Monday, August 26, 2013

Schools full of Herbivores

An herb bed at Devotion School
H erbs are some of the best foods to grow in schoolyard gardens. They’re tough enough to stand up to lots of kids interacting with them. Many of them are perennial, going dormant in the winter but then coming back as soon as it gets warm out. And a little patch of herbs goes a long way, so even at a big school every kid can have a chance to taste them.
This summer, Brookline’s school gardens are bursting with flavorful culinary herbs! Parsley, sage, rosemary and… mint, it’s all here. Lincoln has big fuzzy sage leaves growing in pots next to some of its garden beds. At Heath the basil is huge-- basking in the heat that has been melting the rest of us. Devotion’s cilantro leaves have given way to coriander seeds (did you know they’re just two names for the same plant?) that are ready to be harvested.
Herbs are also very easy to preserve , another reason that they lend themselves so well to schoolyard gardens. It can be frustrating that school starts just when the growing season is drawing to a close. Herbs are easy to dry by tying their stems together in bunches and hanging them upside down in a window for a few days.  This can be done in a classroom either to buy time before actually using the herbs or as the lesson itself. Last year I didn’t have a great window in my room, so I hung my herbs in my car window and drove around with them.
Basil grown by the Heath School
At school fresh or dried herbs can tie into all kinds of lessons. One of my favorite herb activities was simply about counting-- I was working with a kindergarten class.  We passed a mortar and pestle around the classroom. As each child took a turn grinding basil and rosemary from the garden we practiced counting out the time by 1s, 2s, 5s, and 10s. We had to make sure that no matter how we were counting, everyone’s turn was the same length. By the time everyone got a turn, we had a bright green paste. We mixed in some olive oil and everyone got a piece of bread to taste it with. At the end everyone agreed that green foods could be pretty delicious.
Herbs can support other subjects too from social studies ( people dry herbs all over the world, and early Americans did it as part of normal life ) to math and science ( how much mass does a big pile of herbs lose when it loses its water, and where did the water go?) to language arts ( can you describe the difference in taste between the fresh and dried versions of the same herb? What about between two different herbs? What kinds of descriptive words do you need to use? ).
And of course at home, both fresh and dried herbs can make for some cool refreshing summer recipes and all you need is a container to grow them. It’s not too late to pot some herbs in a window or on a deck. Then for the rest of the summer you can put basil or mint in your lemonade, snip some cilantro for your salsa , or mix up an herb yogurt dip as a healthy replacement for sour cream based spreads.

Neighbor, neighbor, cultivator, how does your garden grow? With oregano and cilantro, and lots more herbs all in a row

F rom the very first sage and basil plants nestled between geraniums in a window box at my first apartment, to the cornucopia of flavorful flowers, leaves and seeds that have taken up residence in my backyard today, herbs have been my most forgiving and dependable garden partners in wet summers and dry, hot and cool. As I impatiently wait for the first tomatoes to ripen, it is so satisfying to be able to snip a few mint leaves or a sprig or two to improve that day’s dinner: fresh-picked herbs are so unbelievably more intensely flavored than any you can buy in even the best-stocked market. And herbs air-dried in a shady corner of the house bring a touch of summer to winter dishes in a way that commercially produced dried herbs cannot. In short, herbs are the perfect plants to start an edible garden.
Herbs are incredibly easy to grow. Many are started from seed in the spring, including several of the most popular kitchen ingredients such as parsley, dill and cilantro. Sowing seeds of fast growing herbs such as cilantro in late summer in a sunny and protected location will yield a crop of delicate young leaves just as cooler air ushers in the close of the growing season. Other herbs are best bought as seedlings, including, surprisingly, chives, and can be planted any time. Basil and lemongrass can be started from supermarket cuttings - just keep in a vase until new roots appear. Or start all of your herbs from seedlings. And best of all for the busy gardener, many are perennials: mints, chives, sage, oregano, thyme and tarragon, for example, reliably reappear even after our cold winters while shiso leaf will quietly reseed itself year after year. Others, such as rosemary and lemongrass are not quite as hardy, but will cooperate if taken indoors before the first frost. Most herbs are quite undemanding as far as conditions go: they do insist on plenty of sun and resent over-watering but can tolerate many types of soil. All are as happy in pots or planters as they are in a garden plot!
Some herbs also have “special powers” in the garden. Many are said to act as natural pest deterrents. For example, planting rosemary or mint among members of the cabbage fly can help drive away the cabbage moth. And planting basil and tomatoes next to each other helps intensify the flavors in both.
Herbs are prolific and can easily yield more than you might think you know what to do with. See below for quick and easy ideas, a few more ambitious recipes, and suggestions for preserving them for later. Enjoy!

Neighbor, neighbor, cultivator, what in your garden grew? So very, very many herbs, that now I don’t know what to do!

H erbs are prolific and can easily yield more than you might think you know what to do with. They are best fresh – see below for some delicious recipe ideas - but If you have more than you can use, follow these suggestions to preserve herbs for later:
Herbs are easily dried in a light and airy place, away from direct sun. In humid weather I have been quite successful by pinning herbs between two layers of netting and hanging this pouch up near a fan.
Many herbs can also be successfully flash frozen. Clean and, if desired, chop the leaves, spread out on a small baking dish and freeze. Once frozen, quickly pour into a container and take as needed.
Some cooks also suggest freezing herbs in water in an ice cube tray.
The basil family also lends itself to freezing as a pesto base of mashed leaves and olive oil. It is best to add garlic and salt immediately before use as these ingredients tend to lose their flavor when frozen

Here are a few tried and true, quick and easy ideas for fresh herbs:
Sprinkle herbs on almost any savory dish to improve it.
Simmer lemongrass and sugar in water to make a delicate syrup and use to flavor tea or lemonade.
Add chopped lemongrass to a stir fry or braise for a delicate lemon flavor.
Crush a few mint leaves and add to a glass of cold water for a refreshing drink on a hot day.
Grind almost any herb to a paste with a little oil (and salt and garlic, if desired) to make a “pesto”, which is delicious on pasta, stirred in rice, spread on fish, added to grilled cheese sandwiches, on baked potatoes…..
snip some cilantro for your salsa ,
mix up an herb yogurt dip as a healthy replacement for sour cream based spreads.
And last, but not least, a surprising herb: tomato leaves in very small quantities ( Harold McGee, New York Times, July 28, 2009 ). Tomato leaves are toxic when eaten in large amounts, but adding two to three very young leaves to a batch of tomato sauce gives an amazing boost to the tomato flavor.
And a few more ambitious recipes :

Vegetable sushi
These handmade “rustic” sushi are fusion cooking at its best. Perfect for an informal party, they are also an ideal way to finish up odds and ends of vegetables. You can make them ahead of time, or set out all of the supplies and let diners make their own at the table. Form hand rolls from warm sushi rice (see recipe below), and top with any fresh, cooked, or pickled vegetable. Garnish with purple shiso leaf and mint as shown, or any other herbs you have on hand, and enjoy.

2 cups short-grain white rice
1 teaspoon sake, optional
For seasoned vinegar:
1 cup rice vinegar
3/8 cup sugar
1 piece konbu (kelp), about 3 or 4 inches square
2 tablespoons salt, plus a pinch
or use commercially prepared sushi vinegar.

Raw or lightly steamed or sautéed vegetables, such as radish, carrots, tomatoes, avocado, cucumber, beets

Herbs, such as shiso leaf, mint, cilantro, dill

Optional: nori (seaweed) for sushi rolls

1. Prepare seasoned vinegar: Combine vinegar, sugar and 2 tablespoons salt in a container and stir until dissolved. Add konbu and let sit about 30 minutes. Remove the konbu and let sit in a covered container for at least 2 hours and up to several days at room temperature or refrigerated. You can also use commercially prepared sushi vinegar.
2. Rinse rice with water until water runs clear. Combine with sake (if using), a pinch of salt, and 3 cups water stovetop). Bring to boil, stir well and simmer on medium-low heat, covered, until water is absorbed for 15 minutes. Remove pot from burner and let stand, undisturbed, for an additional 10 minutes.
3. Turn rice into a large bowl, and let cool until it can be handled.
4. Using a rubber spatula, a wooden paddle or spoon, gently fold seasoned vinegar into rice, a little at a time, until it is moist and sweet but still holds together well.
5. Wet your hands to form hand rolls, and garnish with toppings. Alternatively, spread rice on a sheet of nori, add toppings, roll up and slice with a very sharp knife.
Yield : Enough rice for 4 generous or 6 small portions of sushi.

Adapted from Mark Bittman, New York Times, May 5, 2010

Roasted Summer Fruit in Caramel Sauce

A deceptively easy, elegant late summer treat.
Time: 30 minutes

1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
4 ripe but firm pieces of summer fruit,
such as peaches, apricots, plums, etc.,
halved and pitted.
Sprigs of fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, lavender or mint
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Optional : 1/3 tablespoon heavy cream

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place sugar in an ovenproof skillet. Drizzle with syrup. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until mixture liquefies. Continue cooking until mixture is light caramel color. Do not overcook!
2. Place fruit on the syrup, cut side down. Top with herbs. Place in oven and bake 5 minutes, until caramel has darkened and fruit is tender but still holds its shape. Use spatula and very carefully turn fruit cut side up, return to oven and roast another 3 to 5 minutes, until edges of fruit have browned. Do not cook long enough for fruit to collapse.
3. Remove from oven. Discard herbs. Transfer fruit to serving dish or to individual plates. Lift off skins, if desired, especially from peaches, if thick.
4. Place pan on top of stove, and swirl in butter. Cook a few seconds over low heat.
5. If using, whisk in cream to make rich caramel sauce.
Pour sauce over and around fruit, and serve warm.
Yield: 4 servings.
Adapted from Tom Colicchio, the chef and an owner of Craft and Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, New York Times, August 29, 2001