Friday, May 27, 2016

What to do when the herb garden goes bonkers? Dry herbs!

Our herb garden has gone bonkers from all of our recent rain. This is the earliest I've started to dry herbs for the season, but I need to started bringing in the oregano and lemonbalm – they’re crowding out the other herbs. The lavender is also blooming, so it's time to start gathering those flowers.

My goal in the past two years had been to put up enough dried herbs to carry us through the entire year without having to buy more. The garden had become so abundant, that I am now looking at putting up herbs that will become part of Christmas baskets. I don’t yet have the needed paperwork to offer them for sale, though.

Have you ever tried to dry herbs? It's easier than you would think. There are two basic ways of drying herbs. The first is to tie your herbs in bunches and hang them upside-down in a cool, dry place in your house. After a couple weeks, the herbs will be crisp and ready for you to crush for storage.

The other way is to use a dehydrator and dry them on low. There are some thicker herbs, or ones which woody stems (hello, thyme, yes, that would be you) when I will use the medium setting for at least half the drying time. I avoid “high” for herb drying because I have found that you lose flavor and color at the setting and end up with a burned leaves.

Some people dry them in the microwave or in the oven. I don’t recommended either, especially since I have burned herbs doing both methods. I also don’t like the idea of using a microwave on the organic herbs I spend months carefully tending. Nope. Just, nope. When I haven’t burned my herbs, I still find that the oven and the microwave affect the color and flavor. Again, when you spend so much care raising herbs, it just doesn’t make sense to have a less-than awesome product at the end of the process.

Oregano has been the first herb to be dried this season. It grows quickly and likes to spread out. Since it seems to have decided that the parsley should move, I started cutting stalks on that side of the garden. Parsley is important for ranch salad dressing, and by golly, you don’t mess with the ranch dressing!

Oregano is also a very versatile herb. It goes in broth, soups and stews, tomato sauce and pretty much anything else I’m making on the stovetop. Since we go through it pretty quickly, I tend to put up more of this herb than others.

The stalks are easy to clip; just use your scissors and cut close to the base but above a leaf join – this will encourage the plant to send up two stalks in its place. It's best to clip your herbs in the morning after the dew has and before the day gets hot.

I like to carry a cup of water out with me when collecting herbs. This works well especially if you're gathering something like basil or chives, which will quickly wilt or get a little bendy before you're ready to use them in your meal or dry for later.

You want to wash your herbs before you use them. Remember, they came from outside and even if you’re careful to keep them clean, the rain and the birds tend to think differently. Wash tender herbs gently to avoid bruising, since bruises can discolor. Bruises also release the herb’s essential oils (which make them smell so yummy) and cut down on the scent and flavor later.

I prefer to use the gentle swishing method. I place them in a bowl with water and a little bit of vegetable cleaner. Swish them nicely to make sure there's no debris on the leaves and rinse under gently flowing water. Pat them dry and set them aside until you're done.

Once you have washed all your herbs, you wanted to give them one more look over and discard any leaves that are bruised, yellowed or have been chewed on by garden the bugs. Those bruised leaves can go straight into your compost pile.

It’s time to take the oregano apart. Since I try not to dry anything I don’t have to, I clip the stalks apart. The leaves, two large and two or four little ones, grow in joints, so I clip the stem away from the joint and leave the leaves attached to a small bit of stem. Once you've clipped the oregano, spread the leaves and joints on your dehydrator racks.

Herbs will vary in drying time from a few hours to a few days, depending on the herb and the humidity where you live. Oregano takes about 24 hours for me, but that can be as long as 36 if it’s very humid for us.

I check them every so often, at least once every six hours. Usually, I'll check them before retiring for the night and first thing in the morning. Rotate the racks so that the leaves dry evenly. You have to have the herbs nice and dry before you can crush them and put them into storage. Any moisture still in the herbs can make them go sour or become moldy. Neither is a good situation.

Check your herbs for dryness by gently crushing a leaf between your fingers or checking how easily stems break. If you can crush or snap them easily and cleanly, they’re done. If not, close the dryer back up and check again in a few hours.

Once your herbs are dry you can store them in a clean glass jar or give them a nice crushing. Crushed herbs are ready for sprinkling or measuring, but can lose their flavor more quickly than whole herbs, so if you plan to store for more than year, you might want to keep them whole.

I prefer to use the chopper tool for my stick blender for crushing my herbs, but you might want to use your blender or food processor. The old-fashioned way would be to throw them in the mortar and pestle and give them a good swirl until you have crumbled herbs.

Herbs keep their freshness for at least a year, and if they're stored in a dry, dark area they may stay fresh for about two years. After that you'll start to notice a drop-off in flavor. Anytime you open up a jar and the leaves have turned brown and you don't smell the fresh scent, you know that your herbs have gotten too old. They won't give you much flavor for your food. At that point you can add them to your compost pile. They can help the next batch of herbs grow.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A pair of favorite jeans

A couple my husband and I are friends with came to dinner last weekend to celebrate the thorough scrubbing of the porch – which is the beginning of summer for us. While we enjoyed a glass of wine, My friend pulled a pair of old overall jeans from her bag and looked to me hopefully.

“These are my favorite jeans,” she said. “They were my mom’s, too, in the ‘70s. I wore them everywhere, even on a humanitarian trip to South America. I remember hanging a hammer from the loop on the side while I was working there.”

She handed them over to me, her hands running over the large hand-painted patches on the knees. “Do you think you can make them into a shoulder bag for me?”

Oh—boy! That's a lot of confidence she has in me.

I agreed that I could make a bag for her and accepted the jeans. They are very soft, patched and worn but in durable condition. I would expect her to wear them teaching her animation courses rather than ask me to remake them into a bag to carry her course notes in around campus.

Last night I sat with her jeans, looking over the construction, the differences from the usual pairs I work with, the patches and the original labels. The stitches are in white thread, not the usual blue and gold, and the front bib is held closed by riveted buttons that I need to figure out how to keep in place. I can use the original fabric for most of it and supplement with a few pieces from my denim stash.  My favorite idea is to use one of the smaller fabric patches on the knee to make the decorative side tag.

I’ll keep both the hammer loop and the straight pocket at the side of the other leg and put them on opposite sides of the new bag. The bib and waist with pockets will be the front of the bag, with some extra fabric to square out the sides of the bib. The shoulder straps will become the handle for the bag and the two big pockets on the seat will be on the back of the bag. A large snap will close the top. I have a very cool button from my stash to cover the snap.

For the inside, I’ll find some durable fabric that looks like another one of the fabric patches. I’ll use that great patch on the knee to make a pocket on the inside and the patches on the other leg will be used on the hammer loop side of the bag.

Denim bags are my specialty but I think this one will be special. It is the first I’ve made specifically for another adult (the kids got burlap trick-or-treat bags last Halloween).

And since the forecast is rain every day for another a week, it’s going to be a good project to have.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Sundry adventures in village homesteading

Our corner of Maryland seems to be experiencing a little bit of rain – for the past 16 days. We’ve even
hearing this is a record of some kind for our area. Even though it’s not my kind of achievement, it’s given us a little bit of time to work on St. Denis Sundries.

We did manage to have a few sunny hours on Mother’s Day to plant seedlings in the garden. If all goes well, we have plenty of cucumbers for pickles, cherry tomatoes for ketchup and barbecue sauce (and popping into salads and snack dishes) and a variety of hot peppers for this year’s hot sauces and hot powders.

Maybe even a few sunflowers, too? Because we need as much as we get at this point! Did I mention it’s been rainy and cloudy for 16 days?

I love the feel and scent of the earth in our gardens when it’s just been turned over. We were fortunate to have a couple of our younger cousins help this year in preparing the garden beds. We just expanded the beds, doubling the amount of garden space we have. Their help made a huge difference this year. We’ve had a wet and dreary spring, which delayed us from pulling out the remnants of last year’s crops and turning over the soil. In two days, though, they had the beds pulled and turned and we were ready to pick up our plants from a local farm to start this year’s garden.

We had been looking forward to a bumper crop of strawberries this year – and this is the year to make strawberry jam! But we’ve had a disappointment! While it has rained almost every day since we came home from our vacation, there were two or three hot and dry days while we were away. A good friend who was carrying for our little homestead made sure the indoor plants were well-watered, along with our cat, but missed the barrel of strawberries at the side of the shed, near the herb garden. We eagerly checked on the strawberry barrel, hopeful for the first of this year’s sweet fruit, and found the sun had done its damage! The young fruits were shriveled and the plants were dry and damaged.

In the few weeks since then, I’ve made a point to stop at the strawberries twice a day, check the soil for moistness and speak softly to the plants. They’ve poked back up and there are new, green leaves growing, so I’m hopeful that there will be bright, sweet berries to cover with homemade yogurt or include in tangy lemonade. If not, I might just pop what strawberries there are straight in my mouth and savor them while sitting on the grass.

My husband and I are products of the suburbs; he, from Central Maryland and me from Western New York. We met on a cold and rainy night at a warm and sunny spot (a local group of parrothead friends). From then on, I’ve made my nest with him – but I didn’t want to return to the suburbs! I had spent my post-college years living in the countryside and preferred to stay there. As luck would have it, we found an old village filled with country charm and ancient trees tucked away near Baltimore City and we knew we were home.

Why have I called our venture St. Denis Sundries? Actually, he came up with the name and I thought it was perfect. The dictionary defines “sundries” as “various small things that are not mentioned specifically.”

A little bit of this, some of that, and we have an old-fashioned country store. Denim bags over here, newly knitted socks in the corner, fresh jams, jellies and pickles on the pantry shelves and the scents of new soap and candles throughout. Maybe some candy, too, in the glass jars by the counter.

I am a cook, crafter, writer and novice village homesteader. I guess these are our sundry adventures in village homesteading and self-sufficiency.