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.

Basils

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.

Roasting a Haunch of Venison over Charcoal

venison haunchThere is nothing in this world better for a carnivore to eat than this; a crisp, brown, smoky haunch of venison, juicy, tender, and deep rosy pink, yet cooked, down to the bone, fragrant with rosemary and garlic. The texture of the meat is finer than beef or goat, leaner than lamb, juicier than antelope. The taste is iron-rich but delicate; our Whitetails seem much less gamey to me than mule deer I have eaten from Texas.

Right Eating

This meat feels good to eat. You know that this animal lived free, died suddenly, and is the ultimate in free range and grass-fed. Yes, I worry a little about the fact that she probably ate tender tips of GMO soy, but it’s the best we can do right now. Since we butcher our venison ourselves, we know this meat is clean and we usually know exactly where the deer was killed. Our deer population is too high, but not to the point that we have to worry about disease, so we can feel pretty good about eating this meat. This article is divided in to two parts: the recipe and the cooking method, both of which are important to creating this pinnacle of carnivorous eating.

The Recipe:

1 haunch of venison, see post. Takes three days to thaw in a large pan (Blood will come through the wrappings) in the refrigerator, faster in a 5 gllon bucket of cold water if you are in a rush.

1 head of garlic

1-2 tbs sea salt to taste

1/2 cup rosemary needles

6-8 dry bay leaves, crumbled

3-4 tsp other dried Meditterranean herbs, such as oregano, basil, and thyme, as seems delicious to you.

1/2 c. olive oil ground

1-2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper.

Break up the garlicand peel the cloves. You want a good handful. I said a head but it depends on the size of the head. It could be more or less. You can crush them with the flat of a big knife and the skins will come right off. Throw all ingredients (less the haunch) into a blender or food chopper and whirl. You should have a thick, coarse, rosemary/garlic dominated paste. Rinse the meat and set in a pan. Pat dry if you are that sort of person, and rub the paste all over the haunch. Rub it well into the cut end as well. Depending on whether you planned ahead or whether this is a last minute rush, you can either wrap it up and refrigerate it overnight, or refigerate it in the pan until the fire is ready. In winter I just set it on top of the piano on the back porch….. Either way it will be great.

Cooking Method: The Indirect Method

I remember the first time I tried roasting venison this way, on a round Weber kettle grill in my backyard when we were living in the city. My daughter Crystal, then five, was upset to be eating Bambi, and refused at first, but as her father was later and later for supper she grew hungrier and hungrier, and finally agreed to try a little taste. Her little face became very serious as she thought about it, decided it was probably a wicked deer who kicked its mother, and quickly gobbled two big slices. This is the trick, learned from the owner’s manual all those years ago: You can’t just put the meat on the grill when it is going to be on there 2 hours, because the fat will drip in the fire and burn, and the meat will be deeply charred on one side. The indirect method solves this problem. First, take off the grill and prepare to start the coals as you nomally would.

Starting the Coals

I prefer not to use lighter fluid as it is toxic and nasty. There is a weber coal starter which costs about 15 dollars and starts about the right amount of charcoal with a few pieces of newspaper. It is a sort of metal chimney with a basket in it. That is very easy. Another easy way is to put dried grass, twigs, sticks, and charcoal in a paper bag, ball it up, and light it. Keep an eye on it as you may need to move things around to get it to catch evenly. Yes, bags of briquets are not sustainable or virtuous, but charcoal burning has always been a bad thing in that sense. If you burn brush frequently you can try smothering your fires and saving your own. Otherwise, sigh and continue.

The Pan/Coals Setup

You will need a pan that you don’t care about which is big enough to fit your haunch. It is ok if the shank bone sticks out as the meat will shrink away from it anyway. I have even reused old aluminum disposable pans. Once the coals are caught, put on a heavy glove and get a tool to move the coals into a ring in which your pan will sit. I use a garden trowel to clear a space and then tongs for individual coals. Your pan should be sitting surrounded by coals. At this point, since my present grill is awkwardly shaped for this, I heap more charcoal on top of the caught ones. You want to be able to let it go for about two hours. If it runs out, you will either have to finish it in the oven or move the whole hot greasy setup to the side, probably burning yourself and get soot everywhere, in order to add coals.

Finally, the Meat!

Now, put the grill back in place, put the haunch on top, and close the lid, adjusting the side/bottom and top vents almost halfway open. The meat will be quickly sealed all over by the smoky heat, which will be nearly at its highest at first, and then will gradually go down, so don’t check on it too much as you will be letting out heat and adding to the time. The meat will continue to cook in towards the bone even after the outside has stopped getting darker, which is an added reason for the traditional half-hour wait for juices to reabsorb once it is off the grill. I have tossed a haunch of goat on the grill, gone swimming in the river for two hours, and come back to find it perfect. But I was lucky. Two hours for a haunch is a ballpark figure. I have had a yearly buck’s haunch done in an hour and a half, and an enormous doe’s haunch take two and a half hours. It is pretty forgiving, but I start poking the meat at an hour and 45 minutes. The shank meat will be soft and overdone, and the fattest part will be springy.  The color will be nice and brown, with burnt rosemary and garlic encrusted all over it. I am too Luddite to use a normal thing like a meat thermometer. Generally I just call it done and take it in on a carving board to sit for a half an hour, but put the lid back on the coals just in case I am wrong.

Slicing

roast haunch of venison

My sister did this one very slowly for that awesome even pink- mine are generally darker with some grey on the edge.

When the meat has sat a half an hour, take a large and very sharp carving knife and slice in perpendicular to the bone. Here is a post about how to sharpen a knife. It should be brown on the outside, grey as you go in, and then pink until the bone. That is the benefit of a fast start and a slow end to your heat. You want it to be pink but not raw, although there are many who disagree. Some people want it as raw and bloody as possible, while others fear parasites. I believe our deer are healthy but I like a deep rose pink, juicy but cooked.

Thoughts on Grills

My kind and thoughtful husband has provided me with a grill that looks a bit like a locomotive and has both gas and charcoal grills on it. It is a princely gift. However the charcoal area is only a little bit larger than the pan I use to do my indirect haunch roasting, so I carefully perch coals around the pan. It is a bit tight and a bit precarious. Honestly, for this particular kind of cooking, which, I might add, is also good for smoke-raosting whole chickens, turkeys, etc., a cheap kettle-style grill is easier. But I would never mention this to my husband.