Herb-infused oils and vinegars

I’m always glad to see spring and summer (despite hating hot and humid weather) because of the fresh herbs. Maintaining the herbs on my deck involves keeping them cut back so that they do not bloom–I want peak flavor all summer.  That involves taking the scissors to them and cutting off about one-third of the plant, so that they will stay nice and bushy.

Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare, subsp. hirtum)

Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare, subsp. hirtum)

Even though it’s good maintenance, I just hate to throw away all those fresh herbs, so I often make flavored oils or vinegars with the trimmings. I love having a supply on hand for salad dressings, dipping, or whatever.

When I make infused oils I want strong flavor that I can use in many ways. I use plain vegetable oil and extract my herbs in heated oil at about 180° to 200° Fahrenheit, checked with an instant-read thermometer.  I either use my tiny “baby” slow cooker and let the oil infuse in that for several hours or use the microwave oven on low or defrost, then strain. This gives me very strongly flavored oils that I dilute with other oil depending on how I plant to use them. Once strained, I store in the refrigerator or freezer.

I’ve made infused oil from a lot of different herbs–oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, sage, even epazote–or mixed herbs. I haven’t tried cilantro, but after reading the post on Chef Mimi Blog I want to give that a try as well.

This hot weather reminds me that it’s time to make lemon oil again. I  do this in the summer, removing the zest for the oil, then using the lemons to make a big pitcher of lemonade and sip that on the deck while the oil infuses in the slow cooker.

With oils made from fresh herbs, we need to be aware of the potential for botulism since Clostridium botulinum can thrive in oils like this. Any fresh herb or vegetable has the potential of carrying C. botulinum, and it requires high temperatures to kill the spores or to destroy the toxin so we need to be particularly careful about keeping them refrigerated.  Tips for prevention are given here and here.

Blood oranges….

blood orange slice

blood orange

I have to say that for the most part, I hate shopping–except food-related shopping. When I do food-related shopping, I almost always come home with something that was not on the shopping list (Yes, I do make shopping lists, but I don’t really do meal planning.)  do sometimes venture in to the food store without a list, though I do try not to go food shopping when I’m hungry. Sometimes I go to the grocery store impulsively and spontaneously–triggered by some extraneous event.

My last such foray was triggered by sitting at the counter of Hope Valley Diner discussing food with another regular lunch customer–also a foodie.  What sent me to the grocery store was his mention of a chocolate cake from Fresh Market: namely chocolate ganache cake.That definitely got my chocolate imagination going–after all ganache is basically chocolate and cream, maybe some butter–but it’s really serious chocolate–adult chocolate.

Being in need of a chocolate fix since I’d been indexing all morning, I detoured by the Fresh Market on my way home (it really wasn’t more than a half mile in the opposite direction) hoping that I would find chocolate ganache cake by the slice. So–my intent on entering the Fresh Market was to obtain a single slice of chocolate cake.

As I walked through the entrance into the vestibule I was immediately faced with packages of California-grown Moro blood oranges. I seem to be constitutionally incapable of walking away from blood oranges, so there was the first “additional” item, so I really did need to get a basket though I hadn’t thought I needed one.  Now the blood oranges were not individual–they came in a little easy to carry bag–meaning that I now had several blood oranges.

Continuing on my way to the bakery section, I detoured though the produce (around the edge of the store).  That took me past the Bolthouse juices. (Yes, I find daily grapefruit, orange, etc boring too many days in a row.) I noticed a couple that I’d not found at my Harris Teeter market, so those (Daily Golden Vedge and the Stone Fruit Smoothie–still haven’t found the Mango Ginger + carrot) )got popped into the basket.

I made it to the bakery counter after a brief detour around the cheese counter and the seafood salad bar. I first noticed a whole chocolate ganache cake–shiny top as you’d expect from ganache, very dark, with the sides of the cake covered with dark chocolate shavings or chopped. Thankfully, there was a single slice of this luscious looking cake in the case. That got put into the basket with a sigh of relief–after all, THAT was what I came for! I made it back past the chocolate bars and other candy without adding anything more to the basket, checked out, and headed for home.

Blood Orange and Sage Sparkling SodaOnce home I had a blood orange–and realized that I was going to be eating or juicing blood oranges for a bit. Though straight blood orange juice is certainly not a hardship, serendipity has a way of intervening. While I was perusing my favorite blogs, what should I find but a gorgeous photograph and a recipe for blood orange and sage sparkling soda.

The image at the left is from Snixy Kitchen blog–just too gorgeous not to “plagiarize” with attribution, and share. I’d not thought of the combination of sage and orange, but with the “imagery” of the blood orange I’d just eaten, and a brush of the sage wintering on my deck, I knew I had to try it. This as a beverage is definitely a keeper–I’m sure that I’ll be making sage simple syrup again, and I have to think this would make a great sorbet as well as something to put in a glass and drink.  This combination of orange and sage also has me thinking about veal, pork, maybe chicken….Thank you, Snixy Kitchen for a great combination!

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Now if you’re wondering about the chocolate ganache cake?  Well, I ate it before it even occurred to me to take a picture, and I haven’t found a chocolate cake image that even comes close–so I’ll have to go with words: very, very dark, moist, with ganache between the layers and as icing, not too thick.  Dark chocolate chips/shaving on the sides, not too sweet, but sweet enough–adult chocolate–absolutely luscious.  That’s probably where I’ll go look for my next chocolate fix.

Posole

There is one good thing about having to hike out to the dumpster with the trash, especially when you’re cooking something.  If you stay in the kitchen too long you olfactory sense habituates to the aromas.  Take out the trash and you get a great new olfactory preview when you get walk back into the kitchen–especially if you spend a bit of time chatting with the neighbor who is also taking out the trash.

This cold weather has me cooking stew-y sorts of things.  A friend sent me a care package from New Mexico recently: blue and white corn with a recipe for making posole (or pozole, if you’d rather). Today was the day, since I was organized enough to remember to soak the dried corn overnight.  By the time I had sauteed everything, browned the pork, onions, garlic, added the oregano (had to do Turkish rather than Mexican until I do another Penzeys order), and the chilli pods I wasn’t fully appreciating the aroma of the cooking. I popped the covered dutch oven into the oven and took– out the trash.

When I opened the door and walked into the living room, I was definitely getting a fresh sensation: the browned pork, the oregano, the chillis–this smells like warmth and comfort on a cold day!

White Corn Posole

This is the recipe that came with the package of Los Chileros de Neuva Mexico package of white corn posole. I more or less followed the recipe–

Ingredients

  • 6-8 chile pods
  • 2 pounds cubed pork (or beef)
  • 3 cloves garlic minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 1 teaspoon of salt.

Preparation & assembly

  • Soak the posole (12 ounces) in water to cover overnight.
  • Boil the posole in salted water for about 2 hours.
  • Add meat, chilli pods, oregano and garlic.
  • Cover and simmer for another hour or until the posole is tender, stirring occasionally.

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My first deviation from the recipe was to brown the pork (in a little bacon fat) before adding the liquid and the other ingredients. My second deviation was to use 4 chilli pods (ancho and guajillo) and then about 2 teaspoons of Hatch chilli powder.  I had tasted before adding the chilli powder–and it’s wasn’t spicy enough. I’ll see what it’s like when I reheat it. My other deviation was to add way more garlic.

I’d looked at other recipes for posole online, and found lots of recipes calling for other ingredients–cumin, coriander, and even tomatoes. I decided to start with this simple, rather a straightforward one for my first try at posole.

I really think that Mexican oregano is a must–the Turkish just isn’t quite right here–it’s sweeter than the Mexican to my taste and would fit better with the corn flavor. I’m likely to add some cumin and coriander next time around as well. I may add onions (caramelized) as well. It’s a recipe in evolution now. I think a little more “brown” in the flavor would be good, as well as some smoke from either chipotle peppers or from pimentón–but definitely Mexican oregano next time. I used water here and not pork stock, but I think that pork stock would be tastier–especially if the bones/meat were browned before making the stock.

Even though this is a simple soup/stew, a bowl of this is very satisfying on a cold day when you need warmth and a full tummy!

My friend also sent blue corn–which I’ve only had in tortilla chips, so it will be interesting to see how that compares to the white. I do suppose you could make this with canned hominy, but this seems to have more corn flavor that I remember from canned hominy. I’m going to enjoy trying out different seasonings here.

…and planting continues

I’ve been working on planting the herbs on my deck this weekend–though it’s been raining off an on so it’s not going as fast as I’d hoped. In the past I’ve tried filling in the bottoms of very deep pots to decrease the amount of potting mix needed, I’m not doing that this time around. Going to go with the advice posted by in “Growing Herbs in Containers.”

As usual, when I’m skulking among little plants at the nursery, I’ve come home with some unplanned ones:  Vietnamese coriander (Persicaria odorata) and Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) for the herb garden–and they are looking good, but my summer savory crumped.  Guess I’ll have to get another one…which means I’ll probably come home with more than that….

Growing herbs in containers

From Gardener to Go (Sharyn Caudell) some pointers on growing herbs in containers.  For other gardening information you’ll find “Tip of the Month” at her website.

Herbs are wonderful addition to any garden.  They are beautiful plants and everyone knows that fresh herbs add so much to cooking.   Many of our herbs are Mediterranean in origin.  This means they grow in thin, often rocky soils in a hot summer climate with no rain in the summers.   Central North Carolina has the hot summers and one of the best ways to provide the other conditions is to grow them in containers.   Herbs will languish with ‘wet feet’ so good drainage is essential.

If you have sandy, well-drained soils in your garden, you can probably grow them directly in the ground.   For the rest of us, choose a large container. Some folks use flue tiles which are made of terra cotta. These are available from building supply stores.  Place the tiles upright on the ground and fill with a good soilless mix such as a high-quality potting mix. You want a potting soil that does not compress to a wet mix.   Several good brands are Fafard, MetroMix, Pro-Mix, Sunshine Mix and others (these are professional mixes).  If you can’t find those, look for a potting soil that does not contain moisture-retaining granules; this type is great for hanging baskets that you don’t want to water constantly but not herbs.  Try lifting the bag. It should feel light for its size.  Some potting soils are very heavy in the bag and will be too dense and wet for herbs.   You can mix perlite with the soil to improve the drainage. (Perlite improves aeration and drainage; vermiculite holds water so read the bags carefully!)   Do not add Styrofoam peanuts or pebbles or anything in the bottom of the pot to improve the drainage; it doesn’t work.  Soils drain by capillary action between the small pieces of the soil (think of a very thin straw).   Adding items in the bottom of the pot shortens the capillary ‘straw’ and holds more moisture in the pot.  To keep the soil from washing out of the pot, line with a sheet of newspaper, window screening, landscape fabric or several coffee filters. These will hold the soil in place while the roots form.   It is a good idea to mix in some dolomitic limestone with potting soil.

Herbs need 4 to 6 hours or more of sun per day.  Try to pick a spot that is easily accessible from the kitchen so you will use your herbs.   Herbs require moderate water so you don’t have to tend these daily.    Some good herbs to start with are parsley, chives, basil, thyme,  oregano, rosemary and sage.   Parsley is a biennial  plant—it sets seed its second year and then dies. Basil in an annual that needs replanted every year.   Chives, thyme, oregano and sage are perennials.   Rosemary is a shrub with lovely small blue flowers in the spring.  There are small varieties that will do better in a container.  Dill and cilantro will grow well in the spring and fall but will bolt, flower, set seed and die in our summer heat.   Pruning off the flowers or dead-heading will keep your herbs growing longer.   Herbs require little fertilizing.  It is better to be very sparing of fertilizer than to have lush growth that may be damaged in the winter.  You can always add a bit more fertilizer if you need it.   Most herbs will be fine with no fertilizer for the first year.

IMG_4073You can grow chives and parsley in a vegetable garden easily.    French tarragon is a wonderful herb that doesn’t do well in our summers.  You can substitute Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida) instead. This is actually a marigold that grows to 3-plus feet and has yellow flowers. Use the leaves as you would tarragon.   It is an annual.   There is a substitute for celery that is a perennial: cutting celery (Apium graveolens var. secalinum). It grows 12-15 inches and has a wonderful celery flavor but not the long stalks of regular celery.  It is an evergreen and will self seed.

In general, deer don’t like herbs because of their strong flavors or smells but a really hungry white-tail will eat almost anything.  Don’t use pesticides on your herbs.  The black and yellow caterpillars of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly will devour your parsley, dill and fennel plants but the leaves will grow back.

There are many other herbs that have been used medicinally or for dyes that are grown in our gardens for their beauty.   Browse the herb section at your garden center or find a book on the subject. You will enhance your garden and your table by growing herbs.

Renewing the herb garden

Even though perennials return year after year, they are not forever.  Eventually old age or inclement weather takes its toll.  It seems that my on-the-deck herb garden has reached it’s expiration date and is in serious need of refreshing. That’s my project for the weekend.

img_3910.jpgSome of the herbs that I’ve grown were plopped into pots in a rather topsy-turvy fashion.  With the summer heat here it takes a lot of watering keep the smaller pots going, and some things just didn’t make it, whether from erratic watering or just plain old age.  This year I’m going to try to be a bit more organized and make the herbs a little easier to care for.

I’m fortunate to have a good friend and neighbor who is a serious plant person, and gardener, with a garden consulting business–Sharyn Caudell at Gardener to Go.  She’ll look over your garden space and give planting advice, show you how to plant, make suggestions about what to plant and where to plant it.  I’m shamelessly taking advantage of her know-how to  improve my herb plantings on the deck.  In exchange for some help on one of her projects she’s made suggestions about how I can improve the container herb garden. She is going to do a post on growing herbs in containers for us.

First thing on the  list was bigger pots with several plants in each so that there will be less watering.  I’m sure that some of my herbs that were in smaller pots bit the dust because of erratic watering during the last summer.  Others were just old plants–even perennials don’t last forever.

For my plants, it’s a trip to Gunter’s Greenhouse and Garden Center since their plants are locally grown.  They will have big bags of soilless mix for potting too.  Then it’s time to get my hands in the dirt–well, the potting mix.

Chilli con carne redux update

I’ve finished the “fast” version of the chilli con carne that I posted about in Chilli Con Carne Redux!  I’ll concede that it’s only sort of faster in terms of the active prep time–it still needs to cook long and slowly, but it is a success.  I don’t think that I can tell the difference (tasted side-by-side with the more laborious version from the freezer) and friends have given it the nod of approval.  So here are the changes and additions to the original chilli con carne that I posted.

  • After the bacon browned, 3 tablespoons of tomato paste was added while the onions were sautéed, and this was browned–again to enhance the umami, not to add tomato flavor.
  •  None of the meat (pork or beef) was browned before adding liquids.
  •  Added bay leaves to increase the earthiness (used five large for this 6 pounds of meat).
  •  Added Mexican oregano–about 2 rounded teaspoons. (You really do want Mexican oregano for this–much different flavor than Turkish or Greek (Mediterranean) oregano–after all it is an unrelated plant, but worth having in the kitchen if you like chili.)
  •  Sun-dried tomatoes (about 1/2 cup chopped) were added for more umami even though this was NOT made in a slow cooker, I was not aiming for tomato-flavored chili.
  • During the cooking time I tasted some in a bowl with a little fish sauce added (yep, I did get up the nerve to try this) and it tasted wonderful; so I added about 4 or 5 tablespoons of fish sauce.  (I suspect that if you don’t have fish sauce a couple of anchovy filets thrown in would have the same effect.)
  • The final thickening was one with a brown roux made with masa harina.  For the fat in this roux I reserved about 1/4 cup of the fat from the de-fatting step.  I heated this and made sure that all liquid was evaporate, then added about 6 tablespoons of masa harina and cooked it until it was a medium brown and toasty smelling.
  • Because of my work schedule, this was cooked in a lower oven (about 195° F) for about 10 hours.

After another run on this I’ll have to post a revised recipe for the “fast” and easier version, but if you feel so inclined you can work with these changes–after all chili con carne is one of those things that really doesn’t need a recipe to be followed strictly.