from the Latin aqua vitae, same meaning. You take my point.

So, to make a fennel aperitif, I stuffed a pickle jar full of almost mature seed heads (fully mature ones would be losing their oils to the rain) and topped it off with vodka, waited two weeks, poured it off into another jar full of fennel seed heads, and waited another 2 weeks. This is actually called double tincturing and is also used in medicinal herbalism. The result was smooth and dark amber, with a strong licorice flavor and faint celery undertones. A shot of this with coffee is excellent after dinner, as fennel has been used for thousands of years to ease the stomach. My mother and sister, who are German, always gave the babies Fencheltee for gas and other tummy troubles. After WWII it saved many a dehydrated sick baby. But to return to happier times, most of my friends prefer it sweetened with honey and kept in the freezer next to the peppermint liqueur and the homemade triple sec.

Now, medicine. Tinctures are convenient because you can carry around 1 ounce bottles of medicine, and the dose is generally between 15 and 30 drops- half to a full dropper full. You can drink it straight, in a glass of water, or in tea. The alcohol will keep it for about 3 years. There are glycerin tinctures, but I have not gotten into that because I am not concerned about alcohol and most herbs tincture best in alcohol. Such a small amount mixed in water or tea would certainly not be a problem for a child, and if allowed to sit for a bit, perhaps the alcohol would evaporate so that an alcoholic wouldn’t taste it? But again, there is glycerin if that is an issue.

For me, Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine was the best introduction to tincturing. I have corresponded occasionally with Richo for years. He is a really fun and interesting person with immense energy and a gift for story-telling. His plant knowledge is vast, particularly in cultivation, which makes the catalog for Horizon Herbs, the medicinal plant seed company he and his wife and children have in Oregon, a very fine read. All of his books and catalogs are wonderfully illustrated by his daughters. Making Plant Medicine is very easy to read and full of stories, but also contains precise and clear information on how to tincture medicinal herbs. If you get heavily into it, you may want to buy a press from him.

Press what? Plant material. OK, here is a basic tincturing example. Go out to the garden and dig up some echinacea plants. I am presuming you have Echinacea purpurea, your basic purple Coneflower. If you have E. angustifolia too, the thin, droopy Coneflowers that grow better in the West, I’m impressed. Use them 60/40 as they have a synergistic effect.  The whole plant has medicine, but the roots are the strongest. I am just making it for me so I just use the roots. Those roots are tough so I’m glad I have a Vitamix. Wash and scrub them really well, and snip off what you will use with clippers. Throw them in the blender with enough vodka to make them move- generally to cover. (This is a folk tincture; Richo will tell you how to weigh them. He even has software for that.) Whizz it to a slurry and carefully get it all into a mason jar. Brown glass is best but if you keep it in the dark that is ok. Label with the ingredients and the date and let sit for 10  days, shaking when you remember. I have some small muslin bags with seams I have reinforced which fit neatly over the mouth of a mason jar. Pour the contents of the jar into the bag over a big measuring cup or something. Squeeze the bag as hard and long as you can to get out all the medicine. I have a small press but you could also weight it down with a clean rock in a colander. Richo’s press will turn your herbs into a dry cake without a drop of medicine wasted. Clean out your jar and return the medicine to it, since it is already labeled. Let it sit a day or two and then pour it off the sediment which will accumulate. The sediment can spoil the medicine. You can buy 1 ounce brown glass bottles with droppers for a little over a dollar apiece, and also ask your friends to save such bottles for you to clean and reuse. Always label and date. It will keep about three years in the dark, although eventually the rubber bulbs on the droppers begin to add a bitter taste. Herbal tinctures generally run about $10 an ounce. If you make good medicine, that is quite a savings.

Scripture says that God has given us the herbs of the field. He had His reasons. It seems to me in my travels that indigenous people knew the remedy for each disease with which they were familiar. We in the US has been pretty efficient in killing off the native people who knew the plant lore of this continent by introducing diseases with which they were not familiar. However we also brought new plants with us which have helped to reestablish some balance between man and disease, although many of those plants threw off the balance of the plant world. In South America I have studied with people who knew medicine for anything that could happen to you-diabetes, AIDS, cancer, schizophrenia,- and if they didn’t, they would ask the plants, who knew.



Fresh fallen firecoals

chestnuts loose

fresh fallen firecoals

Once again the chestnut trees are dropping their glossy nuts, and the squirrels and I are in a fierce but silent battle. My grandfather planted several varieties of Chinese chestnut so he would have an extended harvest. What made him think to do that? He was a lawyer, he read the Wall Street Journal and sipped his drink. Yet he was a fervent chicken-necker of crabs, picker of beans, of wineberries. Did he know we might need it? Because he read the Wall Street Journal?

The first tree that ripens is on the other side of the lane from my garden so I don’t hear it as well as the second one. The nuts are covered with a satiny down, and tend to be a little smaller than the others. Those are ripening now, and the squirrels are silently aware of each burr that opens. I have heard people say it will be a wet, cold winter. It has been a while since we have had heavy snow. Chestnuts are very nutritious; in fact in French one old name for a chestnut tree is arbre a pain: tree of bread.

Remember hearing about how the hallucinatory smut fungus called ergot on rye was the cause of people being accused of being witches? People would actually confess to flying around on broomsticks, when they were actually tripping. Many grain crops are problematic in wet climates. They tend to “lodge” or lie down due to rain and wind, where they rot. Often in rainy Europe in the old days the wheat crop would fail and peasants would go hungry.  Many people relied on chestnuts to survive. Italy and France have lots of chestnuts. They used to smoke-dry them in special chestnut smoking houses, since chestnuts will otherwise be wormy inside a week. There are many ancient chestnut based dishes which tend to be heavy and nutritious. I used to trick my grandmother into eating by reminding her of how she used to eat chestnut puree at her landlady’s house when she was in graduate school in France in the Twenties. Charmed by the memory, my anorexic granny would absently spoon down piles of the rich puree de marron I had made from the chestnuts my grandfather had planted, while we talked about Alsace and the calorie counter in my head spun happily.


These silky ones mature first

When gathering chestnuts, squeeze each chestnut, especially if it seems unusually dark. Fresh, firm, bright nuts are what you want. Refrigerate them if you aren’t going to process them immediately. Make one long slash through the skin and bake them until they pop open. From there you can put them in the blender for creamy soup, eat them as is, boil them and mash them or rice them, candy them, dry and grind them into flour, or throw them for the dog. They do not have a nice texture if frozen; it is sort of heavy and gummy. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter after cooking.

There are two trees on the farm that have very glossy chestnuts. These are the fresh fallen firecoals I refer to, after Gerard Manly Hopkins. ( This link will send you to last years chestnut rhapsody, in which I discuss Hopkins, which is such great stuff.) Startlingly reddish brown- chestnuts are chestnut- they are so shiny that the best way to get them gathered is by children, whose small hands reach for the beautiful things, to carry them home in a sack and caress them. Just make sure they don’t try to pick them out of the chestnut burrs, which are like small hedgehogs. Those spines stick and break off under your skin. Do wear gloves if you touch them. It generally isn’t necessary. Most ripe nuts just fall right out. Go squirrels!

chinese chestnut burrs

beware of spiky burrs

And remember to wear shoes walking under that tree next year. My dear stepdaughter was walking barefoot unawares under a chestnut tree a few years ago and let fly a few expletives, then realized that her new aunt was being baptized in the swimming pool within earshot.  I’m pretty sure the angels were guffawing all over the place.

So go pick them, slash them, and bake them. My other article is more how to.

Stuffing the Wild Grape Leaves

Fox grapes and lunaria

Fox grapes and lunaria

Euell Gibbons I’m not, but I am really pleased about this one. When I saw the tender shining wild fox grape leaves in the hedgerow  they looked so nice I thought I’d try stuffing them. Turns out it’s not hard. Here’s how to do it.

First, go pick 50-60 grape leaves. You want to do this when they are in active growth, like May around here. Get leaves about the size of the palm of your hand or bigger, but not too mature. Look for a vine tip and go back 2-3 nodes to a larger size, but a leaf that is still lighter in color than further towards the root. If you get some that are too dark colored or otherwise unsuitable you can still use them for lining the pan.

Prepare your leaves by cutting off the stem and any thickish veins. I didn’t see any veins worth worrying over. Lay them in a stack.

Bring a medium sized pan of water to a boil, cut it off, and plunge your leaves into it. Cover and let it sit 5-7 minutes. Interestingly the smell is somewhat grapey. I actually use the infused water for tea, and it is delicious; rather like regular chinese black tea. It makes great ice tea. Grape leaves are a delicious green and a wonderful liver tonic but also a good poultice for bug bites.

Drain, roll, and set where it can’t dry out. Pick your filling.

dolmades filling

dolmades filling

You can wrap all kinds of stuff in grape leaves for what Greeks call dolmadakia. You can even wrap several leaves around grilling foods like fish. You can freeze the leaves, dry them, or pickle them in brine.  But here we are talking about the cute little rolls sold n salad bars. You can wrap them around a traditional rice based filling, and here is the recipe I like best, adapted from Caroline Cummins on www.culinate.com:

olive oil

1 onion

3-4 garlic cloves

1/2 c. chopped walnuts

1 1/2 c. rice

2 1/2 c chicken or veg stock

1 organic lemon juiced and zested (grate off the skin)

3 handfuls of herbs such as fennel, dill, mint, and parsley, chopped

Fry the onions and garlic in 3 tbs olive oil, 5-7 minutes.  Add the walnuts and rice and stir until rice is lightly toasted. Add stock and simmer on low about 15 minutes until absorbed. It will not be quite enough water. Add the lemon zest, herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Let cool so you can handle it.

Get a pot about 12 inches across the bottom, fairly sturdy and thick bottomed. Put a few skewers or chopsticks across the bottom to prevent stickage and then put 2-3 layers of grape leaves across the bottom. Now start rolling dolmadakia.

Rolling dolmadakia

Rolling dolmadakia

Lay a leaf out flat, and put about a teaspoon sized blob of filling just above where you sliced off the stem. More if you can fit it.  Fold in the bottom side points towards the center,

Rolling dolmadakia

in some leaves there are 5 points

then the top side points,Rolling dolmadakia and then roll the whole thing up into a neat little roll. Rolling dolmadakiaThe tip of the leaf sort of seals the envelope. Lay it in the pot. Rolling dolmadakiaRepeat until the pot has 2-3 layers, then cover the dolmadakia with another layer of leaves. Add the lemon juice and another cup of water to the pot, cover, bring to a boil and then lower heat. Simmer about 20 minutes. Watch it doesn’t boil dry as the rice is supposed to soak up the water, which is now wonderfully infused with grape leaf flavor. Let cool and arrange  on a plate with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and pretty rounds of lemon. Rolling dolmadakiaThis is called a meze in Greek- something to have on the table. (Interesting- mez is table in Hindi) We took some out on the river one night, anyway. Delicious!

Shucking Oysters

When I was a young girl you could walk down to the shoreline at low tide and fill a bucket with oysters. Sometimes we’d pop them right off the rocks of the jetties and slurp them up with the seawater right on them. So good! Now oysters are scarcer, because of pollution in the Bay, but primarily because of two introduced diseases; Dermo and MSX, which destroy the hinge ligament and kill the oyster before it reaches market size. I think Juvenile Oyster Disease is still mainly in New England. So why eat them? I really don’t, unless somebody brings me some or there are a few bushels at a party. In that case the deed is done so I might as well rejoice in traditional pleasures. It’s hard not to. I crave them. Maybe it’s the iodine. I remember once scraping up the 98 cents one oyster cost at the Oyster Bar in Penn Station. Had to have it.

shucking oysters (2)So, scrub your oysters in the sink. Some people don’t because they say it takes the taste away, but they are pretty gritty. If they are a lot, in a bushel basket for example, I dump them out on the grass and spray them with the garden hose, to spare clogging the pipes. Now, you need a strong, stiff blade. Oyster knives are sold as such. Here is a nice one:Dexter-Russell 4″ Oyster Knife
I like the longer, sharper ones because you can work them in between the lips of the shell without making so much crumbled up shell. But some people actually pop the shell at the hinge, by brute strength, with a screwdriver. You need a wooden board to work on, and you definitely need a thick tough glove, like the picture on this link, CUT RESISTANT GLOVES-100% KEVLAR®, Heavy Weight Textured Blue Latex Coated,large, (1 pair)because if you slip you will impale yourself with a filthy oyster knife. If you are serving them on the half shell have a plate ready, and if you are making stew have a bowl for oysters and a bowl for collecting extra juices which you can later pour through a sieve to strain out bits of shell.

OK, now, check out your opponent. Your oyster tends to curve one way more than the other, like a paisley pattern.  I usually look for a spot around two-thirds of the way around the outer curve, on the top. The top is darker and the lip kind of makes a little shelf that might curl upwards a bit. Get a good grip on the oyster with your holding hand- I’m right handed so I’m holding it with my left, with the hinge towards me. I aim the tip of my oyster knife slanting down into the edge of the oyster lip. I’m going to push the tip through the thinnest edge of the top shell and as I feel it give I’ll start twisting. This will get me further in between the lips of  the oyster and I will begin to force them apart a little, enough to slide the blade in and cut the muscle that is holding the shell closed.  Feel for the muscle with your knife; it is just about a half inch in somewhere in there. If you can try to keep your knife horizontal and close to the top to avoid mutilating the oyster so it will look pretty.shucking oysters (1) Once you feel your knife go through it, the shells will loosen so you can slide your knife sideways towards the hinge and pop the top shell into a bucket. Loosen the oyster so it sits free in the shell, check for bits of shell with your knife tip, top with a squeeze of lemon or a dollop of cocktail sauce, and then tilt that back and slurp it down. Fabulous! That will give you strength to shuck the rest.

How to cook them:

Classic Oyster Stew

Fry a half a finely chopped onion with two slices of bacon, chopped.

Add 12 shucked oysters, without juice. Fry in same pan until curly but no longer.

Add oyster juice.

Add 3 cups of milk and a cup of cream and bring to a simmer.

salt with Old Bay Seasoning to taste. You really need that celery seed and paprika taste.

Grind of black pepper.

Optional: add sliced boiled potatoes.

Some people thicken the milk and cream with flour and some people use more cream.

Serve with oyster crackers or saltines. It is a milk-thin soup, so crumbling in crackers is normal.

Oyster Fritters

Shuck oysters, drain.

Dip in beaten egg, roll in seasoned flour, roll in Ritz cracker crumbs, fry in butter until golden brown. Seriously. They will shrink so make a lot. I would run a mile for just one though.

Baked/Broiled Oysters

At a winter feast on the Eastern Shore, it is traditional to put oysters on the grill until they open. They are hot and savory, and a little smoky, cooked in their own juices. That is hard to beat.

Everybody does them with bacon and cheese. They use cheddar.

Fill a baking tray with oysters on the half shell. Put some chopped fried bacon and a thick chunk of cheese on top of the oyster and bake them for 20 minutes at 400.

Also great with some chopped cooked spinach, fried onions, bacon and cheese- I want to say that is Oysters Rockefeller.

My mother did a batch with a champagne dill sauce and a sprinkle of prosciutto slivers. Pretty fancy.

Oyster casserole is pretty delicious but I never made it because it takes a lot of shucking.

Do return your oyster shells to the Bay. They are a good place for baby oysters to grow on. We always used to put ours in potholes but times have changed and oysters need all the help they can get.

Using willow

Do you like baskets? People have been making baskets for millenia, and some are incredibly intricate. Baskets are useful, light, and pretty strong when you consider that they are made out of twigs, grass, leaves, roots, or bark. I sometimes make baskets; it’s really time-consuming but addictive. The hypnotic repeating patterns are sort of trance-forming. I will do a post on that sometime. And while you can buy basket weaving supplies all day long, I think it is more sustainable to make your own. So this post will be about using wild-crafted materials to repair a common wicker laundry basket. Repairing things is, after all, cheaper and better for the planet.

White willow (Salix alba) is what people usually use for medicine, and those long weeping branches are fun to weave with, but Black willow (Salix nigra) is a close cousin, and it’s very common here on the Eastern Shore. It grows in wet places, has a fairly short life, soft wood, and when it is dying you can often find Oyster mushrooms on it.black willow (check mushroom post) I cut two of mine back periodically so that I have usable straight young shoots. This one has spread out and leaned over in the wet ground, so I sometimes have to trim branches so our friend can mow under it.

Salix is latin for willow, and you may notice that it is the root for salicylic acid, as in aspirin and various pimple medicines. Boiled willow bark makes a nice reddish tea that smells a bit like roses. I sometimes make it when I have cramps.  Usually I make it when I am boiling willow in my big stock pot to soften it or to loosen bark to use in repairing baskets. It is like leather.willow projects (14)

Cut the straightest pieces you can find, and no thicker than your thumb or it will be hard to bend them into circles to fit in the pot. Strip off smaller twigs on the shoots you will be using before you come in the house. You can do this by just making a loose fist around it and stripping them off. They are connected very weakly. Bend the shoots by bending small sections of the branch firmly and slowly between your fingers and thumbs. You will see how you can get the pieces in the pot without breaking.  Cover with water and boil for about a half an hour. Pull out the thick end of a piece and see if the bark peels easily. If it doesn’t, boil it longer. If it does, try to get the park off whole, or in wider, neater strips. willow projects (12)If you split it in one place and then support the bark with your hand while pulling back, it will come off in relatively fat strips. It will catch at the little knotholes, so pick it loose and continue. The strips of bark are strong, flexible, and easy to wrap around basket repairs to give a tidy but natural appearance similar to leather. You should use them while they are damp or dry them and rewet them later. If you keep them in a plastic bag they will mildew. Here I have repaired a broken laundry basket handle by reinforcing it with a piece of willow lashed on with bark. While I was doing this I also boiled willow to make wreaths for Christmas gifts. and tea for me. I will do a post on that later.willow projects (19)


Fall Mushrooms: Armillaria Tabescens

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, about the time we go back to school one begins to see these reddish brown to tawny clusters of mushrooms everywhere; on the lawn and on the edges of woods. Armillaria Tabescens.They are almost bouquet-like. If you pull them up you will see that they are in fact grown together at the bottom. The technical term- attention Scrabble lovers- is cespitose. They grow from buried wood, and when picked young they are delicious; with a mushroomy flavor that seems a pit caramel-like to me. They grow in huge quantities and can be frozen, canned in a pressure cooker, and dried. Here is a small laundry basket with one cluster.

armilariella tabescens (10)

Time to put the fear of God in you. Now, this is a variety that is easy, to me, to identify from a photograph, but but that’s me and I’ve been doing this for a very long time. You might think it looks the same a a Jack O’Lantern, which is poisonous, or a Big Laughing Jim, which tastes bitter and will apparently make you giggle. So before you go mushroom hunting, read The Audubon North American Field Guide to Mushrooms, or Peterson’s Mushroom Field Guide. I grew up with the former, and find the book physically durable- mine still has the puppy chew marks from my dear old Lab now dead. Try to find a mentor. My father taught me, but he learned from a book and we were very cautious. Some of our Russian and Ukrainian neighbors have more background in mushroom foraging and others. Bottom line: Never take a chance. A yummy mushroom is not worth your life. The lethal dose for a Death Cap, which is a big white pretty mushroom, is a cubic centimeter. The only way to save your life is a liver transplant.armilariella tabescens (5)

OK, now if you decide to forage ahead, and you are totally sure this is what you have, check that the caps are fresh and young. This photo shows a cluster that is right in the middle- not the baby size but not too mature. If they have deposits of powder on them, they have sporulated and won’t be as tasty. If they have  nice little caps that are still curved under, they are probably yummy. They are beloved by tiny little white worms, which, while not poisonous to you, are kind of gross. Split a cap down the middle and look for little holes. I am guilty of not worrying about one or two holes if I don’t actually see the worms, but generally I just get them as quickly as I can and process them right away.

Here is a photo of armillaria tabescens cooking down in a cast iron pot.armilariella tabescens (1) So good!

My favorite way to preserve them is to slowly brown some onions in salted butter, cut the caps off the clusters which I have harvested whole, rinse them quickly, drain well, and cook them down. I salt them a little, and eat them with egg noodles, rice, etc., then freeze what is left. (Once in a while I get the quantity to pressure cook them in Mason jars, as I know that anything in my freezer may be lost in an extended power outage.) They become succulent and rich, but reduce much in volume, so harvest a lot, and process immediately. They won’t wait.

Black Walnuts and Hickories


We have a number of Black Walnut (Juglans Nigra) trees on the farm, and like the chestnuts they are fruiting heavily this year. We have Shagbark Hickories, but they are deep in the woodlot and I haven’t been out to see. The squirrels are still burying pecans as well. One imagines that they may be doing this in response to the early drop in temperature. That  combined with the heavy nut crop makes one think perhaps they know something. We are glad we got a jump on the woodpile this spring when a number of trees came down.

The idea of nuts is appealing in winter; the rich oiliness and sweetness, and the comfort of sitting in your warm house and munching away, like a rodent.   Yet black walnuts make this complicated. You have to get off the eternally staining green husk and crack the extremely tough nut. Hickories politely husk themselves and are easy to see on the ground with their smooth, elegant white nuts full of sweet deliciousness. The nut is even easier to crack than black walnuts, but nowhere near as easy as a storebought English Walnut. Nonetheless on the Eastern Shore it’s all about Black Walnuts. Their strong flavor is fabulous in cakes and filled cookies. Says I.

So here’s what I recommend. Pick them up in a bucket and lay them in a gravel road where cars will crush the husk but not the nut. A paved road is likely to scatter and smash them more, but husking them by hand is a terrible job. You can them easily gather the nuts out of the mass of crushed husk, and store them until they are dry inside. I thought you had to store them for a few months in a paper bag in a dry place, but it must depend, because I have eaten nuts the same day I gathered them in Virginia. I don’t know how long they were on the road of course. So my best guess is check one from tie to time. Now, how to extract the nutmeats. They sell a lot of fancy crackers, but these were not available to native people. If you hit them with a hammer, they go everywhere. The perfect tool, to me, for walnuts and hickory nuts as well, is a rock. By the creek in Virginia where we camp, I found a flat piece of sedimentary rock and another rock that fit my hand, about the size of an oblong baseball. The weight is such that it sort of drops onto the nut and cracks and crushes it partially, allowing me to pick the nut apart and extract good size pieces without bashing it all to bits. It is a pleasant activity, sort of an atavistic pleasure I guess, sitting on the ground in the sunshine cracking nuts with a rock.

Black Walnut is good for a lot more than nuts. My brother in law, Robert Clickner, a doctor of alternative medicine in Charlottersville, gathers them for the terrible hulls. He learned the hard way to crush them wearing a good pair of plastic gloves. We used to make the medicine with whole nuts, but the crushed hulls make a much stronger tincture*.  This has been traditionally used for parasites, but it is also good for hypothyroidism. It looks and tastes like iodine. I take about 15 drops a day.

* If you want to know about tincturing, I will probably have something written by the time you read this, but I recommend Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine as the perfect introduction; enough to get you interested and  enough to get you started. Actually, despite his fun anecdotal style, he is really quite precise, and you will likely become a fan of his great seed company, Horizon Herbs.



chinese chestnut tree (3)

The chestnuts have begun to fall, “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. I was tightening the raspberry trellis when I heard the telltale rattle of the fat nuts falling on the gravel lane. My grandfather planted a number of Chinese chestnuts, and I think he planted different cultivars so as to have trees that ripened at different times. (This is something to remember when you are planting any food-producing plant.  Early, mid-season, and late, from tomatoes to apples.) The first one has smaller, silky nuts, while the second one has larger, glossy reddish brown nuts, and the last one has really big glossy nuts of the same fine color for which women with chestnut hair are admired. It is a color that makes me pick up more nuts than I later have time to peel. There are two others, but they don’t bear heavily enough so I leave them to the squirrels, whose population seems to follow a heavy bearing year like a too-late sine wave. Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls. Praise God for the color.

You really should check out Hopkins. I met the greatest living Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, when I was at university, and I asked him whether he maybe felt the influence of Hopkins in his work. Ever polite, ever charmingly Irish, he answered me with the perfect no-answer: “Ah yes, he’s an old flame for all of us, isn’t he?”  (Maybe, maybe not, but we love him, or maybe we loved him once but have moved on…)  chestnuts loose (1)

So what to do with chestnuts. Everybody loves them roasted. Squeeze the nuts as you pick them up. If they are soft, they probably have grubs inside them, which is still fine for animal consumption. If hard, make an x in the shell- I find it easier to cut the flat side but they peel easier if you cut the round side. Some folks just make a big slit on the round side. You can bake them for 15-20 minutes at 400F and the little corners will roll back. Let them cool a bit and then you can pick them open and eat them. So filling and delicious! They have a floury sweet interior when they are done.

For a meal, I cut them the same as for roasting, and boil them about 25 minutes with a little salt. This may be too long since they do crumble a bit while I am peeling them but I want them really soft. With this I can do a lot of things. The best meal I ever prepared with chestnuts was some leftover wild Canada goose, warmed in gravy, with  wild rice mixture and pureed chestnuts. I just put them in the food processor with good stock from the goose carcass. It was so regional, rich in flavor, perfect for winter.

Also, by putting a few cooked chestnuts in the blender (love my Vitamix) with a veggie boullion cube (I like Knorr’s flavor), a cup of half and half, and a little chestnut boiling water to thin it out, you can get a wonderful vegan cream style soup. My friend Margie Wegener made it for me when I was having rocky times with my daughter. Thanks Margie.

Chestnuts rice beautifully. I pushed some through a ricer and fed it to my grandmother.  She always worried about her weight, because her mother had been heavy, but she really was too thin herself. We could always tempt her, though, by connecting the food to a story.  As a young girl getting her master’s degree at Strasbourg University in the Twenties, she lived with a lady known to us as Madame F. Madame F was “gourmet et gourmand,” and we always heard how she made chestnut puree. So Granny would eat chestnut puree and talk about Madame F.

Once you have your peeled cooked chestnuts you can make all kinds of fabulous desserts as well; totally go Martha Stewart. Amazing recipes.

Chestnuts were a dependable staple in Europe before wheat, which was very prone to getting flattened by rain and rotting in the fields, leaving the peasants to starve- unless they had chestnuts. We saw tons of edible chestnuts growing wild in the south of France. They used to call them “arbre à pain” which means “bread tree”   as well as marronniers for the bigger chestnuts and châtaigniers for the smaller ones.  They had chestnut smoking houses. I tried drying them in the oven, but the resulting nuts were so hard that even my grinding mill turned out something like sand. I think perhaps if I soaked them and boiled them they would return to their fabulous yumminess but in the meantime no creature will attack them and I keep them for emergency food.  So I am still learning. But companies like Trails End Chestnuts are selling chestnut flour, chestnut beer-making kits, dried chestnut, which look untoasted to me, for prices that are actually reasonable after you have done the work yourself for a few hours.


Forget cutting an x in the flat side of the chestnut before boiling or baking. With a finely serrated kitchen knife, make on long cut through the shell on the curved side of the nut. Bake covered for 30 mins in a casserole, and it will pop right open. You can flick off the shell with your thumb. Easy! I use a covered Pyrex so I can see it and then let it roast open for a nice roasted taste. Also with the nuts I am looking to convert to storable food, I put them in the food processor and crumb finely.  This I will refer to as wet chestnut meal. It is wonderful for a creamy blender soup or just about anything you do with chestnut puree. You can freeze this or spread it on cloth-covered cookie sheets to dry in the sun or slow oven, after which I put it back in the blender to flour. This is  a little gritty but really delicious, nutritious, and easy to store in sealed glass jars. I did make spelt-chestnut cookies the other day, with honey and raisins, adapted from an old British recipe my mother gave me. If I can figure out this newsletter widget I will put it there for you.

Another update!

Two new recipes!

Chestnut Chard Soup

2 c. water

1/2 a Knorr vegetable boullion cube, or to taste any kind you like

1 chard leaf

1/2 c. wet chestnut meal,

Throw in Vitamix and turn on, check for flavor, adjust, run until it gets hot and thick enough. OK, if you don’t have a Vitamix yet, I’m telling you, unless you don’t do electricity, this is a great appliance. They last. Mine is from the Eighties and my sister-in-law still has hers from the Seventies.

If you are using a regular blender and haven’t made the chestnuts into wet meal, cook the chestnuts in bouillion until soft and then blend with the raw chard. You can add turmeric, black pepper, cream, whatever. So good and easy.

Chard and Chestnut Saute- this dish is healthy but comforting, greeny but meaty and the chestnuts offset any wateriness in the chard. I was thinking you could substitute parmesan cheese for the ham if you don’t do pig.

1 onion, chopped

1/4 c. country ham, chopped

8 chestnuts (cooked) chopped

1 large bunch chard, enough to fill a 4 quart pot

Black pepper

Wash chard and strip leaf off of midrib. Grasp the midrib and pull the leaf through your other hand, pulling off the leaf and leaving the strip white or colorful part separated. This is the midrib. Chop it up.

Saute onion, ham, chestnuts, and chopped chard stems (midribs) in a deep heavy pot in the ham’s own fat. Meanwhile chop the leaf of the chard up into about 1/4 inch chop. When the stuff in the pot looks caramelized and yummy, throw in the leaves and saute. In a few minutes the dish will be ready to serve. Taste and adjust salt, definitely add some black pepper.

What to do with apple trees


the sooty mold on the skin is absolutely harmless

Apples for applesauce, pies, cakes, dried apples, cider, wine, whatever!

This country is full of apple trees that nobody is paying attention to. Somebody planted trees and didn’t know what to do with them, or moved, or got  older. I love apples, and I know what to do with them, so I keep an eye out when I’m driving, and ask folks who are obviously not using their fruit if I can pick up the windfalls. Usually they will be happy to give me permission to do what I want and are surprised and delighted to get some applesauce, or a pie, or a gallon of sweet cider. So when I have our trees all picked I am not finished.

On our farm apples start and end early. It starts with the Early Harvest tree, whiuch is what Germans call a Klarapfel. It means a “clear apple,” because the peel is clear, so the apple ripens ivory colored. Ours ripens in late June. There is an old-timey fiddle tune called “June Apple.” as it is an instrumental, I always wondered what it was about; the fact that it is the first apple or that it is lousy, as apples go. It has a simple flavor, rather tart, and gets mealy textured as soon as it is ripe. However that is our first applesauce apple, so if you are looking for food you can store, as I am, no complaints.

Then come the apples that drop (called drops) because they have insect damage; right off the bat they are great if you are going to make your own pectin. It is possible to do this, but so far I find it difficult to control. If I did it more I could likely get it; what you do is cut them up, boil them until they get really soft and sloppy, and strain the results through a jelly cloth. This is a good thing to know about, so I’ll tell you right now:

Straining fruit for jelly: get a four-legged chair and flip it upside down on the kitchen table. Get about a yard square of white or light cloth. I have ripped an old t-shirt, used a cloth diaper, or a piece of worn sheet. Cheesecloth is fine but you really need to fold it thickly. Muslin is great. Drape it over the legs of the chair and attach to each leg with a strip of cloth, strings, or heavy rubber bands. You do NOT want this to come loose. Put a big mixing bowl on the upside down bottom of the chair, under the cloth. Pour hot fruit mixture into this cloth strainer and let drip. Overnight is best. If you want county-fair clear jelly don’t squeeze. OK?

But when I make pectin from green apples my jelly is often too firm. You can test it by pouring a little in a small glass of rubbing alcohol. The more it holds together on a fork, the stronger your pectin.

I get better results just throwing in half chopped wild crabapples and half whatever else. And while I try not to buy something I can make, Surejell and Certo are better than not enough elderberry jelly! Boy did I make a lot this summer!

The best apple cake

Back  to apples-Next come Winesaps and Cox’s Orange Pippins good enough to make applesauce, pies, and apple cake with. If you sign up for my newsletter I will give you the recipe for Apple Cottage Pudding, which is called pudding because it was once an English recipe, but it’s just a really awesome easy cake that pushes all the apple pie buttons….

Applesauce is about the easiest thing you can can. I make a ton because you don’t have to peel the apples as long as you have a food mill. I got a  Roma which is pretty fancy for Christmas years ago after I lost a piece from my old Foley. It works fine and is not aluminum! So worth it. You just cut the bad bits out of the apple with a small, short, unserrated knife, pushing against your thumb, and cut up the good apple into large chunks. You don’t even have to core it. There are so many good vitamins against the core and the skin that I’m coinvinced this is much better. Cut until your apples are finished or your pot is full, put a cup of what in the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching- no more, because you want your applesauce thick, cover and simmer until the apples begin to disintegrate.  Dump into the bowl of the food mill and crank away. I find the Roma needs another go at the apples; I put what comes out of the pulp strainer back through to get more applesauce. With the oldfashioned mill that fits over a bowl you just crank until you see that only cores, skins and seeds are left. Then you can it.

Once they get sweet and are less damaged, I can also start making bowls of slices that I can string up on button thread (strong thread) and hang in a hot dry place like my attic. They look like leis, and they dry rapidly so they taste perfect as a snack or you can rehydrate them for dried apple pies. I sometimes wish I watched TV so I could do things like that while I watch a show. If I’m lucky enough to have a friend over it’s something to do while we chat.

When the really great apple flow comes and there are zillions of apples, we get out the cider press. We got ours years ago from Happy Valley for about $400. A chunk, but when I think of the sweet cider, the apple wine, the hard cider, and most of all the good times, it was cheap. In the old days people had a lot more apple trees because cider was safer to drink than water, and because as you can see, apple trees are great food providers. So they probably didn’t have time to wash them and cut out the mushy bits like my mother does. I tend to either toss them or use them.

Sweet cider straight from the press is the best; a return to Eden. But soon it starts to fizz as the wild yeasts on the skins, in the press, in the air, etc., get going. So here’s what we do: You can refrigerate it and it will very slowly turn. I happen to adore fizzy cider. You can also preserve sweet cider. You just pour it into clean mason jars and can it. Works like a charm but tastes like the very best store-bought apple juice ( heat removes the fresh-pressed flavor) and has a little sediment.  Which is fine. Or you can enter the wonderful world of fermentation. My father made apple wine for years. He added 5 lbs. of cane sugar to 5 gallons of juice to kick it up to 12% alcohol. It was a clear yellow wine with a Calvados-like twang. Not bad. Mostly I liked it because of the memories. This year since my husband gets a headache from wine we would make hard cider. I didn’t want to use any metabisulfates, which are used to kill the wild yeast (which can be awesome or awful as it lists) so you can add a tame yeast that will be obedient. So I just went with whatever God sent me and it worked out perfectly. A dry, fizzy, calvados-scented drink, beer-strength, that is just getting better every time we crack one. I think I will do another page for those of you who want more details. Because unless you have a few specialty items, i.e. homebrewing equipment, and a press, this won’t help you.

So today may be the last load of apples I will haul, since next week we are headed down to Bedford County, VA for some praise and worship and a whole lot of music, and by the time we get back it may be that there are only a few left. We are grateful for a good apple season.