A Forager’s Life: Reflections on Mother Nature and My 70+ Years of Digging, Picking, Gathering, Fixing and Feasting on Wild Edible Foods

A Book Review

By Paris Wolfe

Mike Krebill, now in his late 70s, has been foraging for more than 70 years. In his second book, A Forager’s Life, he reflects on his experiences as a naturalist, teacher, and most importantly, a champion of wild foods.  

DG.3 KrebillHe has many reasons why folks should be interested in wild edibles, but the most compelling, he says, “Historically, wild edibles were crucial survival fare during depressions. Now some of them command high prices in fancy restaurants. Trying something new can add variety to your diet at home.”

While the 264-page text released in early 2021 is a folksy, linear progression through Krebill’s life, reading the pages in order is unnecessary. In fact, it’s fulfilling to disregard convention and flip through the pages at random, settling on whatever shiny thought catches your attention. 

The narrative is broken up by recipes, lists, and images. In my case, I was eager to see what foraged botany starred in the 21 recipes. I own at least a dozen wild food books, and Krebill’s recipes are unique to this tome. They include Queen Anne’s Lace Pancakes, Clover Flower Spoonbread, Sumac Black Raspberry Lemonade, and Hickory Nut Sandies, among others. 

Page 123 lists 40 common wild edibles, including several mushrooms, that the reader will likely recognize. Upon reflection, Krebill recalls tasting 190 plant and 44 mushroom varieties. He’s tried foraging insects, but much prefers foraging for plants.

With the help of grade school students, he tasted and tested acorns from different trees and identified their different characteristics. He prefers the flavors and tannin-balance of the swamp white oak. Students also helped him identify that paw paws, like apples, have different flavors.

ST LYNN'S PRESS - FORAGER'S COVERThree warnings he offers include that mayapple fruits are only safe to consume when they are ripe; sumac may cause allergic reactions in some folks; and all mushrooms should be cooked before eating.

While going back and forth through the pages, I was drawn into Krebill’s storytelling. First, about his cousin trying to defy poison ivy to reach a generous stash of hickory nuts but then finding himself hospitalized with an angry rash. And second, when a middle school class was chowing down on a particularly delicious fried puffball and suddenly discovering wriggly little creatures inside. Both serve as warnings to newbies…pay close attention to the project whether gathering or cooking. 

Perhaps the most important parts of the book are safety precautions for the human and the planet. First, for the human he lists:

  • Be positive of a plant’s identity.
  • Know the edible part and when it can be eaten.
  • Don’t collect in polluted areas.
  • Know how to prepare it.
  • Eat a small amount the first time so that you can see how your body reacts to it.

For the planet he recommends regenerative harvesting:

  1. If plants seem crowded, thinning may help them grow.
  2. When harvesting tender leaves and stems from a plant, take no more than 30 percent of the plant, and be careful to avoid damaging the roots.
  3. Cut new shoots a few inches above the ground, instead of right at the ground. It allows them to regenerate.
  4. Make sure to leave a good number of seeds in the landscape. Help disperse them to encourage reproduction.
  5. Encourage runners like mint, nettle, and wild bergamot by cutting out small patches with roots intact, then transplant them. To keep a patch healthy, don’t uproot the runners during harvest.

For your copy of A Forager’s Life: Reflections on Mother Nature and My 70+ Years of Digging, Picking, Gathering, Fixing and Feasting on Wild Edible Foods, visit stlynnspress.com. If you want more information on identifying wild edibles, pick up Krebill’s book, The Scout’s Guide to Wild Edibles, also by St. Lynn’s Press.

St. Lynn’s Press publishes a wide range of books, from body-mind-spirit to enlightened business to all things “green.” Over time, they’ve gone deeper into the green side, and since 2010 have been publishing, almost exclusively, books on organic gardening, sustainable living, and ways to live gently on our little piece of the planet.

Photo Credits: 1) Mike Krebill; 2) Krebill Book Cover. All photos courtesy of St. Lynn’s Press.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Paris Wolfe is a travel and food writer, and blogger. Away from the keyboard, Paris may be herb gardening, at farmers’ markets or traveling. She is often in the kitchen cooking, eating, drinking wine/spirits/tea and entertaining. 

HSA Webinar: Exploration of Spice

Sponsored by The New York Unit
by Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

spice imageThe Herb Society embraces spices as herbs, but what distinguishes an herb from a spice? An herb is the leafy part of a plant, whereas a spice is the “hard” part. So, herbs might include oregano, sage, rosemary, sorrel, and basil, to name a few. Spices, on the other hand, include the bark, root, or seed…think of cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, and nutmeg. Notable exceptions to the herb vs. spice conversation are coriander and dill. Coriander and dill seed are the seeds of the cilantro and dill plants, respectively. 

While herbs take the culinary spotlight for delivering immense flavor to our food, spices often get relegated to fall holidays when cinnamon, allspice, and other favorite spices get used. However, spices can be enjoyed year-round to ramp up the flavor in food. To learn more, join us on Tuesday, May 18th at 1pm Eastern when Master Spice Blender, 2258_2018_LiorBook_WholeRoastedFish_0451Lior Lev Sercarz, joins HSA for an “Exploration of Spice.” 

To prepare for this program consider going through your herb and spice cabinet. As a rule of thumb, stored herbs and spices will last six months to a year. If you cannot recall when they were last purchased, you will want to evaluate their shape and color; unless purchased in powdered form, the herbs and spices should be solid, vibrant, and smell flavorful. So, if your dried rosemary leaf or black pepper do not have vibrant colors, consider throwing them away. Or if they are half whole and half powder they may just be falling to dust. When purchasing herbs and spices, label the jar with the date of purchase before storing so you will know when they need replacement. To ensure the best flavor, purchase small batches of dried herbs and spices in whole form from specialty suppliers.

This webinar is $5.00 for guests/ free for members. Become a member today to enjoy this discounted rate and as a bonus, you will automatically be entered into a drawing for a free registration to our June 10-12th, 2021 Annual Meeting of Members and Educational Conference. To register visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars/

About Lior Lev Sercarz: Growing up, Lior did the household cooking while his mother worked late hours. He later found himself in cooking school and decided to make it a career after working with Israeli Chef Gil Frank, and enrolled at the acclaimed Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France. During that time, he did an externship with Michelin-starred chef laboite logoOlivier Roellinger in Cancale, France. Roellinger became known for his rare understanding of spices, blends, oils, and pastes, areas Lior found the most interesting.

In 2002, Lior brought his newfound understanding of spice blending to New York, where he landed an opportunity with Chef Daniel Boulud at his flagship restaurant, Daniel, as a sous chef and catering chef. He left Daniel in 2008 to start La Boîte, originally making and selling a line of French biscuits, as well as experimenting with spices. In 2011, he opened La Boîte Biscuits & Spices, an art gallery and spice shop in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Today, Lior collaborates with chefs from around the world, developing custom blends, including: Daniel, Le Bernardin, Zahav, Kawi, Del Posto, Marc Forgione, and Michael Mina, among others.

essentials-181108-jewisharts-credit-thomas-schauerLior has written three cookbooks including The Art of Blending (2012), The Spice Companion (Clarkson Potter, 2016), and his recent effort, Mastering Spice: Recipes and Techniques to Transform Your Everyday Cooking (Clarkson Potter, October 2019), which offers 250 recipes informing readers on how spices change the way one makes every meal. To learn more, visit his website at www.laboiteny.com

Photo credits: 1) Spices (Pixaby); 2 – 4) Lior Lev Sercarz photos.

HSA Special Program: Foodscaping with Herbs

by Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

image-assetFoodscaping–it’s so simplistic. In its most basic form, it is landscaping with an edible twist. It’s the intersection of the purely ornamental garden with the purely edible or vegetable garden. Herbs, vegetables, berry-producing bushes, and fruit trees intertwine with ornamentals to become design elements. 

Join us for Foodscaping with Herbs with bestselling author Brie Arthur on Friday, May 14th from 12pm to 1:30pm ET. Brie will share creative ideas about foodscaping with herbs in this lively, virtual session. Lemongrass suddenly becomes a replacement for other tall grasses, providing beauty and enjoyment. Blend Thai basil with lemon basil for a stunning border. Use chives and garlic for structure and as natural pest deterrents. Discover how to plant beautiful and bountiful designs for year-round use, and learn easy-to-apply strategies to deter browsing mammals, including voles!

Brie Arthur - 2Food in our landscapes is not new. Cottage gardens and the French potager’s garden have been around for centuries. In the early eighties, Rosalind Creasy’s book, Edible Landscaping, gave this design style elevated popularity. Foodcaping is the 21st century interpretation of the edible garden. It is theorized that it arose out of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 when the next generation started questioning where our food came from, and more recently, the pandemic gave households firsthand experience in food scarcity along with the flexibility to start growing food. 

This special program is $10.00 for guests/ $8.00 for members. Become a member today to enjoy this discounted rate and as an added bonus, you will automatically be entered into a drawing for a free registration to our June 10-12th, 2021 Annual Meeting of Members and Educational Conference. To register visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/new—workshops-demonstrations.html

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Brie Arthur


Brie with BasilAbout Brie Arthur: Bestselling author and horticulturist, Brie Arthur has garnered acclaim for her enthusiastic presentations and practical, out-of-the-box gardening advice. Originally from southeastern Michigan, Brie studied Landscape Design and Horticulture at Purdue University. With more than a decade of experience as a grower and propagator, she now shares her expertise as an advocate for consumer horticulture and home gardening across America. 

Brie is an ambassador for Soil3 organic compost and has appeared as a correspondent on the PBS television show “Growing a Greener World.” She is president of the International Plant Propagators Society Southern Region and is on the board of the North Carolina Botanic Garden Foundation. Brie was honored as the first recipient of the The American Horticultural Society’s Emerging Horticultural Professional Award for her efforts in connecting a new generation to the art of growing. In her second book, Gardening with Grains, published by St. Lynn’s Press, Brie explores the opportunities in residential and commercial landscapes with creative and thoughtful uses for traditional agricultural crops.

One Man’s Road to Herbal Success: An Interview

By Chrissy Moore

IMG_8012I have always been fascinated by people’s life stories, particularly those in the herb world. How did they end up where they did? What circumstances led them down their chosen path? Some people take decades—and numerous career maneuverings—before they settle into their career of choice; others know their life’s calling from an early age. For Bill Varney, owner of URBANherbal in Fredricksburg, TX, his life’s work encompassed all those things and more. I recently asked Bill to give me a glimpse into his world as an herbal enthusiast and business owner and what it takes to succeed. Here’s what he said:

When did you first encounter herbs?

IMG_8007BV: I first discovered plants and gardening when I was very young! When I was eight years old, my parents had a greenhouse built for me, and I would start all kinds of plants from seeds and cuttings. Later as my love for all things green grew, I developed a love of herbs. That was about 1985, when I opened a small herbal apothecary shop and small herbal nursery, Varney’s Chemist Laden.

What is your technical background (education or otherwise)?

BV: I grew up tending to people’s gardens, worked for a number of nurseries, then received a B.S. in Business with a Minor in Horticulture from Oklahoma Panhandle State University. I went there because I had volunteered to help my elderly grandparents who lived in the area. Later, I became a Texas Certified Nurseryman.

Have you always known you wanted to work with plants/herbs?

BV: Yes, I have always had a “green thumb.” I have always been intrigued by plants, their use, their contribution to the world, whether they are reproduced by seed, rooted cuttings, etc. After I finished college and had a one -year agriculture stint in Tasmania, Australia, I returned to Houston, Texas, where my family was living and went to work for a well known nursery as their landscape buyer. Later, I wanted to “get out of the big city” and moved to Fredericksburg, Texas, to manage a local nursery. It was soon after that that I started Varney’s Chemist Laden, which later grew into the Fredricksburg Herb Farm. I sold that operation in 2007 and simplified my life to URBANherbal.

Give me a synopsis of your road to URBANherbal. 

IMG_7988BV: When I owned the Fredricksburg Herb Farm, it was a very high end, labor intensive business with acres of manicured gardens, a day spa, bed and breakfast, two retail stores, a James Beard recognized restaurant, and wholesale operation that sold our products all over the world. Life was kind of crazy for me with “fires” to put out daily! I revamped and started URBANherbal. My son had finished his undergraduate degree and came home to help me for a year to open URBANherbal. A much simpler life: a laboratory, greenhouse, smaller gardens, and art galleries. For the most part, a one-man operation with a little help here and there. I make colognes, aromatherapy products, skin care for both men and women, candles, and gourmet foods. I also do landscape consulting and public speaking.

Can you describe your herb gardening style for those who are unable to visit your establishment in person? 

IMG_8017BV: I always try to build gardens that use as many natives as possible, that attract pollinators, and are drought tolerant. I have studied Frederick Olmstead and Adelma Simmons (and got to visit with her a few times) and, of course, Madalene Hill from here in Texas.

What inspired you to start the apothecary shop segment of your herb garden, and how did that lead to the skin care/fragrance lines and the culinary products?

BV: Well, originally, our first store was an herbal apothecary store, Varney’s Chemist Laden. We sold “old fashioned” scents and skincare from old, reputable companies and finally realized we could do better, and our products ended up selling faster than the ones we were retailing. I ended up hiring an elderly retired founding chemist of a manufacturing skincare company to come for a few months and help formulate. Many of our products got recognized by the media and some received awards. I really enjoy custom making things for clients.

From what do you draw the most inspiration, both in your gardening and in your product development?

BV: I always am inspired daily if I can just bring a bit of happiness to one or two people either through products, plants, or foods through all of our senses. My personal life is inspired through faith, hope and love with friends, family, and anyone I meet.

Urban Herbal Map

Is there a fragrance profile or collection of herbs that you gravitate toward more than others?

20210312_141932

BV: Personally, I love woody scents, citrus scents, masculine scents, lavender, lemon verbena, peppermint, eucalyptus, patchouli, musk, just to name a few. But I am always drawn to white flowers and night blooming flowers, not for myself on my body, but just to smell them and make PRODUCTS WITH THEM.

Which herbs/profiles do you find the most challenging to work with and why?

BV: Sweet woodruff and French tarragon because it is too hot here in Texas to grow them.

Who were your biggest herbal influences (alive or deceased), both in your younger years and as an adult? Do you have any herbal superheroes today that provide you with encouragement along your herbal journey?

BV: Well, as I said previously, I was really inspired by reading about Frederick Olmstead and his visions in landscapes. Walafrid Strabo, who around 840 A.D., wrote a beautiful poem called “Hortulus,” in which he lovingly describes clearing a garden of stinging nettles and preparing IMG_7986the soil to plant sage, southernwood, wormwood, fennel, poppy, clary, mint, pennyroyal, celery, betony, agrimony, tansy, catmint, and radish. Strabo introduces his herbs the way a mother might speak of her children, praising their qualities without neglecting their occasional blemish. In my life, Adelma Simmons, who founded Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, Connecticut, and Madalene Hill, who founded Hilltop Herb Farm and later built the gardens at Round Top, Texas. In Madalene’s book, Southern Herb Growing, I was really proud that she had a few pictures in the front of her book of my first herb gardens. After her book came out, she came to my place and did a class and book signing. I have always admired Emelie Tolley and all of her books, and she and I have been friends for many years. In my book, Herbs: Growing and Using the Plants of Romance, Emelie wrote the forward. She came many times over the years and did stories on my gardens and business, and I was thrilled to visit her in New York City at her country home in NY. I have also always been inspired by Jeanne Rose. She came years ago and did a class and book signing at my place, and I have visited her in San Francisco. Betsy Williams has always been an inspiration to me. I think that my biggest inspiration is everyday herb gardeners whom URBANherbal gardenwe meet and we can share with. As James Beard, the famous chef, said, “We learn from each other and end up teaching ourselves.” Also, I have always been inspired by Lady Bird Johnson. She came into my store many times over the years and would have me make things for her to give as gifts. Her love of nature and wildflowers has done so much for our island home, Earth.

For many business owners, they must sacrifice a lot in terms of personal time and preferences. But, there are also rewards in being the curator of your own products/services. What has been your driving philosophy as you’ve grown URBANherbal?

BV: Yes, having your own business is a huge sacrifice, personally in man hours and struggles. My biggest driving philosophy is: “Touching all of your senses, daily. Hearing, Touching, Seeing, Tasting, Smelling and our Sixth Sense, our Spirit.” I strongly feel that these things are where herbs can really affect our lives in spirit, balance, texture, space, and love.

What brings you the most joy in your herbal day?

BV: Making something that will help someone! Be it a small plant, a cologne, a room freshener, a cream to make someone feel better, or a simple herb vinegar or seasoning that will enhance someone’s food.

Herbs have many stories to tell, from historical uses to modern industries. Do you have a favorite herb story that you find yourself telling over and over again?

BV: I think that hearing people tell me that they can’t handle being around scents. I find that it is because they have been around “commercial scents” that are not good for you, and they are not natural! So many people tell me that they can wear my scents, and they don’t have a negative reaction. Herbs and flowers are nature’s courtesans. They elevate our moods, fragrance the air around us, and so many are edible and medicinal. For instance, rosemary and lavender can be used for fragrance, in foods, and in healing. You should have herbs and flowers around you daily!

Herbs aren’t the first thing people think of when they hear “Texas.” What do you think people are most surprised to learn about herbs or herb growing in your neck of the woods?

Theresa Wylie URBANherbal dinner tableBV: I think that when they find out how easy most herbs are to grow around here and then find out how much they can enhance our lives and they are really surprised! The fact that they attract butterflies, bees, birds, and release beautiful scents in your gardens and in pots, and trigger so many memories through your senses. The air you breathe affects not just your health but also your mood.

I’m not going to ask you your favorite herb, because that is often like picking a favorite child. Instead, what handful of herbs would you recommend every new herbie explore (for various reasons/uses)?

BV: Lavender for scent, Beauty, healing, and flavor.

Rosemary for scent, beauty, healing, and flavor.

Thyme for scent, beauty, healing, and flavor.

Roses for beauty, scent, healing, and flavor.

Rose geraniums for healing, scent, and cooking.

Allium tuberosum2 46966H

Chives for flavor and the beauty of their flowers.

Sage for beauty, scent, flavor, and healing.

Basil for flavor, fragrance, healing, and beauty.

Lemon verbena for fragrance, aromatherapy, scent, beauty, and magnificent flavor for foods and drinks.

These are just a few of my favorite herbs…….

How would you characterize your road to herbal admiration and its impact on your life?

20200507_115313BV: Working with herbs and plants, one gets to know their essence and understand they are not just a commodity. The gardener and herbalist becomes rooted to the ground with them as part of God’s creation. We are trying to be stewards of our environment. It is not an accident that the humus, or the soil, comes from the same word. It’s the base from which everything grows. Gardening and my spiritual life go together. I just can’t imagine a day in my life that I’m not using herbs in some way. I really relate to this simple quote from the designer and architect, Ettore Softass, “basil-flavored architecture,” as a way of expressing the idea of achieving much with little.

Lastly, if you were to give advice to someone embarking on their own herbal “quest,” such as starting a business or a garden, etc., what key elements have you found to be the most important for successful endeavors? 

Theresa Wylie Bill VarneyBV: Make sure you are passionate about what you want to do with herbs! Do everything you can to educate yourself about herbs. Get to know other herb lovers through organizations like The Herb Society of America or garden clubs, or online groups, because that is one of the best ways to learn. Be creative about what you are going to do. Remember, you are going to have to work hard! Have a strategy, write it down. Bounce your ideas off of friends and family. 🌺

Many thanks to Bill Varney for sharing his time and talents regarding his road to herbal success!

Photo credits: 1) Bill Varney in his greenhouse (B. Varney); 2) BV as young horticulturist (B. Varney); 3) Chef Bill (B. Varney); 4) BV with Madalene Hill (B. Varney); 5) Map of Bill’s garden (B. Varney); 6) Calamondin (Citrofortunella microcarpa) fruit and flowers (C. Moore); 7) BV with Adelma Simmons (B. Varney); 8) URBANherbal gardens (Theresa Wylie, Hey,Traveler blog); 9) Herbal salad (B. Varney); 10) Dinner at URBANherbal (Theresa Wylie, Hey, Traveler blog); 11) Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) (C. Moore); 12) Rose blossom (Rosa sp.) and bee (C. Moore); 13) BV in URBANherbal greenhouse (Theresa Wylie, Hey, Traveler blog).

 


Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.

Welcoming Spring in the Year 1400

By Zainab Pashaei

Haft-Sin tableI’m not talking about time travel. Nowruz—the equivalent of the New Year—was just celebrated on the spring equinox in Iran as well as in numerous other countries and among ethnic groups in the Middle East. In Iran, the first month of the year is called Farvardin, which began on March 20, 2021 (spring equinox). Although the year is specifically 1400 in Iran, Iranian traditions for Nowruz are thousands of years old and pre-date the emergence of Islam in the country. In contrast to Western nations, the importance of nature and spring plays a critical role in new year festivities of the nation. Many of these festivities are symbolic and involve herbs, nature, and light (fire).

JumpingDuring the festivities, which start on the Wednesday before the spring equinox, Iranians will gather and jump over fires and light fireworks in observance of Chaharshanbe Suri (loose translation = Wednesday celebration). It is like the pre-game show to the Nowruz celebration. Then Nowruz, the beginning of spring, is celebrated by gathering with family and friends, eating, and making a Haft-Sin table for display. The Haft-Sin table is very symbolic of what you hope for in the new year. Iranians will decoratively place seven items which begin with the letter ‘s’, or “sin” in Farsi. Depending on the preference of the person who arranges the Haft-Sin, you may also notice a book of wisdom, such as the Quran, the Bible, the Avesta, the Shahnameh, or the divān of Hafez. Almost always, the sprouts of wheat or lentils are placed on the table and tied with a ribbon symbolizing “sabzi” or greens. (Wheat, by the way, is one of the most important agricultural products of Iran and originated in ancient Mesopotamia.)

Persians_in_Holland_Celebrating_Sizdah_Bedar,_April_2011_-_Photo_by_Persian_Dutch_Network-PDNWhen the 13th day of Farvardin comes, Iranians celebrate Sizdah Bedar, which means “13 Outdoor” or commonly called “Nature’s Day.” Some say this is an unlucky day to stay inside, though it is unclear whether people believe it is unlucky due to Western influence or due to the history or traditions of Iran. Nevertheless, Iranians go outdoors to enjoy nature and picnic. The wheat or lentil sprouts are returned to nature or thrown out. Some young boys and girls pluck two strands of grass and tie a knot in hope of finding love.

Then Iranians will go above and beyond in cooking for this outdoor picnic. Kabobs and herb stew or herb soups are often prepared. If you ever sit down and eat with an Iranian, you can see how much they appreciate nature with the abundance of herbs in almost every dish. Herbs are symbolic of new life and beginnings! So cheers to new life and new beginnings to all those who are part of the herbal community!

Recipe for Ash Reshteh (Persian Noodle and Herb Soup)

Serves: 8 – 10  people

2 – 15 ounce cans of dark red kidney beans 

Ash Reshteh soup1 – 8 ounce cup of lentils

*4 ounces of Ash Sabzi dried herbs (a mixture of spinach, cilantro, parsley, leek, and mint)

*8 ounces of reshteh noodles (may substitute with Thai linguine rice noodles if Gluten Free)

2 bunches of fresh spinach

1 bunch cilantro (may substitute with green onions if cilantro averse)

1 bunch parsley

4 large onions

6 garlic cloves (may substitute with garlic powder if necessary)

3 tablespoons of olive oil

1 tablespoon of ground turmeric

1 lime

Salt/pepper according to taste preference

*Optional Kashk (may substitute with full fat yogurt/sour cream)

Optional dried mint 

Optional French fried onions (Gluten Free versions do exist)

 *Can be found in Middle Eastern markets. Add more according to taste preference.

Directions:

Soak all dried herbs in equal parts water. Soak lentils in equal parts water. Drain both after half an hour to an hour. Wash fresh herbs and coarsely chop. 

Chop all onion and garlic and fry on medium-high heat in olive oil until golden and tender in a large stock pot. Once the garlic and onion are tender, reduce the heat to medium-low and add the fresh herbs with soaked dried herbs. Add the turmeric and a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper to the herbs. Then add enough water so that the herbs do not stick, and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes. 

While this is simmering, boil the lentils until tender (this may take 15 – 20 minutes as well). Then drain/set aside. After 20 minutes have passed, you should be adding more water to fill the pot so that noodles and beans may cook and everything can freely move around inside the pot. Now, add the lentils and red kidney beans and simmer for about 5 – 10 minutes, then add the reshteh noodles and cook until tender. Remove from heat and squeeze one fresh lime and stir.

You know your ash reshteh is ready when there is some viscosity or thickness to the soup. If you have dried mint in your home, you may simmer a teaspoon or two and add for enhanced flavor or add more salt/pepper. Kashk is often mixed in with this dish (a few teaspoons will suffice). Kashk is like the curds from cooking yogurt so it has a strong taste. You can substitute this with full fat yogurt or sour cream. Topping the soup with French fried onions is also common, so indulge if you must!

Bon Appétit or as the Iranians say, Nooshe Jan!

Photo Credits: 1) Haft-Sin table decoration (Mariam Pashaei); 2)  Members of the Laki community in the Lorestan Province, Iran, playing a traditional game, Daal Palan (Kian Kakoolvand); 3) Persians in Holland celebrating Sizdah Bedar (Wikimedia Commons); 4) Ash Reshteh soup (Zainab Pashaei).


Zainab Pashaei Headshot NHG Rose GardenZainab Pashaei was the 2019 National Herb Garden Intern. She is a Washington, D.C., native and a proud at-home grower of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Zainab obtained her Bachelor’s of Science in Community Health at George Mason University. After graduating, she returned to school for graduate studies in Landscape Design at George Washington University. Zainab also worked with a floral design company in Fairfax, VA. In her free time, she continues to grow plants for food, health, and aesthetics.

Growing Up with Betel Nut

By Shaila Gupte

04 Betel Nuts 610-46 VFBetel nut (pronounced bet′-al) palm trees (Areca catechu) are grown in different parts of India, as well as elsewhere in South Asia and in China. Still, the betel nuts grown in Konkan—the coastal region south of Mumbai—are widely considered among the best quality.

My family owns a very small plantation, which is overseen by my brother, about 120 miles south of Mumbai. The various crops include betel nut (Areca catechu), coconut (Cocos nucifera), hapus mango (Mangifera indica ‘Alphonso’), 01 Betel Nuts 538 VFjackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), pomelo (Citrus maxima), kokum (Garcinia indica), finger bananas (Musa acuminata Colla), soursop (Annona muricata), guava (Psidium guajav), chikoo (Manilkara zapota), various flowering shrubs, and vegetables. Out of all these, the major cash crop is betel nut, followed by coconut. In Konkan, a one-acre farm can support a family of four; vegetables and fruits grown on the farm are eaten, while extra items are sold. Grains and meat are purchased mostly with the money from the betel nut cash crop and also, to a much smaller extent, from coconut, fruits, and vegetables.

Betel trees can grow up to 50 feet in height and are slender and flexible, in contrast to coconut trees, which are very stout. The tree sprouts from a betel nut (with its green outer layer) planted about six inches deep in moist soil. The soil needs moisture until the first few leaves appear. The sapling is then transplanted to its permanent location in rows about 6 – 8 feet apart. After that, the soil needs to dry out between waterings. The most common and efficient irrigation is the drip system in which the water slowly soaks into the soil from soaker pipes at the base of the tree. The tree needs a year-round supply of water and grows best in full sun, though it can survive in partial shade. Usually, cow dung is 03 Betel Nuts 523 VFused as a fertilizer.

Betel nut fruits appear about 4 – 5 years after planting. Each fruit cycle takes about one year from when a small flower appears until the fruit is ready to harvest. When the fruit is ripe, the husk changes color to reddish brown. At that point, the fruit is cut off from the tree. Experienced betel tree climbers can bend the tree enough to jump from one tree to the other like monkeys. The ripe fruit is then dried in direct sunlight with the husk partially removed to speed drying. When completely dry, the fruit is “shucked,” leaving a hard tan colored nut the size of a walnut. The yield varies from 5 – 7 to 200 – 300 nuts per tree, depending on the tree’s age and growth conditions. In 2018, the wholesale price for the variety called “Shrivardan gota” was 200 – 300 rupees/kilo (about US $1.50-$2.50/lb). The price of betel nut has been dropping over the years as the production around the world increases.

Betel nut is eaten alone or in a paan. In most parts of India, paan is the most popular after-dinner mouth freshener. Paan is made with betel leaves from the Piper betle plant (closely related to black pepper, Piper nigrum), betel nut (Areca catechu), calcium hydroxide (slaked lime), catechu (an extract from acacia trees), cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, rose petal preserve, and other individualized ingredients. The betel nut contains the alkaloid arecoline, which is a habit forming substance similar to nicotine, with the side effect of cardiovascular constriction, among other health hazards. Paan5Despite this medical information, the belief is that eating paan helps digestion, especially after a heavy meal with meat. Some people put chewing tobacco in the paan for an extra kick. The saliva containing tobacco is not swallowed; it is spit out. (Note: Saliva causes a chemical reaction to take place between the betel leaf (Piper betle) and the lime, turning the saliva (and sometimes the consumer’s teeth) red. Because of this, one sees a lot of red colored street corners near the paan shops in India.) 

We had a shiny brass octagonal box for storing paan ingredients. My father ate 4 – 5 paans per day. My mother made paans for him in the morning and put them in a small silver box to take to work. When we were young, on Sundays after a heavy mid-day meal, we would buy paan from the paan shop with added ingredients to our liking, eat them, and stick our tongues out to see whose tongue was the reddest!

02 Shaila and Prakash with Betel Nuts 607 VFBetel nut is a sacred fruit for most Hindu religious ceremonies. It can substitute for deities or can be used as an offering. Some Hindu rituals are to be performed by a couple. In such cases, if the man doing the ritual is widowed, the betel nut can be used in place of the wife. Traditional wedding invitations are started by giving betel nut to the invitees. Paradoxically, betel nuts are also a symbol of a commitment for an evil deal between criminals.

Without a doubt, the betel nut contributes mightily to both commerce and religion in Maharashtra, the state in central India where Mumbai is located and where I am from.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Stefan Kaben Images, except paan (Media India Group).

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Shaila Gupte grew up in Mumbai, India. She came to the United States to study and now considers Maryland home. She is a gardening and greenhouse volunteer in the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., and is a Master Gardener. When not at the Arboretum, she likes to grow vegetables of Indian origin.

Chervil – Herb of the Month

by Maryann Readal

chervil plantChervil, Anthriscus cerefolium, is similar to parsley but has a milder, anise flavor. It is sometimes called French parsley or garden parsley. The Romans named it cherifoliu, the ‘cheri’ part meaning delight and the ‘folium’ part meaning leaves—the joy of leaves.

Chervil is important in French cuisine, where it is an ingredient in classic sauces such as béarnaise and ravigote. These sauces pair well with fish, veal, or chicken. Along with parsley, chives, and tarragon, chervil is in the French herb combination, herbes fines. Chervil is better used fresh as it loses its flavor when dried. It should be added at the end of cooking to get the most out of its flavor. It is a good addition to omelets and salads and can be sprinkled over fresh fruit. Chervil makes a flavorful and colorful butter. The leaves and flowers can be used to flavor vinegar.

Chervil is an annual herb that prefers moist earth and the coolness of spring. In warmer areas, it will be a winter herb. It produces long, dark brown seeds that easily germinate, and the plant can reseed. Because of its taproot, however, chervil does not transplant well. It is recommended to sow successive plantings to have a continuous supply of the herb. You just about have to grow chervil yourself if you want to use it in your cooking because it is not an herb commonly found in the fresh herb section of your supermarket. You would more likely find it in a farmer’s market.chervil seed - wikimedia commons 

Chervil is in the Apiaceae family, the same family as carrots, parsley, and dill. It has the same feathery green foliage as the other members of this family, and these lacey leaves are the prized part of this herb. The plant produces flower stalks that can grow to about two feet and are topped with umbels of tiny, white flowers. Gardeners use chervil to bait slugs so that they do not bother their vegetables. 

Chervil is native to the Caucasus region of Europe and Asia. It has been used for food as well as for medicine for a very long time. It was considered a warm herb by early herbalists and was used in medicinal applications for that reason. The ancient Greeks used chervil to create healing spring tonics and herbalists used it to cure digestive problems. Many early herbalists wrote about chervil. Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) said that the seed in vinegar would stop hiccups. He and Nicolas Culpeper, a 17th-century herbalist, believed that, as Culpeper put it “[it] does much to please and warm old and cold stomach.” chervilDuring the Middle Ages, chervil was used to treat eye inflammations, smooth skin wrinkles, combat the plague, and treat blood clots. John Parkinson (1567-1650), a British botanist and herbalist, recommended that the green seeds be added to herb salads dressed with oil and vinegar “to comfort the cold stomach of the aged.” In the same period, John Gerard (1545-1612), a botanist and herbalist, wrote that the roots, “first boiled; which is very good for old people that are dull and without courage: it rejoiceth and comforteth the heart, and increaseth their lust and strength.” Chervil seems to have been an herb used for the elderly, as both a tonic and to boost brain health. Chervil was also used as a blood purifier, a diuretic, and to lower blood pressure (Chevallier, 2000).

Not much modern research has been done on the medicinal effects of chervil. However, a recent report in the journal Pharmaceuticals concludes that chervil holds promise for use in anti-cancer and antimicrobial treatments (Stojković, 2021).

In the practice of some earth religions, chervil is considered to be the herb of immortality. It is believed that when used as incense, it can help bring one in touch with one’s higher self and inner spirit. 

magi-myrrhIt is thought that the Romans brought chervil to France and England. It was one of the nine sacred herbs of the Anglo-Saxons of early England. The use of chervil has roots in early Christianity. The Romans called this herb ‘myrrhis’ because the smell and taste of the essential oil were reminiscent of the oil of myrrh, which was one of the gifts brought by the Maji to the Christ child in Bethlehem. Because of this, early Christians believed that chervil symbolized birth and new life. 

It is the custom in some European countries today to serve chervil soup on Holy (Maundy) Thursday. The Germans serve chervil soup on Holy Thursday, or as they call it, Gründonnerstag (Green Thursday), although it is thought that the word grün is derived from the word greinen, which means to weep, giving added significance to why the soup is served on Holy Thursday.

German Chervil Soup

4 hard-boiled eggs

2 bunches of chervil

2 spring onions

1 tablespoon butter

13-1/2 fluid oz. chicken stock 

8-1/2 fluid oz. cream 

1/2 cup crème fraiche

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 pinch sugar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 egg yolks beaten

Wash and dry the chervil, remove stems and chop finely, reserving a few stems for garnish.   Wash and slice the spring onions. Lightly fry the spring onions in the butter, then add the broth, cream, and crème fraiche and allow to come to the boil briefly. Season with salt, pepper, sugar, and lemon juice. Add the chopped chervil and keep warm without allowing the soup to boil.

Whisk in the egg yolks into the slightly cooled soup. Pour the soup into individual dishes.

Slice the hard boiled eggs and place them in the center of the soup. Sprinkle remaining chervil over the soup and serve.

(Recipe from German Foods https://germanfoods.org/recipes/chervil-soup/)

 

For more information and recipes using chervil, visit The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month web page, https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/herb-of-the-month.html

Photo Credits: 1) Chervil plant (Maryann Readal); 2) Chervil seed (Elric04, Creative Commons License); 3) Chervil flowers (CC BY-SA 3.0, Creative Commons License); 4) Adoration of the Magi by Bernardino Luini (Dennis Jarvis, Creative Commons License) (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

References

Behr, Edward. 1986. Chervil: One of the best and least appreciated herbs. Available at https://artofeating.com/chervil/. Accessed March 15, 2021.

Chevallier, Andrew. 2000. Encyclopedia of herbal medicine. London, Dorling Kindersley.

Crocker, Pat. 2018. Herbalist’s kitchen: Cooking and healing with herbs. New York: Sterling Epicure.

Gordon, Leslie. 1980. A country herbal. New York: W. H. Smith.

Hayes, Elizabeth.1961. Spices and herbs around the world. New York: Doubleday.

Stojković, Dejan et at. Jan 2021. Extract of herba Anthrisci cerefolii: Chemical profiling and insights into its anti-glioblastoma and antimicrobial mechanism of actions. Pharmaceuticals. 14 (1). Available from EBSCOhost. Accessed March 16, 2021.

Vyas, A. et al. 2012. Chervil: a multifunctional miraculous nutritional herb. Asian Journal of Plant Sciences, 11 (4): 163-170. Available from EBSCOhost. Accessed March 12, 2021.

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Delectable Native Edibles

By Andrea DeLong-Amaya

tradescantia flowersYou may be one of the growing numbers of home gardeners who have put shovel to soil in the effort to nourish themselves and their families with wholesome, organic, fresh, and ultimately local vegetables and fruits. It is empowering to know exactly where your food comes from. And, while gardening is perfect exercise…it can be a lot of work! What if you could grow food plants that all but took care of themselves? Or better yet simply harvest, with caution of course, from the wild.

Native produce? Yes! The plants I’m about to tell you about are all easy to cultivate within their home ranges and, once established, may not require any attention outside of harvest. There are many virtues of raising locally native plants, such as decreased use of water, fertilizers, and pesticides, and promoting regional identity, and providing for wildlife. But those aren’t my main motivators for sharing these untamed delicacies with you. These foods are often disregarded and overlooked but are, quite frankly, yummy!

The correct way to consume wild edibles: harvest from sizable colonies and always with permission from the landowner. Whether collected from natural areas or from plants in your garden, understand that otherwise safe and nutritious foods may become toxic IMG_7781in large amounts. As with any new food in your diet, add small amounts at a time until you know how your body will handle them. And, most importantly to note: before consuming any wild food, be absolutely certain of its proper identity! Many plants have look-alikes. If there is any doubt, do not partake. You can eat anything at least once, but you want to be around to enjoy the good stuff again!

When harvesting perennials, clip leaves and stems from the plant at or above ground level, leaving the roots undisturbed and allowing the plant to resprout. Cut the tips off of annuals, which will continue growing until they reach the end of their season, or harvest the entire plant. 

The following plants are indigenous to most of the U.S., meaning they have evolved over time in a given region without human introduction. There are many non-native and even invasive plants that also make for good eats, but in the interest of space, I’m limiting the list to natives.

Late in the year, many of us can revel in the luscious sweet treats offered by the Eastern persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Trees vary in the quality of their fruit, and common wisdom suggests they are best after a frost. In any case, immature fruit are very astringent and not recommended. Black persimmon (D. texana), a related species occurring in Texas and Mexico, delivers delectable sugary lumps of fruit with a floral hint as early as July. When you eat them, you are in tune with nature.

vitisMembers of the genus Vitis, or grapes, are most commonly used for making mouthwatering jelly, juice, and wine that can be enjoyed year-round. But, have you ever tried tangy green grape pie? Wow! In mid-spring when tender grape leaves emerge, you can brine them for making dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves. Young leaves wrapped around chicken, then grilled, impart a mild tangy note to the meat and help keep it moist. If the leaves are edging on tough, keep chewing them as a savory and tasty “gum.” You can seemingly chew forever; the wad won’t go away.

Early spring encourages tender new growth on a variety of native plants that are suitable for the table. Native potherbs are generally tastiest during the spring before hot weather turns them bitter. 

Potherbs are leaves or stems of herbaceous plants that can be cooked for use as greens or for seasoning. “In vitamins, minerals, and protein, wild foods can match and even surpass the nutritional content of our common foods,” according to Delena Tull in her book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. Try out some of these:

smilax

Greenbriar, Cat Briar (Smilax bona-nox) – You may not have thought there was much use for this annoying, thorny vine, but the soft early shoots in spring (and summer when we’ve had rain) are tender, tasty, and nutritious. Pick the asparagus-like tips before the prickles harden, and throw them into salads or nibble them right off the vine.

Pink Evening Primrose, Showy Primrose (Oenothera speciosa) – Beautiful in bloom and abundant throughout much of the country, these greens offer their best flavor when collected before flowering. However, it takes someone who is very familiar with this wildflower to identify it out of bloom. Toss the greens into a salad or add to soups or stir-fries.

oxalis

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis spp.) – Many species of wood sorrel occur in the U.S., and some are common garden pests. After your next weeding session, add a few leaves, flowers, or green seed pods to a salad or soup as you would French sorrel. The flavor is strong and sour, so add sparingly. Rich in vitamin C, it also contains high amounts of oxalic acid, similar to spinach, which when eaten in large amounts, may tie up calcium.

Spiderwort

Spiderwort (Tradescantia spp.) – There are several species of native spiderwort, and many are cultivated. Attractive plants with typically purple, blue, pink, or white flowers have winter foliage resembling daylilies. Above ground parts may be sautéed or eaten raw.

Wild Onion, Wild Garlic (Allium canadensis, A. drummondii.) – There are many bulb forming plants that resemble wild onions, and some are toxic. Only harvest plants with the distinct odor of onions. The chopped green leaves can be used like chives, and the bulbs are cooked as any other onions.

Bon appetit!

References: 

Cheatham, S. and M. C. Johnston.  1995. The Useful Wild Plants of Texas, the Southeastern and Southwestern United States, the Southern Plains, and Northern Mexico. Vol. 1, Abronia-Arundo. Austin: Useful Wild Plants, Inc.

Tull, Delena.  1987. Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest.  Austin: University of Texas Press.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 1) Tradescantia gigantea (Michael Dana); 2) Diospyros texana (Andrea DeLong-Amaya); 3) Vitis mustangensis (James Garland Holmes); 4) Smilax bona-nox (Joseph A. Marcus); 5) Oenothera speciosa (W.D. and Dolphia Bransford; Sally and Andy Wasowski); 6) Oxalis drummondii (Mary Kline); 7) Tradescantia gigantea (Stephanie Brundage); 8) Allium canadense var. canadense (Joseph A. Marcus).

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Andrea DeLong-Amaya is the director of horticulture at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. For more information about native plants, visit www.wildflower.org.

Exploring Vanilla in the Rainforest and in the Kitchen: Part II

By Susan Belsinger

(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)

“Plain vanilla is very much like that little black cocktail dress—always welcome, simply chic, so quietly dramatic.”

                —Lisa Yockelson, from Baking by Flavor

Vanilla in the Kitchen

P1110888Although I am a chocolate lover, I have always adored the fragrance of vanilla. More than once as a child, I tasted vanilla extract straight from the bottle—knowing full well that I wouldn’t like it—I just could not resist, because it always smelled so good.   

Back in my early adult years—and the beginning of my lifetime association with natural foods, herbs, and spices—I used vanilla beyond the kitchen. I found the aroma alluring, so why not use it like perfume? I would dab it behind my ears and on my pulse points. Occasionally, I would sprinkle cinnamon or nutmeg on my hands and run them through my hair. Ah, the innocence of youth—here I thought I smelled exotic and delicious (vanilla is known as an aphrodisiac)—and most people probably thought I smelled like a cinnamon bun!

The fragrance of pure vanilla extract and the essential oil is at once exotic, tropical, warm, and sensual—a combination of flowery and resinous, with a slight hint of bitterness. Due to its enticing scent, one would think it tastes sweet and flowery, but that is not the case. We associate vanilla as being sweet because it is used in every type of confection and sweet food from cereals, buns, and cakes to cookies, ice creams, and, of course, chocolate. Some vanilla beans have that exotic flowery scent, while others smell like bitter chocolate, winey, or even slightly smoky. I think they taste fruity—rather raisin-like—sometimes flowery, smooth, and slightly sweet and resinous.

P1110219Vanilla is everywhere today—we seem to take it for granted—and it isn’t just plain old vanilla anymore. It partners with many other flavors—not just desserts—but drinks, soups, sauces, and rice dishes; with seafood, from lobster with vanilla butter to seafood salad; as a glaze for poultry and pork; in barbecue sauces and in condiments from vinaigrettes to mustard…even mashed potatoes! It makes chocolate seductive, and works well with spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger—while subtly enhancing just about any baked good. It complements dairy products, coffee, and tea and brightens any fresh fruit bowl or cooked compote. Generally, vanilla highlights most foods without being too forward or overbearing.

Vanilla Products

Vanilla comes in many forms. Although vanilla pods are the source for pure vanilla extract, they aren’t commonly used by the home cook as often as the extract is used. The following list of vanilla products should help you know your beans better:

Whole Vanilla Beans 

The largest producers of Vanilla planifolia are Madagascar and Mexico, and they are renowned for growing and curing the world’s best beans. Tahitian vanilla beans, V. tahitensis, are known for their intense perfume, though they are said to be less flavorful. When purchasing whole beans, they should smell fragrant, should be a dark chocolate brown, and somewhat pliable rather than hard and dried. Store them in a tightly closed jar in a cool dark place away from light, and they should last a few years. Do not freeze or refrigerate.

Pure Vanilla Extract

To extract the flavor from vanilla beans, alcohol must be used. It is usually done with a menstruum of alcohol and water (rather like making a tincture). An extract must be 35% alcohol—the label should read “Pure Vanilla Extract.” If it is less than this, it is considered a flavoring. Read your labels: imitation vanilla is often made from artificial vanillin rather than natural vanillin, which is usually synthetically made and is a by-product of the paper industry. Mexican vanilla extract can be very good if it is pure, but beware of inexpensive extracts; it should alert you to the fact that it is probably synthetic.

Vanilla Bean PasteVanilla bean paste

This thick brown paste is made from pure vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, sugar, water, and a natural thickener, gum tragacanth. The label states equivalents of 1 tablespoon of vanilla bean paste equals 1 vanilla bean or 1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract. It is sweeter than vanilla extract and much thicker but can be used anywhere you would use vanilla extract. I use it in all kinds of baked goods from muffins and cakes to cookies and bars. It elevates oatmeal to another level when combined with fresh sliced peaches or dried blueberries or cherries and maple syrup.

Pure Vanilla Powder

This fine-textured powder is made from vanilla bean extractives and maltodextrin and is alcohol-free; it can be used in place of vanilla extract. Upon tasting it, it is slightly sweet and leaves a residue on the tongue. It can be used for dry mixtures and liquid- or color-sensitive products. You can sprinkle it on fruit or in your coffee, tea, or cocoa. I have used it in whipping cream, buttercream, and angel food cake. 

Vanilla Sugar

Vanilla sugar has been made for centuries by placing a vanilla bean in sugar to give it a lovely vanilla perfume and flavor. Nowadays, vanilla sugar can be purchased commercially, but you can easily make your own. 

For those willing to venture out from the grocery store offerings, below are some easy-to-make vanilla staple recipes.

Vanilla Bean Syrup

When I was a kid my favorite snowball flavor was Egg Custard. I could never figure out why it was called that—it tasted like vanilla to me. This syrup reminds me of that egg custard flavor. In fact, try it over shaved ice for a snowball. It also makes an excellent vanilla bean soda when mixed with sparkling water or served over ice cream for a vanilla ice cream soda. Use it with coffee to make a vanilla latte or as a sweetener in your hot or iced tea. It can be used in fruit salads, or drizzled over baked goods warm from the oven, like pound cake, scones, breads, or muffins. My kids used to object to the aesthetics of the little black seeds—I rather like them— so if they bother you, strain the syrup through fine cheesecloth or muslin to remove them. This can be made with maple syrup instead of sugar; however, the maple flavor will dominate.

(Makes a little more than 2 cups)

1 cup organic sugar

1 1/2 cups water

1 vanilla bean

Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and cut it into thirds crosswise.  

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy-bottomed pan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, add the vanilla bean pieces, and stir. Reduce heat, cover, and barely simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, covered.  

Remove vanilla bean and reserve the pieces—they can be dried and used to make vanilla sugar. Pour the syrup into a bottle or jar and label. It will keep in the refrigerator for one month or can be frozen for about six months. 

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Most pure vanilla extract is about 35% alcohol and contains water, sugar, and vanilla bean extractives. It is pretty easy to make your own version. It won’t taste just like the commercial brands—it probably won’t be quite as intense in vanilla flavor, but I find it very satisfactory. Vodka will allow the most vanilla bean flavor to come through. However, I often make mine with brandy or rum because I like the flavor of them. Remember, you only use 1 to 2 teaspoons in a recipe, so a little goes a long way. Try experimenting to see what you like best.  

(Makes about 1 cup or an 8-ounce bottle, or halve the recipe for a smaller amount.)

P11101942 or 3 vanilla beans

8 ounces of vodka, rum, or brandy

Cut the vanilla beans in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put them into a clean, dark glass, 8-ounce bottle. (I save my old vanilla extract bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the alcohol into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. Place in a cool place out of direct light.  

The extract should be shaken once a day, at least for the first week. I do it whenever I go into the pantry and think about it. I usually uncap it and take a whiff—it is a form of kitchen aromatherapy for me, the wealth of the cook. You can use it after a week, but it is best after three or four weeks and gets better as it ages.

The longer it sits, the more intense the flavor. While commercial vanilla extract has the beans removed, I leave the beans in the bottle and as I use the extract, I top it off with more alcohol. Occasionally, I add another bean.

Vanilla Vinegar

Once you have this on hand, you will begin to use it in many dishes, and you will wonder why you never had it before. I use organic apple cider, umeboshi plum, rice wine, or white wine vinegar, which are naturally made and good tasting. Do not make this with distilled vinegar. I often make fresh fruited vanilla vinegars, with peach or raspberry being my favorites. (Add 1 whole, ripe peach, peeled and sliced, or 1-pint raspberries to the jar when combining the vinegar and vanilla bean, and let macerate for at least three to four weeks. Strain, if desired.) I use vanilla-flavored vinegar in small amounts in vinaigrettes, dressings, fruit and vegetable salads, and sauces. I particularly love what it does to Waldorf salad.

(Makes 1 pint)

1 pint good-quality vinegar, preferably organic

1 whole vanilla bean

Cut the vanilla bean in half crosswise and then in half lengthwise. Put the pieces into a clean, 1-pint bottle. (I save used vinegar or soy sauce bottles for this purpose.) Using a funnel, pour the vinegar into the bottle. Cap the bottle and shake for a minute or two. Label and date the bottle. I leave the bottle on the kitchen counter for about two weeks and shake it every day, twice a day. You can use it after a week, but it is best after 3 or 4 weeks.  

The longer it sits, the better the flavor. As the vinegar gets used up, I top it off with a little more vinegar. I also add pieces of dried vanilla bean that I have already used.

Preparing Vanilla-Scented Sugar

Scented sugars can easily be made the same way that the Europeans have been making vanilla sugar for years. Placing a vanilla bean in a pint jar of sugar transforms the sugar into a pleasing, fragrant addition to beverages, cakes, cookies, custards, whipping cream, and all sorts of sweets. Sprinkle a little on fruit and toss it, or stir some into your tea or coffee cup. If you do a lot of baking, make this in larger quantities—say a quart or half-gallon jar— as you will find that you use it often.

(Makes 2 cups)vanilla-2519484_1920

About 2 cups organic sugar

1 vanilla bean, cut into 3 or 4 pieces

To prepare scented sugar, use a clean pint jar with a tight-fitting lid. Fill the jar about one-third full with sugar, and place one or two pieces of vanilla bean in the sugar. Cover the vanilla bean with additional sugar so that the jar is two-thirds full, add another piece or two, and cover with sugar to fill the jar, leaving about 1/2-inch headspace. Shake the jar and place on a shelf in a cool, dark place.  

The sugar will be ready to use in two to three weeks and will become more flavorful with age. As the sugar is consumed, add more plain sugar to take its place and it will take on the fragrance in the jar. I also add dried pieces of vanilla beans that I have already used for another purpose.

Since vanilla beans contain moisture, the sugar will absorb some of it and perhaps cake together, or even harden. If this happens, just use firm pressure to crumble it with either your hands or the back of a wooden spoon.

Hot Vanilla Milk

Make this milk when you can’t sleep and cocoa might keep you awake, or for those rare individuals who don’t like the flavor of chocolate. You can use sugar to sweeten, but I really like the maple syrup best; go light on the sweetener as you hardly need any. If you don’t have vanilla bean paste, use a generous teaspoon pure vanilla extract and 1 1/2 teaspoons sweetener, or add 2 tablespoons of Vanilla Syrup.

(Makes 1 cup, easily doubled)

1 cup milk (whole, 1 or 2 %, or oat or almond milk)

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

1 teaspoon pure maple syrup or organic sugar

In a small saucepan, bring the milk almost to a simmer over medium low heat. Stir in the vanilla bean paste and sweetener and blend until it is dissolved. If you are using extract, remove the warmed milk from the heat and add the extract and sweetener; stir to dissolve. 

Taste the milk—if you have a sweet tooth, you may want to add another teaspoon of sweetener. Pour the vanilla milk into a mug. Inhale the vanilla aroma before you take your first sip. Relax and enjoy. 

Vanilla Butter Cookies with Cacao Nibs

This is a simple butter cookie recipe (from not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes), though instead of using herbs, cacao bean nibs are added. They are further enhanced by using vanilla bean sugar as well as pure vanilla extract; the vanilla compliments the flavor of cacao. These cookies keep well in a tin for a week or two, and they also freeze well.

(Makes about 5 dozen cookies)

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softenedcocoa nibs

1 cup vanilla bean sugar

1 extra-large egg

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup unbleached white flour

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cacao nibs

In the bowl of a food processor, cream the butter and sugar. When combined, beat in the egg and vanilla extract. Gradually mix in the flour and salt. Add cacao nibs and pulse just to combine. 

The dough will be soft. Divide the dough into two parts. Using plastic wrap to shape the dough, roll each part into a cylinder about 1 1/2-inches in diameter. Chill the rolls for an hour, or place in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes.      

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the plastic wrap, and slice the dough into 1/4-inch rounds. Place the cookies on ungreased baking sheets, and bake for about 10 minutes until the cookies are nice and brown.  Remove the cookies from the baking sheets while they are hot and cool on racks.

Photo Credits: 1) Author overlooking Costa Rican forest (S. Belsinger); 2) Vanilla products (S. Belsinger); 3) Vanilla bean paste (C. Moore); 4) Bundle of dried vanilla pods (S. Belsinger); 5) Vanilla bean sugar (Pixaby); 6) Cocoa nibs (C. Moore).

References/Resources

Here is a link to a BBC article about vanilla grown in other parts of the world—you’ll see why it is so expensive and actually how dangerous it can be to cultivate this valuable crop nowadays. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/madagascar_vanillla

Conversation with Matthew Day for assistance reconstructing vanilla bean harvesting and curing information in Costa Rica. 

Belsinger, Susan. 2005. not just desserts—sweet herbal recipes. Brookeville, Maryland: Herbspirit.

Gargiullo, Margaret, Magnuson, Barbara and Kimball, Larry. 2008. A Field Guide to Plants of Costa Rica. Zona Tropical Publications.

Laws, Bill. 2010. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books. 

Rain, Patricia. 2004. Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance. New York: Philip Lief Group, Inc.

https://www.vanillaqueen.com

https://www.rainforestspices.com/farm-tour/

https://www.rainforestspices.com/learn-about-vanilla/

http://www.srl.caltech.edu/personnel/krubal/rainforest/Edit560s6/www/plants/epiphytes.html


1-Susan BelsingerSusan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com

Exploring Vanilla in the Rainforest and in the Kitchen: Part I

By Susan Belsinger

(Adapted from her article, “Exploring Rainforest Spices at Villa Vanilla,” featured in the 2019 issue of The Herbarist, the annual journal of The Herb Society of America.)

Vanilla in the Rainforest

P1110204Before going to Costa Rica, I researched gardens, restaurants, herbs, spices, botanicals and the rainforest—places where I wanted to go, see, and experience. Once I visited Villa Vanilla’s website, https://www.rainforestspices.com/, I knew that I had to go there. I made reservations for the farm tour in advance. It was one of my favorite things in Costa Rica—I loved seeing the tropical spice plants up close and personal—and I got to smell and taste so many things, which was a memorable sensory experience! 

During the half day Spice Plantation Tour, visitors experience the sights, tastes, and aromas of vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, and other tropical spices, essential oil plants, and a wide variety of tropical ornamental P1110256plants. The tour begins and ends at the post-harvest warehouse, where my eyes feasted on the spectacle of the ground covered with burlap sacks, which were spread with vanilla beans in various stages of fermentation and curing, and my nose filled with the delightfully overwhelming perfume of vanilla.

Vanilla is the main crop that is cultivated on this farm, with Ceylon cinnamon as a secondary crop. However, they also cultivate cacao, pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, chiles, turmeric, cardamom, ginger (mostly ornamental), and a large number of epiphytes. 

On our tour, we sampled delicious treats made by the chef, who used the farm’s spices to titillate our taste buds. To cool off, we first had a glass of chilled hibiscus infusion while gazing out at the tropical paradise. The next sample was a lovely, smooth vanilla bean custard, not too sweet, with a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture. We were served a demitasse of hot chocolate flavored with a hint of cinnamon and chile accompanied by a crunchy, vanilla shortbread P1070032cookie speckled with cacao nibs. And the grand finale was a scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream made with farm fresh milk and cream from the farm’s own dairy cow. 

After visiting the Spice Shoppe, we walked back to the small warehouse where we were able to view different spices in various stages of drying. Our guide described and showed us some of the processes of harvesting and processing both vanilla and cacao pods, and we saw Ceylon cinnamon being barked. 

We learned about the process of the vanilla bean from harvest to cured, saleable bean. Once the plant has produced the green pods, they swell as they mature. When they are ready to harvest, they pull off easily from P1110195the stem. Green pods are placed in a large, clear plastic bag, which begins the fermentation process. Then they are laid outdoors in the sun every morning for four hours. Next, they are placed in insulated boxes while they are still warm from the sun and brought inside the warehouse for twenty hours. This is repeated every day for about three to four days. This process of sweating the beans in the sun makes a superior fermented end-product. (In other parts of the world, green beans are dropped in boiling water rather than curing in the sun.) After a week, the pods have turned brown, and they are removed from the plastic bags and spread out on burlap sacks. The four hours of sun/twenty hours in the dark process is continued for another three to four weeks until the pods have begun P1110187to shrivel and have lost about 80% of their original weight. Then they are left to cure—and this time varies among farmers—from nine months to two years. Villa Vanilla cures their beans for two years for best flavor and quality.

After curing, the beans are graded and separated according to size—there are about four sizes from thin to medium to large and extra-large. An extra-large bean is something to behold indeed! They are magnificent, thick and plump and slightly moist, bursting with the mouthwatering and intoxicating, inimitable scent of vanilla. 

Vanilla’s Aromatic Pedigree

The vanilla plant is a tropical vine that can reach a length of over one hundred feet. It belongs to one of the oldest and largest groups of flowering plants—the orchids (Orchidaceae)—currently known to contain more than twenty-five thousand species and counting. Of all the orchids, the Vanilla genus is the only one that produces an agriculturally valuable crop separate from the rare, hothouse exotic orchids cultivated and traded for their beautiful, colorful flowers. The vanilla orchid has its own appeal: a fruit with a scent so unique, so distinctive to the human palate that it was once worth its weight in silver.

vanilla-flower-542019_1920The vanilla orchid’s flower is not showy; it has only a slight scent with no element of vanilla flavor or aroma. When its pale-yellow flowers are pollinated, the ovaries swell and develop into the fruits we call “pods” or “beans,” just like extra-long green beans. Pollination in the wild is very iffy, so most growers hand pollinate to ensure a viable crop. This is very labor intensive and has to be done when the flower is just open, which is a very brief window of time–literally a few hours on a single day. Each pod contains tens of thousands of tiny black seeds. The growing process lasts up to nine months, but only when the pods turn brown after being dried and cured do they develop the distinctive aroma we call “vanilla.” Drying, curing, and conditioning the pods is an art, which, if done properly, takes at least another nine months. Understandably, vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive agricultural products in the world. 

P1070023There are more than a hundred different species of vanilla orchid, and they grow all over the tropics with the exception of Australia. All of the vanilla orchids produce fruits containing seeds, but only a few species bear the large aromatic pods that can be used commercially. Virtually all of the cultivated vanilla in the world today comes from just one species, Vanilla planifolia (sometimes called Vanilla fragrans), a plant indigenous to Central America, and particularly the south-eastern part of Mexico. At least two other species, V. pompona and V. tahitensis, also provide a serviceable culinary pod, although they are not as readily obtainable, and they produce a different flavor and aroma to the V. planifolia

Stay tuned for Vanilla Part II, including recipes from Susan, coming 8 March, 2021!

Photo Credits: 1) Villa Vanilla poster; 2) Drying vanilla beans on burlap sacks; 3) Vanilla custard; 4) Green, unripe vanilla pods; 5) Dried vanilla pods; 6) Vanilla flowers; 7) Vanilla vine. All photos courtesy of the author, except 6) (Pixaby).


1-Susan Belsinger

Susan Belsinger lives an herbal life, whether she is gardening, foraging, herborizing, photographing, teaching, researching, writing or creating herbal recipes for the kitchen or apothecary—she is passionate about all things herbal. Referred to as a “flavor artist”, Susan delights in kitchen alchemy—the blending of harmonious foods, herbs, and spices—to create real, delicious food, as well as libations, that nourish our bodies and spirits and titillate our senses. There is nothing she likes better than an herbal adventure, whether it’s a wild weed walk, herb conference, visiting gardens or cultivating her own, or the sensory experience of herbs through touch, smell, taste and sight.

Susan is a member of the Potomac and the Ozark Units of the Herb Society of America and served as Honorary President (2018 to 2020). Her latest publication Growing Your Own Herbs: The 40 Best Culinary Varieties for Home Gardens (2019, Timber Press) co-authored by Susan Belsinger and Arthur O. Tucker—is a revised, concise version for gardeners and cooks—of The Culinary Herbal: Growing & Preserving 97 Flavorful Herbs (2016). Currently, she is working on a book about flavor to be published in 2021. After blogging for Taunton Press’ www.vegetablegardener.com for the past eight years, those blogs (over 484 to be exact) are now posted at https://www.finegardening.com/?s=susan%20belsinger. To order books, go to susanbelsinger.com