Hyper-local Hydroponics in Restaurants

By Keith Howerton

Basil harvested from Farmshelf hydroponic growth chamberThe chef looked up at me, astonished, with a crumpled up Genovese basil leaf in his hand. “Oh my god, that smells fantastic,” he said, laughing and shaking his head. We had just gone over proper basil harvesting technique, and I had invited him to pinch off a leaf of the basil he had just grown for the first time inside the restaurant. It’s funny, even chefs at nicer restaurants get used to subpar quality when it’s all they have access to. It’s just so difficult for chefs to get really fresh, high quality herbs in the consistent, predictable quantities they need to run a kitchen. So, they settle. How did he grow basil inside the restaurant? We’ll  get to that in a minute. 

Back in college, I worked in a fairly upscale restaurant. A couple times a week, I remember seeing a delivery person from a big distributor back into the loading dock in a huge refrigerated truck, offload “fresh” produce, and bring it into the kitchen. Then, a few of the cooks would unpackage these boxes filled with Genovese basil, rosemary, and mint. I still remember the first time I gave the basil a smell. It didn’t smell bad, but it didn’t smell good either. And the mint used as a garnish for some of the fancy desserts smelled vaguely of mint, and that’s being  generous. 

Anyone who has grown basil at home knows and loves its rich, sweet scent. But when you shove that beautiful, fragrant basil in a plastic bag and cram it in a refrigerator for a week, it  doesn’t smell so good anymore. It develops off flavors and loses some of its vibrant green color. Sadly, this is what the vast majority of restaurants are forced to do when they want fresh herbs. 

And it’s not their fault! Nor is it the farmers’ fault. You cannot have exceptional quality fresh herbs when there is that lag time between harvest and food preparation. Most fresh herbs, especially basil, have very short shelf-lives. But these restaurant owners have businesses to run, so they choose consistently mediocre quality rather than fantastic quality in inconsistent quantities. 

Anyway, back to the present.  

Hydroponic BasilThis chef is now able to grow top-notch herbs inside his restaurant, just feet away from the kitchen, because he has a sophisticated hydroponic growing system called a Farmshelf.

For those who are not familiar, hydroponics just means growing plants without soil. Instead, the plant’s roots are bathed in water with nutrients dissolved in it. The only thing reminiscent of soil is the very small amount of growing medium used to germinate the seed and anchor the plant. 

Hydroponics is a very complex topic, and there are lots of pros and cons to growing in a hydroponic system rather than growing in the ground. (That’s a discussion for another day.) But for those of us in the restaurant industry, it’s a no-brainer because it allows Basil in Farmshelf Hydroponic Growing Chamberbusy restaurant staff with no in-ground space to grow high quality produce year-round. Additionally, since it is kept nice and clean, this method prevents just about any pest or plant pathogen you can think of. 

The quality difference between what comes out of this chef’s set-up and what comes from the distributor is phenomenal. (Disclaimer: I do work for a hydroponic systems company geared toward the restaurant industry, so I applaud anyone who is using these technologies to innovate and work toward more efficient food systems that provide higher quality produce. In college, I did some work with hydroponics and was excited to learn that there were companies using hydroponics to fill gaps and solve inefficiencies I had seen in the fresh herb supply chain.) As much as I would love to say the quality difference is because we’re just so super incredibly talented, I think this massive quality difference comes down to two main factors: a controlled growing environment and the freshness. 

You know how in hot weather basil goes to flower and develops that off, licorice-type smell? Well, when you’re inside a controlled environment, where the temperatures stay around 80 degrees or less, it may as well be springtime. I have never seen the basil try to flower in this particular set-up. So, you effectively get springtime-quality basil year round when you grow in a system like this. Farmshelf Hydroponic Chamber

As for the freshness, how much fresher can you get than inside your restaurant? And thanks to the massive energy savings afforded by recent advancements in LED technology, it’s now feasible to have some systems plug right into a wall outlet. 

I know I am biased, but man… it’s a beauty, isn’t it?

Photo Credits: 1) Freshly harvested basil; 2) Basil in hydroponic pots; 3) Roots of basil grown in hydroponic situation; 4) Farmshelf hydroponic growth chamber. All photos courtesy of the author.


After getting a horticulture degree from Texas A&M University, Keith was the 2017 National Herb Garden intern, and then spent a year and a half in the Gardens Unit at the U.S. National  Arboretum. He now works for an indoor farm company called Farmshelf and is obsessed with  all things growing food, foreign languages, and cooking (and eating).

Peppermint – Herb of the Month

By Maryann Readal

Most of us, gardeners or not, are familiar with mint. But how many of us know that there is a distinctive difference between spearmint and peppermint? The difference between these two mints may be important depending on how you want to use them.

Peppermint, Mentha × piperita, is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for July.  Peppermint is really a hybrid of two mints, water mint (Mentha aquatica) and spearmint (Mentha spicata). . Being a hybrid, peppermint does not produce seeds. If you want to propagate it, you must either take cuttings or divide the plant. Like other mints, peppermint is a vigorous grower, so must be contained if you don’t want it growing everywhere in your garden.  It favors growing in rich, moist soil. Peppermint has a narrow, coarse leaf and flowers that are pink-lavender.  Spearmint, on the other hand, is softer to the touch and has a darker green leaf with pink, lavender, or white flowers.

But the major difference in these two mints is in the taste. Spearmint has a sweeter, milder taste due to its lower menthol content (0.5%). Peppermint has a much higher menthol content at 40%, and therefore has a much stronger flavor, almost a peppery minty flavor.  Because of its high menthol content, peppermint is the mint preferred for medicinal applications. It is used in pain relief ointments because it produces a cooling sensation on sore muscles. It is a common ingredient in throat soothing teas and lozenges, and is often used to disguise the strong taste of some medicines. It has been found effective in the short-term  treatment of irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive problems (https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/peppermint-oil). Peppermint oil can be rubbed on the temples to alleviate tension headaches  (https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-health-benefits-peppermint). Spearmint, with its much milder flavor, is used to treat mild cases of nausea and even hiccups.

In cooking, it really makes a difference which mint is used. Because of peppermint’s strong flavor, it can overpower the flavors of savory dishes. However, it works well with candies, pastries and chocolate. It is a popular addition to holiday treats such as candy canes, peppermint bark, and peppermint patties. A touch of peppermint in your hot cocoa makes it special. Spearmint, on the other hand, does not overpower other herbs and spices and can be used with a much broader spectrum of foods.  Use it in mint julep and in tabbouleh, or in a minty sauce for lamb.

Peppermint oil is becoming more important in the aromatherapy industry, and  is thought to have a positive effect on memory. According to a study reported in the International Journal of Neuroscience, the aroma from peppermint oil enhances memory and increases alertness  (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00207450601042094?journalCode=ines20&).

The United States is the major producer of peppermint oil in the world and accounts for half of the world’s trade, something that we don’t often hear when talking about the economics of herbs and spices  (https://www.agrifutures.com.au/farm-diversity/peppermint-oil/). Most of the peppermint in the U.S. is grown in the Pacific Northwest.  According to AgHires.com, an acre of mint produces about 70 pounds of oil. One pound of oil can flavor 1,500 tubes of toothpaste or 40,000 sticks of gum (https://aghires.com/u-s-produces-70-worlds-mint/). A drop of peppermint oil goes a long way. 

I would be remiss if I did not include here the story about the origin of peppermint according to Greek mythology. It is said that Hades (also known to the Greeks as Pluto) fell in love with a beautiful wood nymph.  Persephone, his wife, became jealous and turned the nymph into a lowly plant to be stepped on. Hades could not undo the damage done by Persephone’s spell, so he gave the plant a beautiful scent so that she would never be forgotten. He called her Minthe.

So there you have it─some interesting information about peppermint to help make you an enlightened user of mint —at least of spearmint and peppermint.

Please visit The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month webpage for more information about peppermint, a screensaver for your computer, and some minty recipes.

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. She is a Master Gardener and a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

Why Is Peppermint Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Why Is Peppermint Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

peppermint for XmasMy herb spiral is my mad scientist laboratory.  Just outside my kitchen door, it is the only part of my garden to experience full sun.  The soil is much-amended with compost.  And, that is where I plant essential kitchen herbs and the occasional experiment, like a new herb that bears close watching.

However, over the last few gardening seasons, it has devolved largely into a jungle of mint.  Mystery mint.  Muddle mint.  A promiscuous genetic mix of whatever mint I have ever planted, plus whatever mint blew in on its own. In my defense, that’s what mint does.  And sometimes, the result is something else.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is a hybrid plant, a cross between water mint (Mentha aquatica) and spearmint (Mentha picata).  It was first mistakenly identified by Linnaeus in 1753 as a separate species, and can self-propagate by root (exuberantly) both in the garden and in the wild. But peppermint can also pop up spontaneously among its parent plants. Because it is a hybrid, peppermint cannot set fertile seed.   Peppermint is fond of damp places, like stream beds, and isn’t at all particular.  In places where it was introduced for its oil, peppermint has broken free and is now considered invasive. Even where a gardener uses best practices and plants peppermint sunken in a pot to segregate its rhizomes from the rest of the garden, it will break free.

The leaves and flower tops of either wild or cultivated peppermint may be harvested and dried. Cultivated specimens produce more potent oil.  Peppermint has a warm, sweet aroma and taste, which is soothing to the digestion and freshening to the breath and palate. Some people feel that it repels mice, but recent experiments in my pantry are inconclusive. It is also supposed to be a deterrent to spiders, although I have never wanted to deter spiders. Peppermint oil applied externally can ease the soreness of muscle or arthritis pain. And a freshly brewed peppermint tea is clearly soothing to body and soul.

candycane.jpgSo, how did peppermint come to be associated so strongly with Christmas?  It’s hard to say.  It’s not evergreen, like so many Christmas plants.  It’s not red, although most peppermint-flavored foods are represented in a red and white striped form, like candy canes.  But candy canes themselves, introduced in the 1670’s by a choirmaster in Cologne to quiet children in church, were made from plain white sugar candy and bent into a shepherd’s crook shape as a nod to the Christmas.

Bicolored candy canes seem to have first appeared in the 19th century in the United States.  Although there was a patent awarded in the 1920’s for a candycane producing machine, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Bob’s Candy, in Albany, Georgia, came up with a candy-making machine that produced the twisted red-and-white spiral that we now think of as classic candy cane. Those peppermint spiraled candy canes were explosively popular…and were flavored with peppermint. So, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the classic candy cane seems to be a mid-century American Christmas innovation. And, from there, “Went down in hi-sto-ry!”

 

Consortium Creating U.S. Source of Chinese Medicinal Herbs

Consortium Creating U.S. Source of Chinese Medicinal Herbs

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

P1000908As Americans look to alternative medicine to ease their pain – both physical and financial – demand is increasing for Chinese medicinal herbs.  The Appalachian Herb Growers Consortium is working to develop an American supply for more than 30,000 licensed U.S. practitioners. Among their partners are tobacco farmers who are looking for new crops.

“Our mission is to increase farmer income while providing the acupuncture and oriental medicine community with quality, effective herbs that are grown and processed with respect for the nature and the tradition of Chinese medicine,” says David Grimsley, director of consortium, which is housed at the Blue Ridge Center for Chinese Medicine in Floyd County, Va., (pop. 15, 500) The center sits up a hill,  at the end of a gravel road in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

P1000909

Compare imported with freshly grown herb on right.

Grimsley and team are working to prove that ecologically grown, sustainable medicinal herbs can be grown profitably in central Appalachia. While the climate and geology promise a fresh, high-quality product, profit may be a challenge. Medicinal herbs from China — though they face unknown quality control in agricultural practices and processing AND may face lengthy times in storage and transit — are low-cost in the marketplace.

“We can grow and we can process, but will we be able to sell them? Will people pay for them? Is there a market for American, ecologically grown medicinal herbs,” asks Naomi Crews, herb production coordinator. “We’re learning where the price points are and whether they’re profitable for farmers.”

International politics could answer some of those questions. For example, says Grimsley, “It would not take much for there to be a domino-effect of trade embargoes, bringing Chinese herbalism to a screeching halt. By responsibly introducing these Chinese herbs to Appalachia, we are creating a medicine chest for our country that might prove someday to be what we have to rely upon if faced with international sanctions or antibacterial resistance, or an epidemic.”

Creating a potential medicine chest means being ready to launch quality production.  “As medicinal herb growers, we are working to produce the best quality herb, which is not necessarily the same as aiming for the highest output,” says Crews.

P1000919Currently, the Center has 50 farmers with trial gardens. They receive appropriate seeds or seedlings and guidance for cultivation. Some plants, like Mentha haplocalyx, a Chinese field mint are prolific and ready almost immediately for harvest. Others, like Anemarrhena asphodeloides and Scutellaria baicalensis, take up to three years to develop. And then, their roots are the valuable component. These require new plantings each year to sustain the production.

For now, Crews cares for roughly five acres of hillside test gardens that grow 35 different herbs. Among them are Platycodon grandiflorus. This isn’t just any balloon flower but, the one valued by practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine.

Nearby, Chrysanthemum morifolium is grown for its delicate flowers that bloom in late fall.

Dedication to ecologically grown crops goes beyond unadulterated soil and chemical avoidance. The center gathers rainwater for irrigation, offers houses for pest-eaters like wrens and bluebirds, and keeps flowerbeds blooming for pollinators. Black snakes prevent a seed-thieving mouse explosion in the barn.

“We recognize that we exist in an ecological landscape,” says Crews.


It is the policy of The Herb Society of America 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.
Mountain Mint: Native Herb of 2016

Mountain Mint: Native Herb of 2016

mountain mintBy Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

The mountain mint in Karen O’Brien’s garden was more than pretty; it was a pollination feast. Until, one fall morning when a helper mistook it for a weed and yanked it from its bed. Undeterred, O’Brien set out to replace the plant the following spring. And, she did it from seed.

Karen lives in Mendon, Mass., and is Chair of Botany and Horticulture for The Herb Society of America.

“It was very easy to grow,” she says. “It came up gang busters. Just put it in a good starter mix, keep it warm and it comes up easily. There are about 20 kinds of mountain mint. I picked the ones that are good for my zone.”

Despite its name and minty aroma , the native herb shouldn’t be mistaken for part of the common Mentha genus. Instead, mountain mint comprises 19 plants in the genus Pycnanthemum. And, it’s one of the few mints native only to North America.

Its strengths have earned Pycnanthemum or Mountain Mint the 2016 title Notable Native of the Year. Mountain Mint was chosen by the Native Herb Conservation Committee. “They select a native plant to highlight, trying to focus on plants that cover a large range and are less well-known or underutilized,” explains O’Brien.

Native herbs are seed-bearing, generally fleshy,  annual, biennial, or perennial or aromatic or useful shrub, vine and tree which grows naturally in North America, without the influence — accidental or intentional — of man. It has been in the United States before European settlement. Excluded from this definition are crop vegetables and hardwood trees used for lumber.

Natives must be useful — past or present – for flavoring, medicine, ornament, economic, industrial, or cosmetic purposes to be considered an herb.

Demonstrating the value of natives – and highlighting one each year — encourages herb lovers to include them in gardens. Conserving native plants is like protecting endangered animal species.  It ensures their long-term survival and contribution, both known and unknown, to the ecosystem.

Mountain Mint is a perfect plant for gardeners engaged in the The Herb Society of America’s GreenBridges initiative to preserve native herbs as well as pollinators. GreenBridges Program shows members and others how to develop butterfly- and bee-friendly gardens. These are “green bridges” linking islands of habitat so critical pollinators can move safely around the country.

Functionality aside, O’Brien says, “I would encourage people to grow it because it really is a pretty plant and it’s useful in so many ways.”

Check out HSA’s  herb profiles for more information.

 

 

Mint gains popularity on restaurant menus

This article first appeared in  Nation’s Restaurant News, October 6, 2015. Reprinted with permission


By Fern Glazer20150905_162421 (1)

Two years ago, mint was used sparingly on the menu at Wok Box Fresh Asian Kitchen, mostly to tone down spice on a few dishes. These days, the herb has found its way into 40 percent of the items on the six-unit, fast-casual chain’s menu.

“Mint is really hot right now,” said Clay Carson, director of U.S. franchise development for Vancouver, Canada-based Wok Box. “Mint makes it magic.”

Mint, a common herb in Vietnamese cooking, is a key ingredient in Wok Box’s signature herb mixture, made with mint, basil and cilantro, that tops many of the restaurant’s noodle, rice and curry boxes.

“The cilantro gives it a brightness, the basil adds savory, but the mint really mellows everything,” Carson said.

The chain also puts mint in more than half of its custom infused waters, such as cucumber mint, watermelon mint and, the most popular, lime mint.

While Wok Box has always used mint in its curry dishes, it began increasing use of the herb after some kitchen experimentation and testing revealed that customers found it particularly appealing, especially when paired with the lime wedge included on many dishes.

MojitoMint is growing in more places than just Wok Box’s menu. According to the latest research from Datassential MenuTrends, the fragrant herb has grown 25 percent on menus at all segments in the last four years. While the strongest growth is coming from beverages, mint has been growing in appetizers and entrées as well. Mint now appears in 50 percent more appetizers, 19 percent more sides and 16 percent more entrées than it did four years ago.

There are more than 30 different varieties of mint, several of which appear in dishes on the menu at Easy Bistro + Bar in Chattanooga, Tenn. For example, black mint, also known huacatay, appears in the Roasted Wagyu Hanger Steak entrée with chive horseradish whipped potatoes, baby carrots, and peppercorn Burgundy truffle jus. Pineapple mint, a mild, citrusy-tasting variety, is in a small plate of Maine Lobster Salad with candied grapefruit, rémoulade blanc, pickled baby fennel and Bibb lettuce. And petite mint is used in a small plate of Sea Scallop Carpaccio with cucumber, sorghum popcorn and winter radish.

“I always have mint on my menu somewhere,” said Easy Bistro chef de cuisine Peter Barlow. “It’s very versatile. They all work in different ways and they all taste different.”

Also using pineapple mint is Michael Kornick, chef and owner of MK in Chicago. Kornick serves a late summer/early fall tomato salad made with local heirloom tomatoes, watermelon, dried cured olives and a buttermilk crisp topped with pineapple mint.

At Tulio in Seattle, chef Water Pisano serves lamb sirloin with mint syrup and mint and basil yogurt, a riff on the old-fashioned fine-dining dish of rack of lamb with mint jelly.

“That was the traditional dish that inspired me, but I wanted to update it with the fresh mint, the sweetness of basil and the tartness of Greek yogurt,” Pisano said. “I like the brightness and freshness it instantly gives to a dish. Reminds me of great Mediterranean, Greek and Italian flavors.”

Pisano’s modern take starts with mint and basil yogurt on the plate, followed by fregula sarda pasta with Castelvetrano olives and currant, topped with sliced lamb sirloin (which has been dry rubbed and roasted), and finished with a drizzle of strained mint syrup. Though the dish has been on the menu a few years, Pisano says it sells too well to remove.

At Tre Enoteca, a Tuscan-inspired spot in San Antonio, Texas, executive chef and owner Jason Dady uses mint as a finisher to add “fresh and vibrant flavor” to two side dishes: pan-roasted Brussels sprouts with dates and preserved lemon, and Mint and Mascarpone Mashers with fried egg.

And chef Dave Becker of Juniper in Wellesley, Mass., is currently serving classic fried calamari with mint yogurt.

“We were after the richness of a tartar sauce but wanted to add something a little different,” Becker said. “Something that made people pause after they tasted it. By adding mint you can take a dish that is heavy and make it lighter.”

Does color matter?

Does color matter?

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

Perhaps my favorite homemade jelly was made from Queen Ann’s lace. I love the novelty … the “wow” factor. I remember a soft floral flavor, the profile one associates with German-style wines. Trouble was, no one ate it. I did for a bit, but it lost its appeal.

I blame that on merchandising; specifically, its colorless appearance. People are attracted to bright colors, and that’s especially important in food. But, not just any color, the colors we associate with the food. For example, ketchup is red like tomatoes. It was a horrible fail when Heinz introduced blue and green ketchup in 2003. Too unnatural.

So what color would we perceive at “natural” for Queen Ann’s Lace jelly? I guess, if I had to choose, I might try a golden yellow much like white-grape jelly. That way it communicates what it is, while adding appeal.

Mint jellyBut, what about mint jelly. On the grocery store shelf it’s Kelly green. In its raw, homemade form it’s yellow. Maybe if you squint you can imagine green?

So, what’s with the bright green color at retail? We associate the color of mint leaves with the color of the herb, and thus the color of the jelly. Hence, commercial mint jelly is green.

As a purist, that leaves me with a dilemma: To color or not to color? I want natural and I want appealing. Can I have both?

A google search on the web, scares me that any/all(?) food coloring causes misbehavior in children and potential for cancer in everyone. Because of that, often undocumented, and possible fear-mongering, many a mommy blogger has directions for homemade, even organic, food dye. But, spinach whizzed in a blender is outside the chemistry of my jelly recipes.

When I surfed onto the site of the slightly alarmist Center of Science in the Public Interest I found a report on food colors. This study seemed to identify green food coloring as among the most benign in a small scale experiment on mice.

Laura

Laura Dobson — master gardener, CSA coordinator, local food advocate — always has dirt under her nails.

I consulted my friend Laura Dobson of Virginia. A certified Master Gardener,  and food purist, she says:

“I would not add food coloring to anything. Period. I don’t care what color something is, even if it looks unappetizing. To me, things that are psychedelic colors have become unappetizing, such as neon orange Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, those frou-frou drinks in all colors of the rainbow or even Gatorade which people actually think is good for them. Ick. There are natural food colorings available, so if you really want to color your mint jelly, then I’d suggest using those.”

To color or not to color? What would you do?