Well folks I got a little bit carried away with this post. I could probably stay up all night and keep writing.
The herbs and flowers in my garden are a personal passion, but in the interest of you all knowing what is in this blog in case you want to skip ahead to the parts that interest you I will summarize them here:
A littlest about the herbs and edible flowers we grow and why we grow them.
A slight head bob to the whole cilantro issue.
Rather detailed discussion on truly effective herb storage.
An easy method for dehydrating herbs.
My nasturtium opus.
A little nod to garlic.
So if the stimulating conversation gets too much but you know there is something coming of interest to you of course skip ahead.
THE HERB GARDEN
To say supplies are limited the lodge wouldn’t be totally accurate, it is just that they are what they are. With grocery runs coming only every 6 days (if we are lucky), if the store doesn’t have something we ordered (it's usually a few somethings) then we have to find another way to make a dish look and taste a little more than what one might make at home on a casual day. One of the things that really makes a huge difference in filling this gap is using fresh herbs.
It does seem that in general in the West we are a bit frightened of using generous amounts of herbs. I see many recipes that state “a 1/4 tsp finely chopped parsley” for example or “a tablespoon of rough chopped cilantro” for another. Personally, I think if you can’t use handfuls of herbs then you aren’t going to notice them, so we don’t really measure but we almost always add a lot more than most recipes allow.
NOTE: Except for Ottolenghi. Now there is a herbal artist. He measures his herbs for recipes in half and full cup measures. We follow his suggestions pretty closely.
Well, just a quick note on the whole cilantro question:
When someone doesn’t like cilantro they really don’t. It isn’t personal preference or some fad diet or just the need to be special. It is real. So maybe poll the table before being liberal with cilantro. In fact, these folks who have been genetically wired to abstain from cilantro can taste even the slightest hint of it in their food so that is one herb to be careful with. Not meaning use sparingly. Certainly not. Use as much as you can get away with but make sure that if you are serving someone else you check with them. In my experience folks either say “I love cilantro” or “I can’t stand cilantro”, there seems to be no middle ground. It usually is one of the last things added so it's easily omitted or subbed out with parsley for those with more challenged tastebuds.
Back to supplies and herbs. Has anyone been subjected to those little plastic packets of a few sprigs of herbs? That really has to be one of the most miserly things to do with those aromatics, and the plants hate it too. They don’t last long that way. We fortunately have a bit of garden space and have been able to grow a fair number of herbal edibles. One of the best things about growing fresh herbs is that, providing you aren’t growing ones from a different climate entirely, they are generally pretty easy keepers. Most have a weedy tendency and grow in great abundance. In fact my oregano is taking over a significant portion of my lodge garden.
Herbs started at the lodge as a curiosity but have become a real essential item for us. The fact that buying fresh herbs is even more spotty and fraught with disappointment than simply leaving the shopping to chance does play a role. Not only are store bought herbs usually old and sprayed, they often are limited in choice as well. And then there’s storage. We just don’t have much room in our fridges for anything more and herbs require a very specific storage routine.
So we grow and use fresh what we can and what we can is; oregano, thyme, lovage, sage, mint, sorrel, rosemary, lavender, tarragon, borage, arugula, parsley, nasturtium (is that an herb…should be), lemon verbena (with some assistance), chives (which we can never grow enough of even with 7 plants in the ground), and fresh basil.
We grow a great number of edible flowers as well including:
Cornflower, mostly blue with a few purples, nasturtium (again), edible chrysanthemums, sunflowers, leeks (overwintered they bloom most magnificently), canola with its beautiful yellow flowers, roses (all roses are apparently edible), borage in blue, pansies in every colour and size, occasionally chives, and of course calendula. The herbs aforementioned also bloom if we let them - occasionally they get away from us and their flowers are wonderful and unique additions to the menu.
In fact we gathered a few clippings when on an October getaway a few years ago of a plant called Hot Lips Sage, which we loved because of the pretty red and white flowers. What a vigorous plant. The clippings grew roots and we successfully planted 3 beautiful plants. Turns out the plant begins flowering in April and goes till the frost. Bees are highly interested in this plant and the flowers are super sweet, not just beautiful. I have used them in Kombucha. If you don’t pick the flowers they fall off and other ones come (don’t have to deadhead in other words). The leaves of the sage are small but savoury and it grows, and grows, and grows and eventually becomes a shrub. Sadly this shrub hates freezing temps so I have little green tents over mine hoping they will survive the cold snap.
I cannot grow cilantro in Quatsino. It is totally my fault to be sure. I don’t think I tend it in the way that it is accustomed so it bolts every time but this provides a nice white flower for the meal.
Some herbs we just cannot grow well or in the quantities we need like cilantro and dill and during certain times of the year, parsley. These we store carefully in our fridge. Did you know that fresh parsley can be stored up to 6 weeks and still be in great shape? Cilantro never lasts more than 2 full weeks. Dill will last 3 weeks easily and if the fridge isn’t opened then a lot longer. No water required. A wonderful Quatsino neighbour, Negrita, taught me this many years ago.
HOW TO STORE HERBS FOR AGES
Step #1. Do not wash the herbs before storage. If they are wet they will rot. Instead, remove elastics, ties, and any off-looking parts of the herb.
Step #2. Lay out a generous portion of paper towel. Place the herbs in a thin layer atop the paper towel.
Step#3. Loosely roll till the whole sample is covered. Tuck in the top and the bottom or gently fold them over creating a loose bundle. Do not tie with anything.
Step #4. Gently, starting with the leafy end of your package, twist into a very clean and very dry glass jar that is large enough to hold your herbs without much jostling. Be sure that a clean and thoroughly dry lid is included. Secure the lid tightly and put into the fridge.
*** Be sure to wash them well before you use them but if you don’t need to wash them for storage then do not. They will last longer if you don’t. Negrita says “wash them in the moment” so that is what we do.
This does NOT work for basil but works fine for parsley, cilantro, tarragon and dill. In fact if you do not have a glass jar or paper towel you can use a dish towel and a plastic ziploc bag.
Hint: When our parsley et. al arrives on grocery day it is most tempting not to deal with it right then as we are invariably in the middle of too many things being a change-over day. But you must. Sometimes herbs come in wet (for some unknown reason, the produce departments of most supermarkets insist on thoroughly soaking the herbs before you buy them), so if this has happened then they cannot be put away as I have just helpfully described. Sigh.
If they are muddy or just plain filthy now there’s another problem. You have to wash them. If they are wet you have to dry them, just not immediately as the only way to dry herbs without bruising them is to let them do it themselves. Time and space are what you need. We lay out a large, clean and dry dishtowel first. If the herbs are grossly dirty, then wash them thoroughly as the dirt will rot them. Sometimes they come in so filthy we fill large bowls of water to dip and swirl them because you can’t wash all the mud off under the tap. Then we shake out as much moisture as we can without damage. Next, the bundle of herbs is broken up and laid out across the dishtowel (usually a couple bundles can be laid out across an entire dishcloth). Cover these herbs with another layer of dishtowel. Repeat the process as many times as necessary. Folks when you order 6 bunches of parsley and 4 bunches of cilantro it can take a bit of space.
Oftentimes, just before the staff are finished cleaning up in the kitchen the herbs are dry and able to be jarred in the manner I already explained. This usually (always) ensures fresh round of green bits on the almost clean floor.
Fortunately most of the time our herbs arrive clean and dry so we can usually skip these extra steps.
LABEL YOUR JARS. It is sure annoying to have to rifle through 4 or more jars that all look the same from the outside to find the herb you are needing because someone was too lazy to write a little taped message. You can date them too if you are trying to use up older ones first. We generally rotate everything; new stuff goes at the back and older stuff to the front. Helpers in the kitchen will almost never check the date so it is just easier to rotate them yourself when the new items arrive.
If herbs are starting to go off you can see by the paper towel some discolouration is occurring. At this point, you can salvage some (provided you take the time to open the jar, get fresh paper towel, separate as needed, wash if necessary) but it's really not worth it. Better to rotate and use up your stock in time instead.
I mentioned basil. It is different entirely. We grow our own, and many of our guests have noticed the barrels of basil we keep. Some years, warmer ones, the basil can live outside for most of the summer. Other years it is too windy, wet or cold and we end up with the basil on the porch under cover or even in the living room. Our kitchen uses so much of this that we sometimes have to give the plants a couple weeks off, during which time we supplement by purchasing fresh basil (if it is available to us).
Basil HATES to be cold or wet. It lives in abject misery in the produce department at our local grocery store. But, if you can get it from a grocer who has it bagged and in a basket away from the crisper and misting devices it will last for several weeks with a little help.
Step #1. Remove elastics and ties.
Step #2. Lay out a generous portion of paper towel and lay the basil in a thin layer atop it.
Step #3. Gently roll it up, carefully folding both ends over to completely cover loosely the basil inside.
Step#4. Use a clean and dry ziploc bag large enough to lay the basil inside. Without bending or squishing, put the basil into the bag and seal with a little air inside. Put on a top shelf in your pantry away from light and cold.
Often we have to order fresh herbs simply because we have an opportunity that someone has volunteered to bring groceries up for us and we have access to fresh herbs. When this happens, we usually still have perfectly good herbs left in the fridge but the old fridge space issue is very pressing when we get a new order in. So we dry our extra herbs. As well the garden produces so much oregano, thyme, rosemary and a few other things that we dry the excess there also.
NOTE: If you don’t harvest your herbs they will go to flower - yes great edible flowers but then the herb itself generally gets old or woody and is usually less desirable for eating.
We have a dehydrator with 12 stacking trays and screens. Easiest to take the herbs straight out of the jar and onto the trays. When they are dry, you can crumble the whole thing into a container with your hands, tossing the stems away the end. Much quicker than chopping in advance and keeps the herbs much fresher. We also save the silica gel packs when we find them at the bottom of something we are working with so we add 2-3 silica gel packs to the dried herbs. The best containers for dried herb storage are those lovely boxes that whiskey of most varieties comes in. They also have a tight lid. They are dark and dry and do not need cleaning. They store well there as there is plenty of space for the herbs not to be crushed inside.
MY NASTURTIUM OPUS - OR IS THAT AN OOPS
I mentioned nasturtium earlier. I googled it. It is a culinary herb. (Big sigh of relief). We use this lovely plant for so many things. The flowers in salads add such varied colour. It is a peculiar observation though that most men are less likely to eat the nasturtiums if they are left whole in the salad... If the petals are plucked and sprinkled about in a mixture of petals it is more likely they will be consumed as they are smaller and stick to the dressing.
We use the leaves inside rolls of sushi to keep the nori rolls drier for longer so as a liner. We decorate the platters of sushi with all sorts of leaves and flowers, nasturtiums being very common for us to use. Most green salads made at the lodge include nasturtium leaves that have been given the chiffonade treatment. As well we take the beautiful long stalks and slice them up like a green onion and sprinkle them over the salad as well. They are very peppery and add something that you won’t find in most salads in my experience. No I have not attempted to dry them yet but I am thinking maybe this year.
Funny nasturtium story: I can never grow enough nasturtiums. Not only are they fabulous to eat they also are a wonderful cover crop and keep down pretty much any weed. Walter didn’t believe me when I claimed confidently (but without actually knowing for sure) that nasturtiums planted thickly enough could eliminate couch grass a.k.a quack grass. Since we had a covid garden this year at home, I was able to take out my gardening frustrations there if not at the lodge. I planted nasturtiums everywhere. It was a rather damp and cool spring for us so most things were held back a bit. The nasturtiums seemed to just come up and then do nothing for a while. So I planted a few more.
I started tucking them with the squash and the beans. I planted them with the sunflowers and corn. When the mice stole my pea shoots, I tucked a few nasturtium seeds in the holes thinking mice won’t eat those and besides, I had so many carrots planted with the peas that the nasturtiums couldn’t do much. I assured Walter that nasturtiums were one plant for one seed (which they are BTW). Then right about when it got warm, we went fishing.
I was quite surprised to see how my garden had grown in my absence as I was able to come home a few times during the summer. I was very pleased to see how my nasturtiums had really begun to grow. I think it was my third trip home when I started logging nasturtiums. With a machete. They took over everything. I know now that the seeds are incredibly vigorous since they all seemed to manage to sprout. They blocked the sun from the carrots, eliminated the cabbages, ran roughshod over my herb garden (yes I have one at home too) blocking light and climbing sunflowers, lying atop calendula and choking out oregano and other various herbs. But they also killed off or at least totally eliminated the couch grass. Underneath the tonnage of nasturtiums was beautiful, cool, black soil. Weed free. So what did I learn?
#1. Used in moderation, nasturtiums are a lovely addition to any garden - I knew this already.
#2. It is possible to grow too many nasturtiums...
#3. There is incredible biomass in a nasturtium plant. They are heavy.
#4. They are a dominant force to be reckoned with, much like the Triffids and/or the Tribbles.
#5. They definitely are an organic method to control couch grass and pretty much any other garden plant, weed or wanted.
#6. They do provide excellent protection from sun beating down and rain pounding the soil structure and they continue provide this service in death throughout the winter.
#7. They produce zillions of seeds all season long, far too many to attempt to clean out of the soil which I now know are incredibly vigorous and will all be back this spring.
I am sticking my original statement that there’s only one seed per plant and they can be pulled. I know this to be true because although I had thousands of nasturtiums and therefore seeds in my garden in 2019, because of the covid issues this spring I was not at the lodge as much as normal. I assigned Breanna, a.k.a Breez, to do some weeding expressly targeting canola, grass, and the devil plant called Himalayan Orchid. Now while I did not specifically show Breez what a nasturtium was, there were obviously hundreds of thousands coming up all over the place. As many of you know, Breez is efficient. Clearly no garden plant should coming up like this ergo this must be a weed heretofore unmentioned and she went after it with the same enthusiasm she applies to any task. By the time I arrived at the lodge there were 3 nasturtiums left on the property. Teehee. We just didn’t have quite as many in 2020 as normal.
A quick detour back to the edible flowers for which’s much of our garden grows. Just between you and me and the gatepost, if I had the time I would just be gardening all the time and I would focus on the herbs and edible flowers. Well the important part to mention just now is that they do not store well. This is likely why they are not easily purchased in most supermarkets. In fact, few farm stands offer them as well. They are best used within an hour of picking making them rather poor prospect for farm sales. You might see them in restaurants and often this is because the chef grows his/her own. They can be candied and in some cases dried. I dried a good deal of calendula and rose petals and buds in the summer, both of which I use in my kombucha brewing. Borage flowers can be candied but they wilt quickly so all the ingredients need to be ready before picking.
I guess garlic isn’t exactly an herb but it sure feels like one. It pains me to confess this but when I first started cooking at the lodge I bought my crushed garlic in a jar from Costco. I progressed to buying fresh garlic only and burning through many a garlic press/crusher. I have always made it a policy that if the recipe calls for 2 cloves of garlic I would at minimum double it. Those cloves are soooo small. Then I discovered farm grown local garlic and never looked back. 1 clove is easily 2 and often the same as 3 of those little white cloves. I never want store-bought garlic again. Walter planted several hundred cloves of garlic this fall so cross your fingers. I suspect that I personally, at home, use at least 1 head of garlic everyday and often more so it is easily one of the top 5 most used things in my home and work kitchen.