Chart Pairs Herbs with Wine and Cheese

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESBy Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, Herb Society of America

When I was a child in the 1970s family dinners were usually roast meat, mashed potatoes, gravy and a vegetable. Seasonings were salt and pepper. And, everything was washed down with whole milk or tap water.

Fortunately, the American food scene began to shift. Table-side grinders replaced powdered black pepper shakers. Olive oil with balsamic vinegar became an alternative to butter. And, salsa outsold ketchup.

Then, the culinary culture got more exciting. International flavors added variety to the average American diet. And, fresh herbs available at retail stirred up many a kitchen.

In the 1990s, the first fusion trend mashed up flavors of different cuisines to create bold new dishes. Today, foodies are talking about the best food and beverage pairings.

IMG_1351Need a little assistance? Consider the Herb, Cheese and Wine pairing chart put together by William “Bill” Varney of UrbanHerbal in Fredericksburg, Texas. The four-color, 11- by 17-inch poster is both utilitarian and decorative. I plan to hang mine on the wall of my kitchen.

Cheeses, listed down the left side of the chart, are paired with wine, herbs, fruit, bread and accompaniments. The chart is like a cheat sheet for a currently popular cheese tray.

Choose, for example, my favorite goat cheese. Bill suggests pairing it with dry white or light red wine; chives, dill or oregano; figs, strawberries and peaches; pita, breadsticks, rye toast; and olives, walnuts and dried apricots.

Bill says he started working on the chart years ago. “I checked and double checked. I finally decided to have the charts made,” he says. “People are amazed when they taste something paired perfectly.”

To order a chart, visit

What’s your favorite food/herb and beverage pairing?


Jamie Jo’s and Mitzi’s Lemon Liqueur

lemon herbs for liqueur and jarBy Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

Jamie Jo Washburn and I were chatting about the fun of HSA’s annual meetings, when we discovered some things in common – a love of lemon herbs and an interest in making herbed liqueurs.  An 18-year member of The Herb Society of American, Jamie Jo is a founding member of the South Jersey Unit.

When we were done with our official business, our conversation turned to our mutual appreciation of all things herbal. That’s when Jamie Jo told me that she and her fellow HSA friend Mitzi Kowal have infused vodka with lemon herbs. If we could only turn that into popsicles my life would be complete.

I had to share their idea here while lemon herbs are abundant and in season throughout the country.

  • Pack a wide-mouth, quart mason jar 2/3 full of softly flavored lemon herbs like lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemon grass. You won’t want the savory bite of lemon basil or lemon thyme.
  • Use a peeler to remove the outermost layer from a lemon, a lime and a grapefruit. Add the peel (without the bitter white pith) to the jar.
  • Pour unflavored vodka into 1/3 of the jar.
  • Make simple syrup by boiling 1 1/2 cup sugar and 1 1/2 cup water until dissolved. Cool slightly.
  • Fill the remaining 2/3 of the jar with warm simple syrup.

“In five minutes, it’s drinkable,” says Jamie Jo. “In two weeks it’s divine.”

She suggests straining the liquid through cheesecloth after two weeks. “People get weird about green things they can’t identify floating in their liqueur,” she laughs.

Lemon herb liqueurI sampled mine every hour and strained it after four. The result is a lush mellow yellow with a sharp lemon bite. I’m going to refill the jar and let it sit longer to make another batch.

While this can be done with different herbs, fruits or herb-fruit combinations, Jamie Jo advises avoiding chocolate mint. That, she says, tastes like cough syrup.  Regular mint, I can attest, duplicates many a crème de menthe.

In addition to sipping on small quantities, Jamie Jo says the lemon-herb liqueur is good in lemonade and hot/iced tea or sprinkled on fruit salad.

Do you have an herb liqueur to share? Post is here or email it to and we’ll do a wrap-up.

Save May 3-7, 2017 for Conference and Annual Meeting in Little Rock



Photo courtesy of Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

Mark your calendars for the 2017 Herb Society of America’s Educational Conference and Annual Meeting of Members on May 3 to 7, 2017, in Little Rock, Arkansas. During a handful of committee and business meetings members will have a chance to meet each other and exchange ideas.

“Attending HSA’s Educational Conference and Annual Meeting is such a fabulous experience” says Rie Sluder, a member of the NorthEast Seacoast Unit and HSA board secretary. “It is exciting to be among a group of people who are as passionate about herbs as you are. There are so many opportunities to learn from other members’ experiences and to make new friends from all over the country. In addition you attend lectures from nationally known experts and get to explore an area of the country that you might not otherwise visit.”

The agenda includes presentations by

  • P. Allen Smith, celebrity lifestyle expert and garden designer,

    felder rushing

    Felder Rushing

  • Felder Rushing, garden author and international founder of Slow Gardening,
  • and the culinary team from the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion.

Jamie Jo Washburne of the South Jersey Unit plans to be among the attendees at next year’s event. Jamie Jo joined HSA about 18 years ago after taking a class to learn uses for her oregano and savory plants. She continues to study and teach about herbs and their uses. Information sessions at the educational conference add to her expansive body of knowledge.

“I like going someplace new, meeting people and learning new things,” says Jamie Jo. “Some information presented is technical and some simpler; then there’s everything in between. Plus, I do the pre- and post-conference trips around town. I recommend to anybody, if they have the time and money, to start on Wednesday and do the meetings and the weekend.”

Stay tuned to this blog or Herb Society website for upcoming details. If you’re a member of The Herb Society, watch you inbox for HSA newsletters that will include the latest information.

To take advantage of the most significant opportunities, if you’re not already a member, join The Herb Society of America. Membership benefits include industry information, shopping discounts, and monthly member only webinars, as well as reduced or free admission to arboreta and gardens throughout the United States.

Any Mint, but Peppermint

By Jen Lenharth, NorthEast Seacoast Unit – HSA, Guest Blogger

Mint in glassI have never really been a fan of peppermint.  Yes, I love those Andy’s brand brown-and-green chocolate layered mints, but let’s be honest they are more about the chocolate.  It used to sadden me to find a giant peppermint candy cane in my Christmas stocking. It can be so tricky to find treats, or even toothpaste, with spearmint, my preferred mint flavor.

It really shouldn’t be so hard to find the right mint products at retail. Mentha is a diverse genus with more than 600 recognized plants.  There are many identified species such as spearmint (M. spicata), peppermint ( M. piperita), orange mint  (M. piperita var. citrata) and the apple mints (M. suaveolens).

Because mints readily hybridize among species, unlimited variations on the theme exist. And, that’s why it’s recommended to get new plants from divisions not seeds. That way you can identify what you are getting.  Even at retail, new variations of mint seem to abound, I just picked up one labeled ‘chocolate mint,’ which actually tastes like one of those Andy’s candy mints.

Mints are identified by their erect, square stems, opposite, and oblong serrate leaves.  Mint leaf colors vary with species and can range from dark green to nearly yellow. Leaves can be smooth or downy.  Mint’s assertively growing stolons (underground horizontal stem structures) help it survive and spread in moist soil.  Assertively growing is code for “it takes over the garden.” It can be contained by a 10-inch deep, underground barrier that rises above ground a bit.

Mint has a multitude of uses, in both the garden and home.  Mints tend to repel ants, white cabbage moths, rodents and other pests; and so they make good planting companions for cabbage, broccoli and tomatoes.

In addition to culinary uses — teas, juices, fruit, vegetable, and even meat dishes –mint has health and beauty uses. It can be used in a face freshener to combat acne, and it is used in muscle rubs, foot powder, toothpaste and other hygiene products. Mint, peppermint in particular, is also helpful in easing headaches, even if you just smell it.

The “cooling” sensation we feel and taste with mint is a nervous system illusion caused by menthol, one of mint’s essential oils. Physical temperature doesn’t change on the skin or in the mouth but menthol triggers the same receptors as cold does. And, when those receptors are triggered our bodies don’t know the difference.

Different mints contain different menthols and that changes their uses. For example, my least favorite — peppermint —  has a high menthol content which makes it a favorite for teas and sweets as well as home and beauty uses. However, a fresh peppermint leaf may convey a strong, bitter, menthol flavor in cooking, so other mints may be preferred. Spearmint, meanwhile, has a much lower amount of menthol and also has carvone which we taste as sweet and ‘spearminty.’ Spearmint is most commonly used in cooking, as is  apple mint which has a mixed spearmint/peppermint taste.

mint toothpasteI find it frustrating that mint-flavored toothpastes never seem to identify a species. Labels read ‘cool mint,’ ‘fresh mint,’ and ‘mint blast.’ That leaves me to guess if the product will be more peppermint or spearmint.

Because of my interest in the flavors, I have a variety of mints growing in my garden.  I add a few leaves of spearmint or apple mint to my daily brew of iced tea in the summer.  I have been steeping chocolate mint in milk to add extra yum to my chocolate pudding. But I do not grow peppermint.

Herbs Brighten Spa Waters

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America and Carmen Ketron, Farm Educator of the Medical University of South Carolina

peppermint (1)The body needs fluids for health. Spa waters – those infused with herbs, fruits and flowers – make that experience interesting. And, perhaps their flavors help some folks replace sugary beverages with healthier options.  No doubt, their attraction brightens a party.

With the herb garden’s bounty ready for harvest, summer is a great time to enjoy them, according to Carmen Ketron, farm educator at Medical University of South Carolina. MUSC operates a half-acre Urban Farm  as a living classroom where students, faculty, staff, and the community can explore the connection between food and health through hands-on learning about  the varieties of vegetables, fruit, and herbs grown in South Carolina.

Using her experiences in the garden, Carmen offers the following tips and combinations for making your own spa waters. Use these combinations in one gallon of cold water.

  • Wash herbs, flowers, fruits or vegetables.
  • Use organically grown ingredients to limit chemicals exposure.
  • Chill for one hour before serving.

Citrus Infusion
1 orange sliced
1 lemon sliced
1 lime sliced
½ grapefruit sliced
1 cup fresh mint leaves

Lemon Verbena and Mint Infusion
3-4 sprigs of lemon verbena
¼ cup coarsely chopped mint leaves

Blackberry and Mint Infusion
½ cup blackberries, crushed
3-4 mint sprigs, chopped

Cucumber, Cilantro, and Dill Infusion
½ cucumber sliced
1 sprig of cilantro, coarsely chopped
1 sprig of dill

Watermelon and Cilantro Infusion
1 cup watermelon, cubed
3 springs, cilantro, chopped

Herbs in Hospital Garden Teach Health

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

MUSC Urban farmI was ordering ciopinno – Italian fish stew –at Etna Restaurant in Cleveland’s Little Italy, while a young woman also sitting at the bar was perusing the Sicilian-based menu. We started chatting and discovered a similar passion for gardening. Turns out Carmen Ketron was visiting from Charleston, South Carolina, for the 37th Annual Meeting of the American Community Gardening Association.

The community garden Carmen manages at the Medical University of South Carolina has an interesting undertaking. Its mission is to build a healthier community by growing crops and social connections while educating and inspiring people with local, nutritious, and delicious food. The half-acre plot inspires workshops, seminars, volunteer workdays, and tours for local schools. Participants learn how to engage in sustainable, urban agriculture and how to add herbs and vegetables to their home menus.

Herbs play an important part in that nutrition strategy. Carmen shares some of that ..

Q. What herbs do you grow?

A. We grow medicinal and culinary herbs at the Urban Farm. Staple perennials such as oregano, rosemary, peppermint, thyme, and chives are available year round. We also grow common annual herbs including many different types of basil, cilantro, and parsley.

We have many herbs we use in teas for home medicinal remedies such as lavender, Mexican mint marigold, and chamomile.

We are currently trying to expand our reach into culturally diverse herbs. This has inspired us to farm different varietals such as sisho (Chinese green), garlic chives, and tulsi (Indian basil) at the farm to provide patrons with herbs that are hard to acquire in the grocery store.

Also we highlight native herbs from South Carolina. There we have neat native herbs like hops, elderberry, and pokeweed that have been used medicinally for hundreds of years.

Q. Why are herbs important to your urban farm? 

A. We grow these plants for demonstration and education. We give them to people for cooking, usually with recipes and handouts about common uses. We want people to use herbs to flavor food as a healthy alternative to salt and highly processed commercial products.

Also, they beautify the landscape and are part of the ornamental decor of the hospital’s campus.

Finally, we use them to attract native pollinators for our bee hives and as part of an integrated pest management strategy. For instance, we plant dill and fennel to attract parasitic wasps that lay eggs inside the tomato hornworm caterpillar. That helps us minimize these pests and protect our tomato plants.

Q. How important are your garden and your herbs to educating consumers about nutrition?

A. Hands-on demonstration is one of our staple educational methods and herbs are a great year-round resource for teaching. We have found that adding herbs to the kitchen requires little effort, but can transform a person’s diet and have tremendous health benefits.

Q. How important are herbs to eating healthy?  

A. Flavoring healthy foods with different herbs makes healthy food taste better without adding fats, sugars or salts. These herbs also contain 0 calories. And, some herbs even have health benefits such as digestive aid, relaxant or nutritional content.

Q. What do you make with them in demonstrations?

A.. We use our demonstrations to discuss herb uses and how to keep them fresh. Right now we are at the end of our summer and some of our demonstration highlights are flavoring salsas and hummus dishes as well as dressing up sandwiches and how to make herb salad dressings at home.

Drying Herbs Requires Patience

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

Herb drying rack

Herb drying rack sold by Williams Sonoma

Drying herbs is easy, but takes time.  And, that’s where I failed. Patience.

I had a loose pile of mint sprigs resting on an aluminum cookie sheet to air dry. Then, I had an aha-moment. After removing four roasted (free-range) chicken thighs from the oven for dinner, I slid a tray into the oven as it cooled down. By the time we’d eaten, the mint was crisp and ready for a tea tin.

I was so efficient. And, wrong.

“The goal is to keep the essential oils and dry out the water,” says Karen Kennedy, Education Coordinator. “But, if you add heat or sun, the essential oils will dissipate.”

It turns out, the oven was too much. So, I started again following Karen’s advice.

Herbs should be cleaned gently, without bruising the plant materials and causing oils to disperse. That’s done with a cold water rinse and patting or spinning dry. While salad spinners may remove water, Karen laughs at the memory of a woman who wrapped herbs in kitchen towels and spun them in her washing machine. Unconventional, but effective.

Once dry, herbs should be bundled and hung to dry. “It’s really not very complicated. You can bundle and hang them or lay them on screens to dry,” says Karen. She uses rubber bands to bundle herbs for hanging because the band contacts as the herbs dry and shrink.

“The key is that you don’t want them to hang or sit for too long and get dusty.  You don’t want direct sunlight because the sun will add heat. And, you don’t want to store in your hot attic or damp basement,” she says.

When “cornflake crisp,” the herbs are dry.  Then, they should be stored in airtight containers away from heat and direct sunlight. Above the kitchen stove is the worst place to store them because of heat and steam. Most pantries are a better location.

No matter the technique, some herbs dry well, others don’t. Dried basil and cilantro, for example, says Karen, lose flavor. Because most supermarkets sell them year ‘round, it’s better to go fresh. Lemon balm is another weak addition to the pantry; lemon verbena retains stronger flavors.  A little research or trial-and-error will help determine the best herbs to dry.

“The most important thing is to date your dried batches when you store them so you can remember which year an herb was preserved. You want to pitch after a year because it has less flavor.”

For now, I have trays of mint lying around drying. I can wait.