Mint, Mint, Mint……oils, teas, aromas…

Mint-plants

It’s summertime and the living is easy…. and your mint plants are taking over the glorious garden! What we all know about mint is that is loves to “walk”. What we mean, is that their roots, which are called “runners” are incredibly invasive and grow quickly, sprouting leaves as they grow. Thus, in a short period of weeks, your mint plant will take over your garden.

Mint is an aromatic herb plant in the Mentha genus. Mentha, the Latin word for mint, has about 20 to 30 species that are mainly found in temperate regions of the world. You can research and learn that there are hundreds of varieties of mint plants. Actually, there are in the mint family, Lamiaceae, about 250 genera and 6,700 species.   One characteristic of a mint plant, which makes them easily identifiable, is that their stems are always square. The way all grasses have round stems and sedges have triangular stems, mints will be all having square stems. I remember being taught that at a very young age by my botanist mother. Afterall, it’s such an easy character used in keying a plant. Keying a plant means that you identify the plant characteristics and by using a key, such as Gray’s Manual of Botany, you can determine the Latin names for each plant.

Mint plants love full sun and lots of water. They are hardy to Plant Zone 5. However, they can grow in almost every soil type. If you have young children, you can cut off a few sprigs of mint, put them in a clear glass of water, then see them, over a few weeks, sprout roots. Eventually, they will be long enough to plant them in soil within your outdoor garden.

Last year I was surprised to find my favorite mint, “Apple Mint” being sold a local garden nursery. It is a mint plant that has soft velvety leaves and smells delicious. Other “fuzzy” mints include Egyptian, Habek, and Pineapple mints.  It has white flowers and grows to a height of two feet. However, I soon discovered that although it grew well outdoors in the summer, in my plastic black caldron, when I brought it inside for the winter months, it died on me. I never thought you could kill a mint plant, but I did. Not enough light, not enough nourishment, and too cold. Bottom line, mint plants outdoors will take over your garden. Kept in a container, they will not!

Thus, even though you want to contain your mint plant so it does not take over your garden, be aware that you have to provide it ample sun, water, fertilizer, and warmth when you take it indoors for the winter. If you do not place inside a container, a mint plant can winter outdoors with no problem.

Mentha spicata crispa, commonly known as Curly Mint, is a curly spearmint that is excellent to be used as a garnish, or swizzle stick,  for a cool, refreshing, summer drink.

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Mint contains Vitamin A and C, and has long been known to be an herbal remedy to many cultures for many generations. I recently was reminded at a Middle Eastern restaurant that mints make a deliciousand refreshing tea. I had grown up drying fresh mint leaves and using them to make tea.

How to use mint to make a tea:

Pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 teaspoon of dried peppermint leaves, or 6 to 8 fresh leaves.  Steep for 10 minutes. Strain and cool. Enjoy 2 to 3 times per day after meals.

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Peppermint, Mentha x piperita, was discovered in 1696 growing in an English field. It was subsequently cultivated. In 1721, Peppermint was officially included in the London Pharmacopoeia. It was not until the 1790′s that mint was grown commercially for the first time in the United States in western Massachusetts. By 1812, commercial production began on a small scale in Ashfield, Massachusetts. Propagation is by cuttings, division, or most easily by a cutting of the runners. It is not by seed.

Peppermint leaves, as shown below, are harvested for their oil just as it begins flowering.   Peppermint is also defined by the high percentage of menthol in its essential oil. Most people have tasted or seen red and white candy canes at Christmas time.

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As with all mints, butterflies are attracted to these plants. The peppermint plant has pink or lilac flowers that bloom form mid- to late summer. They are arranged in a head or oblong spike and are almost all completely sterile.

Christmas FAN2009796 Candy canes

NOTE:  Never apply peppermint oil to the face of an infant or small child under the age of 5, as it may cause spasms that inhibit breathing. Also, do not give peppermint lozenges, that contain any menthol, to children under the age of 2.

Summertime BBQing is here!

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As it is already June, you probably have been using your bbq for several weeks already this summer. Whether you have a gas bbq, or a charcoal burning bbq, this method of cooking can produce a delicious dinner.  We have a small black bbq that I have on my patio. It sits waiting for a sunny day to be used.

To start my bbq, I use a kettle filled with old crinkled newspaper, plus several pieces of charcoal. Once I light the paper, the charcoal gets about ten minutes of heat, where the flames start the charcoal to kindle.  I enjoy starting my bbq this way, as I will be guaranteed to have a nice smokey flavored dinner. You see, I often put mesquite wood on top of my charcoal to add extra flavor.

The night before I want to have bbqed foods for dinner the next day, I take my fresh meat, such as chicken or lamb, and start a marinade. The trick to a great marinade are the contents, plus the amount of time you let your meat sit in it. Overnight, turning your meat in the marinade a few times, I find works best. A delicious chicken marinade that I enjoy using has the following ingredients: Olive oil;  Soy sauce;  Worcestershire sauce;  Red wine vinegar;  Lemon juice;  Dijon mustard; and  Salt and Pepper to taste.  Lemon juice can be replaced with lime juice if you choose to have a different flavor. I found the best way to have your meat tenderized is by gently rubbing your marinade over all sides of your meat, then placing it inside a clear plastic bag. This way, your marinade can penetrate directly into your meat. Thus, enhancing your bbq dinner the next day. Another trick to a great marinade is to use kiwi as your tenderizer. Peel, then cut up your kiwi fruit and place next to your meat. The longer you leave it this way, the more tender your meat will be.

If you decide to use lamb for your bbq, a delicious marinade with lemon juice, olive oil, thyme, oregano, salt, and pepper will make you wait impatiently for your bbq to be done. Even friends who do not like the taste of lamb will enjoy this marinade. You will be surprised!

For those who prefer to eat vegetables, a bbq can still be an enjoyable meal. Slice up eggplants and marinade them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper for a few hours. You then will cook them for a few minutes on each side over a medium heat bbq.  Grilled red and orange peppers marinaded with the same marinade will also complement your dinner, besides adding a beautiful bright color to your dinner.

Mushrooms placed on skewers also add another great texture and flavor to your bbq dinner. Try them! No calories to the wasteline.

Let’s plan a menu!

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Wow! What is the first thing you see when you sit down at the table in a restaurant? Besides the chair you sit on, the condiments set on the table, cutlery, and a napkin, you will probably be handed a menu by the wait staff. If you entered a fine dining restaurant, you might get a drink menu first. However, it’s still a menu!  Thus, THE MENU IS PERHAPS THE MOST critical factor in the overall success of a restaurant.

Only too often is the menu design left to the last minute when a new restaurant is being opened. Little or no money is budgeted adequately. Instead, a super expensive restaurant’s image might be tarnished when a flimsy paper, poorly designed, menu is offered.

The menu is the starting point for all planning and design of a restaurant. According to Pavesic, the author of the Restaurant Manager’s Pocket Handbook Menu Design, a well-designed menu:

(1) Serves as an effective communication, marketing, and cost-control tool.

(2) Emphasizes what the customer wants and what the restaurant prepares and serves best.

(3) Obtains the check average required to realize sales goals and bottom-line return.

(4) Utilizes staff and equipment in an efficient manner, and

(5)  Leads to more accurate forecasting of the menu sales mix.

Menu psychology is something everyone starting a restaurant needs to know. If you provide a customer with a menu that that has too many items to choose from, your customer may be unable to decide what to order. As well, you need to consider how your kitchen staff will handle  the number of items offered on your menu. If too many, the chef may run short of various menu items because they could not keep enough fresh stock on-hand.  Then your wait staff will be unable to fill customer orders. Then, your restaurant will have fewer repeat customers. Overall, if you have too many items on your menu, eventually you might not have fresh produce or products to serve.

Colorful menu designs can be a great asset to have. Graphic artists can work with the restaurant owners, often includes the chef, to create an enticing menu. So, having fewer items logically printed in order of eating, such as appetizer printed before the entrees and deserts, can help achieve success!

Food cost, quality control, and menu design all help to make a restaurant successful. The placement of items that can generate your desired check average is of great importance too.

After spending a few years working in marketing, I gained an appreciation of what is important to make your business a success. Where marketing has the “”four P’s”, consisting of Promotion, Place, Price, and Product. Pavisic created the “Seven P’s” of menu design. These are as follows:

(1)  Purchase price

(2) Portioning/packaging

(3) Positioning

(4) Promotion

(5) Product

(6) Price

(7) Place

Just remember, if you want to attract more children consider having a separate children’s menu. All the same “P’s” apply!  Enjoy….

Come listen to our June monthly culinary book club – Wed. June 4th, noon to 1 p.m.

 

Let’s get excited about herbs! Come down the the Central Library monthly book club room, located in the Locust Street Atrium, next Wednesday, June 4th, from noon to 1 p.m.  You will not be disappointed :-).    We will learn, firsthand, what herbs can be used for. How specific herbs are often grown in your garden, or on a patio garden, will also be discussed. Sometimes we do not realize that herbs do not require a large space to be thriving. I have a seen a thirty year old rosemary plant, that has always grown in a pot, sitting on the kitchen floor of my girlfriends’ home take over a huge spot.  She has had it placed in front of a huge floor to ceiling window in her apartment. Thus, the sunlight has helped it thrive over the yars.

Bring your friends and family. Come over your lunch hour. You will learn how herbs can take a simple dinner to a whole other level!

Did you know chives have purple flowers?

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Chives are often overlooked as beautiful flowers. They are the smallest members of the onion family. Their Latin name is Allium schoenoprasum. It is an perennial plant, which means that it will come back next season, even after a heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures. I grew up in an area that had freezing temperatures of minus 40 F. and our huge backyard garden had chive borders that were a foot wide. It was just amazing! Each Spring I searched for the young shoots of chives that sprouted up at the edge of our garden. I would be outside early to snip a few stems of chives for my salad.

A popular addition to cream cheese, chives provide a mild onion flavor.  They also add some great color! The stems, or scapes, of chives are cut up into quarter inch pieces. They are then sprinkled over freshly boiled potatoes, added to a fresh garden salad, and mixed into a cream cheese spread. The word, “chives”, is French meaning cive, or the Latin word cepa, meaning  onion.

Besides being a great addition to your meal, chives have insect repelling properties. If you plant them around your vegetable garden, you will find that they will help keep your other garden plants healthy.

Chives can be found in many grocery stores. If you enjoy walks, you might even see a few scapes of chives in a front lawn. Just remember, if you decide to pick from a neighbors yard, consider if they spray a pesticide. If so, I would stick to buying your chives from the grocery store, or from your new herb garden!

Lovely Lavender

 

The soothing scent of lavender wraps around the room…. native of the Mediterranean mountains and coasts, lavender is one of the most popular plants used for its fragrance. Lining lingerie drawers, stuffed inside miniature pillows, or made into a bath oil, lavender is known for it’s fragrance. It is also used for its ability to soothe and calm people, just from its scent. Interestingly, lavender is supposed to soother and calm animals as well.

A favorite purple flower, lavender comes from the Latin word lavare, which means to wash. Ancient Greeks and Romans had used lavender for perfuming sheets, in soaps, and to provide a fresh scent to washing water.  The Romans first brought lavender to England. It still grows in England today. Lavandula augustifolia, which is the English or true lavender, is the best lavender species used for eating. This lavender is much harder than the French lavender (Lavandula dentata). English lavender has  blunt, narrow, grayish-green leaves and can grow over three feet. Their small flowers are grouped in whorls of six or ten.

  English Lavender

Unlike English lavender, the French lavender (Lavandula dentata) has long, narrow, grayish green leaves. Their flowers are a rich, dark purple, and they grow only to about twelve inches tall. When planting your lavender plants, look for a sunny spot in your garden. Why? Because lavender prefers to grow in a sunny location that has light, dry, and well-drained soil.

I prefer to buy my lavender flowers for eating from a known organic food supplier. One of my favorite recipes for using lavender flowers is in a dessert. Take dates, slice them open, and stuff with a mixture of plain cream cheese with lavender flowers. Making this dessert in stages is the best method. Mix your lavender flowers into your plain cream cheese mixture and let it sit for at least three days. Then take a small knife and stuff the dates. Roll the stuffed dated in granulated sugar and let sit until ready to eat. You will be surprised to have such a quick and easy dessert ready in time for those unexpected house guests!

A final warning…. be careful how you use lavender oil. You should not eat it as lavender oil may be poisonous.

 

 

What Is Mace?

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What is mace? That is a great question to ask at a culinary trivia event. It is Myristica fragrans. It is a plant that grows in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Mace is actually the dried outer shell of a nut. It is the net-like membrane (arvil) that surrounds the shell of the nutmeg. It can be bought whole or ground.

Mace is an exotic spice with a strong nutmeg flavour, considering mace is the outer shell of nutmeg. Mace can be used whole, in soups and casseroles, with pork, veal, or sausages, or it can be used ground, for example in meat loaf, pate, or with minced beef.  It is often sprinkled on milk puddings, or used in fruit cakes. It is FDA approved as a spice and for flavoring foods. It is used in pickling, stews, and baked goods. The East Indian mace is a brighter orange in colour, and has a higher essential oil content, and richer flavour than the West Indian mace.   It is often used in herbal crafts such as in a  potpourri.

Cooking Lamb

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 In April, our monthly culinary book club discussed everything about lamb. This included how to identify the various butcher cuts of lamb so that you can walk up to a butcher and ask for a specific part of lamb. We reviewed diagrams that showed us these cuts. Very helpful to those that are new to eating lamb. As we discovered, how you cook your lamb will entice you to try new recipes.

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According to the Joy of Cooking (Rombauer. 1997), most lamb comes to market between five and seven months of age, usually weighing between 50 and 60 pounds. The smallest lambs are often referred to as milk-fed lamb. They are more tender and delicate in flavour. Mutton, is rarely available in the United States, and refers to the meat of sheep that are over two years old. Although they are similar in taste, usually more time is required for cooking. As well, there is more fat on mutton, so you will have to trim more fat off before cooking. The meat of  mutton is larger and darker in colour, and much more richer in flavour. Comparing lamb to beef, the grading of the meat is different. Lamb is graded prime, choice, and good. A higher grade of lamb will go to lamb that has a thick, well-shaped eye muscle in the loin and rib cuts. Less than 10 percent of lamb meat is graded prime. You will discover that the most popular cuts of lamb sold in the United States usually are:  leg, chops, rack, and loin.  Less tender cuts of lamb include: the shoulder, shanks, and breast. These cuts are delicious when braised or stewed until tender. I enjoy taking two lamb shanks and placing them inside a tangine, a ceramic baking dish that has two parts, an upper and lower. The upper part is like an inverted closed funnel that sits on the bottom part. By using a tangine to cook your lamb, you will discover that your meat will fall off the bone when cooked. It will be juicy and tender as well. As we discussed within our culinary group, many people have never eaten lamb, just because their families never ate lamb. Discovering from others what cut is their favourite, plus how they like to cook their lamb, is helpful to those who are venturing into new culinary territory. I grew up eating lamb during various seasons of the year. We would always enjoy a roast leg of lamb when we visited my grandparents. Served with rice and brussel sprouts, I recall enjoying this special dinner, as my mother never cooked lamb at home other than lamb chops. Of course, we grew up with homemade mint jelly that always accompanied our lamb chops. However, as I learned later in life, lamb shanks have become my favourite. Rubbed with a variety of spices (ground tumeric, ground cumin, garlic slices stuck into the meat by jabbing knife into random parts of your shank, ground coriander, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground cardamon, and salt) plus olive oil, and put inside a plastic bag overnight in the fridge, your lamb shanks will be ready for cooking the next day. I usually buy two, one per person, and place them inside my tangine. I put sliced onions and little potatoes alongside my lamb shanks, then place the tangine lid ontop. Placed into an oven that is set at 350 degrees, I usually let it cook about an hour. Using a meat thermometer, you can see when the meat is cooked. I usually take a knife and see how easily the meat falls off the bone. I prefer a pinkish meat when cooking my lamb. Mmmm….. delicious, especially when served with rice. I prefer to serve lamb shanks with brussel sprouts, or some other root vegeteble, such as parsnips or carrots. Of course, it is also complimented by any eggplant dish. You choose your favourite cut and vegetables and enjoy and expand your culinary horizons!

Eating With the Seasons

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Maddie Earnest, owner of Local Harvest and author of “Missouri Harvest – A Guide to Growers and Producers in the Show-Me State” (Published by Reedy Press : Webster University Press, 2012), presented an exciting program of how to eat local Missouri produce and products. She offered tips to eat through the seasons and to eat healthy. Bringing with her freshly picked swiss chard, Maddie advised how you can enjoy locally grown vegetables. By doing so, a home chef and reduce their vegetable costs, something that is always welcome.

During her presentation, audience members got to ask questions about what it takes to eat locally grown produce and products. They could view photos of local Missouri farms where chickens are range free.  Dining at her restaurant, customers are guaranteed fresh food. Delicious waffles with freshly picked blueberries can tempt anyone who thinks they should be skipping breakfast, to enjoy a hearty meal.

Thanks to Maddie for sharing her vast knowledge of bringing local harvest to your palate and kitchen!