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Week of January 29, 2010

Starting an Herb Garden

Having access to a small herb garden can be as simple as having a nice large squatty pot just outside your kitchen door containing a few of your favorite herbs like sweet basil, purple leaf basil, chives and flat leaf parsley.

Your food preference tastes should dictate what you would like to grow. Two favorites that almost everyone would agree upon are parsley and chives. Their mild flavors are very versatile and can be used in any variety of cuisine.

Perhaps you want your mini garden within arms reach of your cooking area. All you have to do is design a window box or group of planters for your kitchen. When creating this mini herb garden, decide where your box will be located.

The amount of sun that you get in the chosen window will dictate which herbs to select. Both southern and western exposures are generally sunny and hot. Good choices are are thyme, coriander, French lavender, bay laurel, basil, lemon verbena, dill, parsley, chives, sage and rosemary. A nice combination of both upright and trailing herbs is attractive, so consider adding creeping thymes or oregano or to you mini garden for a little eye appeal.

Northern and eastern exposures will provide more shade and are not as warm. Shade loving plants that will work nice here include parsley, spearmint, peppermint, lemon balm, chives, borage, and Cuban oregano.

Fill your container(s) half full of potting soil mix with equal parts of potting soil, peat moss and vermiculite. Move and place plants until you are pleased with how the design looks. Remember to keep in mind the mature sizes of the plants and what their growth habits are. Do not place a plant that will mature at 12 inches in front of a plant that will mature no taller than 2 inches. Don't fear mixing plants together - it will not hurt anything.

Once you have settled on the placement of the plants, add potting soil to about 1 inch below the rim of the container. Tamp the soil down firmly and liberally water. Pinch back any large growth to promote thick growth.

When planning an herb garden outside, you can start modestly with a few pots on the patio or located on a bakers rack. Some herbs like sage, thyme and mint are available in different colors, so that you can make an attractive bed in various shades.

Construct the bed as close as possible to the house, so you do not neglect to gather the herbs for cooking during wet weather. Whenever possible, grow each type of herb in a separate pocket. You can actually divide the bed into distinct pockets with dwarf hedges of lavender or you can use concrete or stone pavers or stones to add a landscaped design. This way, herbs may easily be reached by footpaths and easily replaced without disturbing other plants that are nearby. Keeping plants harvested insures thick and hearty growth.

Since most herbs grow well in full sun to part shade, choose a spot for your garden that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. Make sure there is good drainage and easy accessibility

Herb Heights and Sizes:

Small: 1- 1 1/2 feet or less in diameter and less than 1 foot tall
Parsley, Chives, Cilantro, Fernleaf Dill (other dills grow to 3' tall), Cuban Basil, Thyme

Medium: 2 feet to 4 feet wide, less than 2 feet tall
Marjoram, Basils (except African Blue), Tarragon, Savory, Thyme, Chocolate Mint and Peppermint

Short but Large: 4-6 feet wide, less than 1 foot tall
Oregano, Spearmint, Orange Mint

Large: 4-6 feet wide and tall
African Blue Basil, Rosemary, Lavenders, Sages, Lemon Verbena, Pineapple Sage

Sweet Bay Laurel (This is actually a tree but it makes a great central point of interest to your herb garden (whether potted or planted in the ground). It grows very slowly but will eventually reach 15-20 feet tall.)

Week of January 22, 2010

Cooking with Fresh Herbs

When using fresh herbs in cold dishes, they should be at room temperature. When preparing a dish that requires a lengthy cooking period, you can use a small, tied bunch of fresh herb sprigs. This bundle is generally known as a bouquet garni and customarily contains parsley, bay leaf, and thyme. Herbal combinations can also be minced and added to a meal immediately upon completion of cooking, and as a garnish before serving. This French practice is referred to as fines herbes. It contains chopped fresh chervil, parsley, tarragon, and chives. This blend is good on mild flavored cuisine like salads, scrambled eggs, and dishes containing poultry and fish.

There are no hard and fast rules when cooking with fresh herbs. Start to experiment using small amounts to see what you like. Here are a few ideas that will help you get started:

  • Try not to mix two very strong herbs together. Try mixing one strong and one or more with milder flavors to complement both the stronger herb and the food.
  • Usually, the weaker the flavor of the food (like eggs), the less added herbs are required to get a nice balance of flavor.
  • Dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh, and powdered herbs are more concentrated than crumbled. Each herb is slightly different but a starting formula is: 1/4 teaspoon powdered herbs is equaled to 3/4 to 1 teaspoon crumbled or the equivalent of 2 to 4 teaspoons fresh.
  • If chopping fresh herbs, chop the leaves very fine because the more of the oils and flavor will be released.
  • Start sparingly with the amount of an herb used until you become familiar with it. The aromatic oils can be less than appetizing if too much is used.
  • Usually extended cooking times reduces the flavoring of herbs, so add fresh herbs to soups or stews about 45 minutes before completing the cooking time. For refrigerated foods such as dips, cheese, vegetables and dressings, fresh herbs should be added several hours or overnight before using. Note: Fresh Basil is an exception. If you add it to salad dressing overnight or longer, it becomes bitter.
  • For salsa, hot sauces and picante, add finely chopped fresh or dried herbs directly to the mixture.
  • Make herbal butters and cream cheeses by mixing 1 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh herbs to 1/2 cup margarine, butter, cottage cheese, low fat yogurt or cream cheese. Let it set for at least an hour to blend the flavor; then taste test on a plain cracker or a melba round. You will gain a great feel for the dimensions of what the flavor will be good with by taste testing in this manner.
  • Flavor vinegar for use in cooking and in vinaigrettes. Bruise one cup of leaves for every 2 cups of white wine or delicate vinegar. Allow to steep for two weeks.

Week of January 15, 2010

Trying to Cut Calories?

Bring on the vegetables! Delicious vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, cabbage, spinach, eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash are all high in nutrients and low in calories. Don't obliterate their healthy benefits by piling on tons of butter and salt. A light mist of olive oil and fresh herbs will enhance the vegetables' natural delicious flavors. Using a nonstick frying pan to sauté requires less oil, thus adding even fewer calories.

Looking to cut even more calories? Steam your veggies instead. Or blanche them instead for cool or room temperature recipes.

Love salads? That's great; just don't drown them in salad dressings - even low fat ones. Read the labels, there can be a lot of calories in them. Use only 1 tablespoon per serving and then toss the salad to get the same benefit of flavor from the dressing distributed over the greens.

Pass on the starches or keep to a minimum. Yes, that includes all those filling things you love like bread, pasta, potatoes and rice. If you have to choose from the four to keep you full, choose brown or wild rice or a whole grain bread (keep the servings small).

Replace meat with a tofu, vegetarian or egg white (or egg substitute) dish at least 2 or three times a week. Poach or grill your meat, fish or poultry and keep the serving size to 3 or 4 ounces per meal.

Drink plenty of water, green or black tea. If you are not big on water, try putting a little juice like lime or lemon and even a sprig of mint in your water. Pass on the sodas, even diet ones. Give up sugar for a while; if you must use a little honey or an artificial sweetener.

Make sure to include 6 ounces of low fat or fat free yogurt in your diet each day.

Portion control is your best friend if you are trying to shed some pounds. Until you feel comfortable knowing what a half cup serving or a 3 ounce serving is, measure or weigh your portions until you feel knowledgeable of what an acceptable serving size consists of.

Week of January 08, 2010

There are several varieties of Balsamic vinegar can be found in most large grocery stores varying in price from cheap to super expensive. One need not be a connoisseur to tell the difference because the difference in taste is definitely obvious.

The finest balsamic Vinegars are born in the lovely rolling hills of Modena, between the Secchia and Reno River valleys in the provincial northwest of Italy where barrels made from different woods give fine Balsamic Vinegars their unique flavor.

Balsamics are a study in balance and contrast. Sweet and sharp. Spicy and mellow. The process begins with gently crushing the wine grapes and concentrating their juice over an open flame. Then the sweet thick grape "must" is fermented once by yeast to make alcohol. Then fermented again by the "madre" culture to make the smooth and subtle sourness for which Balsamics are known.

The process of becoming vinegar occurs in wooden barrels. As the volume decreases through evaporation over the years the maturing liquor is transferred to smaller and smaller casks, each with its special blend of aromatic flavoring woods. The filled barrels are placed in the attic for ideal temperatures, hot in Summer, cold in Winter. Over years of aging, the fruit and spice and mood of the finest Balsamic emerges.

Complex flavor in fine Balsamic Vinegar comes from this long and exacting aging. A variety of woods are used including durmast, chestnut, ash, cherry and mulberry. Balsamic vinegar makers keep a secret art in the matching and blending of resinous aromatic wood staves. One taste of a truly fine Balsamic will make clear why it is worth all the effort. Balsamic Vinegar is truly in a class apart from other vinegars. Unlike the sharp tastes we usually associate with vinegar, the balsamics present a rich dark complex of sweetness and intrigue.

After having said all of this, let us return to the supermarket shelf where a full two-thirds of the brands are "imitation" balsamic vinegars that have nothing in common with the traditional balsamic vinegar. These are basically wine vinegar with added sugar and artificial flavors and colors.

Again, your best guides will be your own taste and budget. But generally speaking, a fine "tradizionale", to use sparingly, is wonderful to have on hand for special presentations, while a good quality "condimento" is excellent for every day use.

Week of January 01, 2010

Creeping Weight Gain

As January approaches, most of us once again think of New Year's resolutions if you have gained weight in the last year. As most of us grow older and our metabolic rates drop, the pounds tend to creep up on us. Before you know it, you have to buy new clothes to fit your expanding measurements.
You wonder how you could have gained another five pounds this year. You think to yourself that "I don't eat that much that is bad for me". OK, all right, you do grab a pat of butter here, a little extra mayonnaise there, a little half-and-half in your coffee . . . what can it hurt? It is such a very small amount!
Yes it may be tiny, but consistent indiscretions do finally add up. If you drink two and one half tablespoons of half-and-half distributed among your 2 or 3 cups of coffee each day, you add 50 fat laden calories a day. That does not sound like much until you realize that those 50 extra calories have blossomed into 5 extra pounds at the end of one year.

Do the math: 50 calories x 375 days in a year = 18,750 calories.

3500 excess calories are necessary to gain one pound.

18,750 divided by 3500 = 5.2 pounds.

Take a look at those consistent things that you are ingesting each and every day that adds unwanted fat and calories to your diet. Replace the half-and-half with fat free half-and-half or use 1% milk. Instead of the pat of butter on your toast, try using spreadable fruit or sugar free jam or marmalade only. Replace the mayonnaise with low fat mayonnaise or use mustard or honey mustard.
After you take a close but really honest look at what you consistently eat every day, you probably won't have to wonder where those extra fifteen pounds you have gained over the last few years have come from.


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