Herbs de Provence Essential to Ratatouille

HDP spilled

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society

My introduction to the classic French blend of Herbes de Provence was in the early seventies, when my long-haired and lovely, hippie sister came home from Chatham College having learned to make a sophisticated country French vegetable dish known as Ratatouille. I remember that day. She was standing over my mother’s stove and she looked like a kitchen goddess, surrounded by piles of diced vegetables, an exotic-looking bottle of extra virgin olive oil, a wooden spoon, sea salt and pepper grinders, and a ceramic jar that contained the most magical combination of herbs that I’d ever smelled.. I remember her recipe perfectly and it’s still a good one, actually the best I’ve ever made. Most make ratatouille by throwing all of the vegetables in a pot and cooking them all together slowly, but my sister’s ratatouille was different because she added the vegetables one at a time.

This way she produced a layering of flavor that cannot be accomplished by just impertinently throwing everything together and letting the whole thing quickly cook. It was one of those classic moments between sisters, where I just watched, listened, and absorbed what she was teaching. It took hours which I measured in tastes and laughter. It was the perfect way to pass on such a recipe.

I love to make this in the wintertime, because it turns my kitchen into the sunniest place in the house. The fragrance is remarkable and the flavor sublime. Layered into a tart shell and topped with fresh parmesan and mozzarella and a turn under the broiler you have a perfect supper when paired with a salad and a crusty loaf of bread. A few tablespoons of this on top of a grilled chicken breast or a piece of fresh tuna will transport you to the south of France.

Making a perfect Ratatouille is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. The secret is the slow cooking over the low flame and of course the Herbes de Provence (or as I love to refer to them as “the magic of the South of France in a bottle”).

HDP containerIt’s much fun to make Herbes de Provence but fortunately you can buy it at different places and still even find it in that fancy little French ceramic pot with the wooden spoon attached. Truthfully though … why buy it when it’s so easy to make.

The classic Herbes de Provence blend is a mixture of dried savory, fennel, basil, thyme, chervil, marjoram, and lavender flowers with a bit of dill. Or is it? I am told many variations exist depending upon whose Grandmère has passed the recipe along.  I love to dry my chive blossoms and add these to the blend as my personal touch.

I always have the classic herbs growing fresh in my gardens so I play with the combinations, somet

imes adding a little more dill or a bit of fresh rosemary, based on what I am cooking. Usually, I start with a ¼ teaspoonful of each and then add a little more of whatever is needed.  While I love to use this blend to flavor grilled fish or lamb, I find it most delicious blended into butter with a bit of garlic and tucked under the skin of a roasting chicken. Herbes de Provence are an integral part of my beef stew recipe and a perfect blend of seasonings to be whisked into a bit of homemade mayonnaise for a tuna, salmon, shrimp, or chicken salad. 

HDP freshI infuse my soup stocks with a bouquet garni of these fresh herbs. Just take the long stalks and tie them together with some kitchen string. Place them into the pot and remove when straining. This leaves behind fragrance and flavor into the soup without messy bits floating around. You can also infuse these herbs in olive oil to create wonderfully scented dressings or drizzles.

A little aside here:  If you use sweet almond oil and increase the lavender and add a few drops of lavender essential oil, it makes a massage oil that’s relaxing and divine for your skin.

Now, back to my sister’s magical recipe.

A great ratatouille takes time to make and lots of it. You must begin with a good cast iron pot, a wooden spoon (and a frilly apron!).  You’ll need lots of cubed eggplant, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, green, red and yellow peppers, and green and yellow zucchini, about 8 cups total. Make sure to have your first glass of chilled white wine handy and a lovely runny piece of brie and a toasted baguette…cliché maybe, perfect YES!

Liberally lace the pot with about 4 tablespoons of olive oil and bring up the heat. Add about 6 cloves of minced garlic and stir gently, allowing the garlic to softly infuse the oil but not burn. Add two cups of mixed bone broth or a vegan broth, your choice. Then add the onions, sip the wine and cook this gently for about 10 minutes. Add the eggplant, the juice of one fresh lemon, and a bit of sea salt. Allow the eggplant to cook until translucent (about 15 minutes). Next press the juice from tomatoes and add the flesh. Stir gently and allow the combination to blend for about 10 more minutes. Then, add mushrooms, stir and continue sautéing for another 5 minutes while enjoying wine and brie.

HDP ratatouilleAdd the peppers and follow the same instructions as before. The zucchini goes in last. You can add more olive oil if needed and by now you’ve begun to create a lovely vegetable stew. At this point, add one cup of good white wine, a large knob of grass-fed butter, two additional cloves of minced garlic, and more salt and pepper to taste.

Cook the ratatouille gently for about another 10 minutes, stirring continuously. Then add three  tablespoons of your favorite Herbes de Provence blend and let the ratatouille slowly simmer gently for about two and a half hours or until the wine has evaporated. Add a little more butter if necessary and then take about three handfuls of fresh basil leaves and stir them in. Let the ratatouille just sit peacefully for a few moments. Now take a piece of the baguette spread with the brie and about two tablespoons of the ratatouille. Breathe deeply, imagine that you’re sitting in the warm French sunshine.  Do you need anything more?

Herb of Month for March 2019: Lemon Thyme

By Maryann Readal, HSA Secretary

Lemon thyme, HOMThe Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for March 2019 — lemon thyme — has undergone DNA testing to determine whether it is a separate species or a hybrid species.  Interestingly, botanists in 1811 considered the lemon thyme they knew to be its own distinct species. Can you imagine that the classification of this understated herb could be the subject of so much study and concern?

But correct names for plants are important so that gardeners, researchers and history share a common language. And so, we are glad that botanists strive to name plants accurately.

Lemon thyme’s antibacterial properties have been used to treat colds and sore throats and other respiratory illnesses. It was also thought to strengthen the nervous system.

lemon thyme HOM 2019In the kitchen, it can be added to any savory and some sweet recipes that call for lemons. For maximum flavor, it should be picked in the morning before flowering when essential oils are abundant.

In the garden lemon thyme thrives with sun and good drainage. It is hardy to USDA Zone 6, and is evergreen in my Zone 8b garden in Texas.  The low-growing species makes a nice addition to a rock garden or between paving stones. However, it does not like to be trampled upon. There is also a bushy, upright variety of lemon thyme.

And to top it off, lemon thyme’s tiny little flowers are like honey to bees. Another plus is that it is deer resistant and a mosquito repellent. Get recipes and read more about lemon thyme from HSA’s Herb of the Month page.

Ready for Dandelions?

Ready for Dandelions?

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Unit

dandelion KH1Is there anything more all-American than the dandelion, ubiquitous bane of the perfect suburban lawn?  Wrong on all counts.

While there are North American natives that are part of the genus Taraxacum, T. officinale – the common dandelion was an immigrant to these shores.

The dandelion as we know it was introduced from Europe. There it was well known in every herbal. Part of the aster family, the Taraxacum’s common name comes from French for lion’s tooth, “dent-de-lion.”  That, in turn, comes from the Medieval Latin, “dens lionis.” Unfortunately, the actual common French word for the dandelion is “pissenlit,” which means “to wet the bed.” Similar names persist in parts of Great Britain and Ireland.

No two snowflakes may be identical, but many dandelion flowers start out that way.  They can propagate without pollination, producing seeds asexually, each new plant a clone of the parent. The flowers produce a choreographed wave of gold sometime in April through June. Each composite flower head is made up of many small florets held high on a single stem over the flat round mat of toothed leaves.

The early mass flowering of dandelions makes them the first to the pollinator party and an important contributor to nature. Coltsfoot has a similar but smaller flower head, and is another early bloomer, but has no leaves at the base of the stem.

Picture1Dandelion flower heads open in the day, and close at night. The stem is hollow, and produces milky latex when severed or bruised. The flower heads are sheathed in a double row of sepal-like green bracts, which begin to arch downward as the seeds mature.  Everyone who was ever a child knows those seed heads, sometimes called “clocks,” look like downy, perfect globes.  A breath (or several) can disperse those seeds on their web-like parachutes. The theory that blowing away the seeds in one breath will grant a wish remains unproven.

Some people, especially those allergic to ragweed, might also be sensitive to the dandelion.  But generally, all parts of the dandelion, from its long tap root to its downy golden head, are edible and have been revered for being beneficial.

Like so many early appearing plants it is a traditional bitter spring tonic, both emetic and diuretic in its effects. The root and the latex in the dandelion’s stem produce inulin and tannin. Extracts, tinctures, and solutions from dandelion parts have been used to do everything from increasing bile function to treating acne. If you can find a tangle of dandelion roots that resemble the male anatomy, it has been said that one can bid the desired male person to follow by throwing the tangle behind the enchanter…but I’m trying to cut down on that sort of thing.

I am trying to be more courteous to dandelions by discontinuing my lawn service. It might not save the pollinators, but bringing back the dandelion is a good beginning. And, as for the perfect suburban lawn, let me quote the dandelion’s entry in Flora’s Dictionary, The Victorian Language of Herbs and Flowers, by our fellow herbalist and HSA member Kathleen Gips: “…absurdity; ‘I find your presumptions laughable’”.

Pick those dandelions for wine. Check out a previous HSA blog post.

Save those dandelions for wine


Ramps: Sleek, Leeky Wild Child

Ramps: Sleek, Leeky Wild Child

By Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society11196256_10205434518374052_5210545135335455851_n

Listen, children, and I will tell you how an onion by another name gave us the name of the city of Chicago.  The onion in question, Allium tricoccum — also known as ramps, spring onion, ramson, wild leek and wild garlic — is an eastern North American native with an extensive roster of European and Asian cousins. “Ramson” is its English cousin, and Allium tricoccum is sometimes called by that name in the New World as well. “Tricoccum” refers to the plant having three seeds.

As an onion, ramps grow as a perennial bulb, and they grow wild wherever their habitat hasn’t been degraded. Often the first greens of spring, both the scallion-like stalk and the leaves are edible. The harbinger of spring, ramps are cause for various festivals in April and May, notably in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee.  In some parts of North America, ramps have been over harvested, and foraging for them is limited by local law.

Early French explorers found a marshy area, lush with ramps, near Lake Michigan, along a river named by local native tribes after their word for ramps, shikaakwa.  It was somewhere in translation from that to English by way of French that this became “Chicago.”

Their timing may be the reason they’re a frequent component of spring tonics. Cherokee, Ojibwa and Iroquois people have used ramps in decoctions to “clean you out” for spring. High in vitamin C, ramps may have saved a lot of folks from scurvy after a long, hard winter.

20160326_182218More garlicky than scallions, stronger than leeks, ramps have been very trendy for some time, and available in upscale grocers for a hefty price (something along the lines of $20 a pound).

To forage sustainably harvest as the Cherokee did and do: leave the bulb.  Use a sharp tool (the handy hori hori knife is perfect) and carefully cut away stalk and leaf.  And don’t take more than you need. After all, ramps are glorious, but how many can you grill, pickle and sauté before you incur ramp fatigue? Glory in what is in season, in moderation, and life is good for you…and the ramps.

Previous posts on ramps are available here.
Ramp-ing up for Spring 
Forage for and Enjoy Ramps

March 2019 Webinar: Making Herbal Medicine

By Jen Munson, HSA Education Chair

webinar March 2019Herbs have played an important role in medical history and continue to play an important part in medical research. Through the years different techniques have been used to transfer healing properties to vinegar, glycerin, tea, alcohol, etc. These infusions can then be combined with other ingredients to make salves, poultices, rinses, and more.

Learn about these at 1 p.m. (eastern), March 20, during The Herb Society of America’s first spring webinar. In Making Herbal Medicine guest presenter Susanna Reppert-Brill will share the basics of herbal medicine. External and internal applications will be explored.

HSA webinars are free to members and just $5 for non-members. Register here. Contemplating membership? As a bonus, HSA will credit the $5 webinar fee to the cost of membership if you join by April 4th.

About Susanna Reppert-Brill

Susanna grew up around her mother’s shop, the Rosemary House. After graduating from Penn State University she became the store’s manager. In response to the increasing number of questions on the medicinal use of herbs she completed a course at David Winston’s Herbal Therapeutics School of Botanical Medicine. With four decades in the herbal business, Susanna’s love of herbs and their many uses shines through. Susanna is the one most likely to answer your “quick question” on the phone or in the store but is also available for full personal consultation. She continues to develop her herbal knowledge of all the amazing and practical uses of plants.

About The Rosemary House

The Rosemary House is located in Mechanicsburg, PA. It is a specialty gift shop featuring herbs, teas, and assorted gifts. Established in 1968, they delight in sharing their love of all things herbal. From culinary herbs, to medicinal uses, to fragrant soaps and candles, and a wide range of flavorful teas, Rosemary House offers a wide range of products. In addition to the gift shop, there areherb gardens in the back that are open to the public from dawn to dusk. Throughout the year, they offer a variety of classes, afternoon teas, workshops, and bus trips. Learn more at http://www.TheRosemaryHouse.com



Witch Hazel Casts a Spell…And Clears Up Acne, Maybe

By Kathleen M. Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

witch hazelI suppose every family has universal cure, the thing you apply or ingest that will cure whatever ails you. My family had several. My German grandmother advised a generous dollop of blackberry brandy for internal upset, for being stung by a honey bee, for arthritis pain, and she recommended a rocket-fuel type disinfectant called Germ-Trol for everything else.  My Tennessean father-in-law was a firm believer in sea water (used externally) and apple cider vinegar (taken internally).

The center of my mother’s home remedies was witch hazel.  It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered the shrub/small tree Hamamelis virginiana, This North American native plant is the source of the miracle-in-a-bottle readily available at every drugstore. The plant blooms in the fall, about the same time that the leaves turn color. The deciduous trees are compact, topping out at 6- to 10-feet tall.  They grow readily pretty much anywhere, although, like everything else, they prefer loam to clay, and appreciate adequate drainage. They have no pest nemeses.

Another Hamamelis species, Hamamelis vernalis is native to the Ozarks, and has smaller but wonderfully fragrant flowers in a range of colors. They bloom improbably early in the spring. I now have a thicket of them in my garden, and they are gloriously in bloom (it’s February), in what is probably the middle of a Northeast Ohio winter. The flowers look like fringed forsythia. One of the nicknames for Hamamelis vernalis is “winter bloom.”

Sadly, the name “witch hazel” comes, not for any association with witches, but from the Anglo-Saxon word for “pliable”.  The slender stems and branches are very bendy. This has made them a convenient tool for those who claim dowsing or divining powers, and who use sticks to detect water or treasure. But that’s stretching the “witch” angle.

Witch hazel preparations are a gentle but powerful astringent. The bark of Hamamelis virginiana may be macerated or distilled. It can be marketed straight, or combined with glycerin, rose water, citrus extracts, or other beneficial plants, like Aloe vera. Americans have used witch hazel stems boiled in water to sooth skin complaints since long before the arrival of European settlers. New Englanders began steam distillation, marketing the product in the mid-19th century.

The tannins found in the bark of the witch hazel provide the astringent quality sought after by users.  Unfortunately, distillation destroys those tannins. So any benefit from commercially available preparations probably comes from the alcohol found as their second ingredient, after water. But you know what?  Alcohol is a pretty good astringent.  And magic is mostly a matter of intention.

New Jersey Tea: Making You an Offer You Shouldn’t Refuse

New jersey teaBy Kathleen M Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society

New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus, is an Herb Society of America Native Plant of 2019. A member of the buckthorn family its common names include wild snow ball, snow bush, red root, mountain lilac, and California lilac.

New Jersey Tea is a short, woody plant, growing less than three feet tall, with a cloud of tiny white flowers. It flourishes in full or partial sun in zones 4 to 8. The nitrogen-fixing roots grow stubborn and deep making the plant drought resistant, but also difficult to transplant. Because root growth comes first, the plants seem slow to establish. Seeds are available, but require stratification (refrigeration) and scarifying (nicking the seeds’ outer surfaces) to help germination.

The leaves of New Jersey Tea, unsurprisingly, have traditionally been used to brew a caffeine-free tea. They have a mild wintergreen fragrance which can be refreshing.  Historically the main virtue of New Jersey Tea was that it was free, did not have to be imported, and could not be taxed by the Crown. That made it a patriotic beverage choice during the American War of Independence.

Deer and bunnies are fond of the stems and ground birds, like turkey, enjoy the seeds.  This is all good news or bad news, depending on your feelings about feeding deer, bunnies, and turkey from your garden.  Insects are drawn to the flowers, which support a variety of wasps and flies. Caterpillars of moths and butterflies feed on the foliage.

New Jersey Tea is now planted widely for erosion control and hillside stabilization because of those stubborn roots and because, as long as it has adequate drainage, the plant is vigorous and undemanding. As the vigorous root system, once established, is prone to producing suckers, New Jersey Tea can quickly produce a thicket.

Aside from erosion control, gardeners should seriously consider adding this native to their landscaping, as a sensible alternative to non-native plants that have become suburban standards. These non-native plants (including Burning Bush, Japanese Barberry, and Asian Honeysuckle) do not support wildlife and may become invasive at the expense of native plants.

Flowers of New Jersey Tea can be used in making a light green dye. The rest of the plant yields a dye of cinnamon red. The root bark has long been valued for medicinal uses, often in treating bronchial ailments, and it has an astringent effect. The flowers and developing seed pods of New Jersey Tea can be used as a fragrant soap or body wash, even producing a lather when combined with water. One of New Jersey’s common names is soap bloom. It is sometimes used as a hair tonic.

Why is this plant named after the Colony, later State, of New Jersey? My sources remain silent on that point. But I plan to make New Jersey Tea a home here in what became the Western Reserve of the Ohio Territory.  I may even try it as soap.