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      Text and photographs are © by Ellen Spector Platt & Ellen Zachos, all rights reserved.

      Showing posts with label herbs. Show all posts
      Showing posts with label herbs. Show all posts

      Monday, December 10, 2012

      FLAVOR WINNER 2012

      Wasabi Arugula (Diplotaxis erucoides) received the most acclaim from family and friends of any herb, any plant I grew this year and was entirely new to me.  I got a freebie packet of seeds, sent by Renee's Garden and in my careless way, I practically threw it in a container with a row of Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena). I've grown the  Nigella for years; it's an herb that's beautiful in both the flower and pod stages, with tasty little black seeds. The Wasabi Arugula isn't pretty in any stage, but is stunning in taste, with a spicy flavor highly reminiscent of wasabi paste that come in a little green mound with your sushi platter.
      From that one pack of seeds I got my first pickings in about 5 weeks, continued to pick all summer, but left some to reseed itself, my favorite gardening activity. Treat the leaves and tiny white flowers as an herb for adding flavor to something else, not as the major part of the salad. Add a few leaves to any meat or cheese sandwich, dressing, or sauce for a zap of flavor. For poached salmon last summer, I made an oh-so-difficult dressing of plain yogurt and chopped Wasabi Arugula leaves.
      It's now December 10th and I picked some for Charlie T. just yesterday, the perfect Hanukkah gift for this fine cook. I'm hoping to have a few fresh leaves all winter, as the packet says "frost hardy". I expect a crop in spring from the dropped seeds, though I've already gotten a new pack of seeds for insurance.
      An advantage of this herb in city gardens is that it will grow in full sun or "partial afternoon shade"; that means for many of us that when shadows of a tall buildings start to hit our herb garden this plant will still thrive. If you cut more than you need for a meal, store the stems up to a week in a glass of water and keep cool.

      Friday, September 21, 2012


      Make a simple poached or grilled salmon, decorate the plate with fresh herbs like basil and variegated sage, thin slices of cuke or zucchini, whatever you have at the moment; cantaloupe and lemon for more color and people think you're a genius. BUT......
       Whether your basil is one of the red varieties, or green, whether you grew it or will run out and buy it at the greenmarket,
      it will soon all be gone in the NYC area. Basil wilts and blackens at the slightest hint of cold weather so wait no longer; it's time to preserve basil and all annual herbs for winter. I usually cut some of my perennial herbs at the same time to give myself a head start. Pick off any yellow or damaged leaves, and rinse thoroughly. Shake off excess water.
      In the picture above clockwise from top left, basil, stevia, thyme and mint. Allow to air-dry on a clean towel for an hour or two. Put each herb in a separate freezer bag, press out excess air, seal and label with a pen. It's hard to grab the right bag of green stuff after it's frozen. Freeze. It will be perfect until spring if you have enough to last that long, far tastier than any dried herb I've ever had. It will however be limp and not too pretty, so don't expect to decorate your salmon filets with frozen herbs unless well chopped.

      Saturday, October 29, 2011


      Not exactly local foods, but at least local herbs flowers that I planted. Three floors up on the 18th floor roof garden, the "pinch an inch" herb garden that I tend each year for my building offered me a gorgeous array, even on Oct. 29. I had promised I wouldn't 'fuss' if I cooked instead of us four going to one of the 54 restaurants within a 3 block radius of my home. The rinsed thyme leaves flavor the vegetable soup I made with canned chicken stock and the wilted remains of onion, garlic, carrot, celery, and parsnip languishing in my veg bin. Snipped chives will grace the mashed butternut squash. I'll mince perfect parsley atop the chicken thighs baked with honey, mustard and fresh ginger. Plain baked potatoes or buttered noodles will accompany the main course. Ben will use the mint in his favorite mocktail, the Platonic, made with pineapple juice and tonic. The dessert comes straight from my freezer: bread pudding that I had made in quantity the last time my collage group was here, paired with blueberry/plum sauce made with lavender buds, also from the pinch-an-inch herb display. I couldn't resist two hydrangea branches at peak and threw in some greenery to welcome our friends tonight in the first snow of the season.

      Sunday, July 17, 2011


      Three daylily flowers, picked in the morning, rinsed carefully because the petals are crisp and crack easily, refrigerated until later that same day for a special treat. Remove stamens and pistil before rinsing.
      Place gingerly in crystal stemware, scoop in some raspberry or strawberry sorbet, and top with minced red basil, plus more for garnish. Oohs and Aahs. you're a genius, and such hard work!Use wild or cultivated flowers, ones that you're sure haven't been sprayed, and nothing from the roadside where they've been absorbing exhaust fumes. Daylily flowers are edible though some varieties are more flavorful than others. Usually the aroma will guide you to the best flavors.
      Basil and fruit sorbet is a tasty combination.
      Yesterday in the New York Times Magazine my favorite food writer Mark Bittman showed recipes for ice pops with various herbs and flavorings. I've been doing this for years, sometimes for kids using paper or plastic cups, and sticking a plastic spoon in the sorbet after it's semi-frozen. Here Lucy extracts a watermelon pop from a plastic cup after holding her hands around the outside for a few seconds to release the ice.

      The watermelon was going begging in our house because it was not flavorful. So we cut it off the rind and in chunks, whipped it briefly in the food processor with added sugar, lemon juice and a grind of pepper and poured it into plastic cups. Also resurrect other fruits like limp strawberries or mealy peaches, adding water in the same quantity as fruit.

      Hey Lucy, she likes it!

      Wednesday, July 13, 2011


      Some years my herb garden looks splendid, some years pretty pathetic, but regardless of the esthetics, it supplies me with enough fresh herbs for cooking dinner (almost) every night and for showing off at parties. Above, guacamole with avocado pit that's supposed to keep the flesh from turning brown, a starling contrast in color and texture to the creamy green spread. Sage, dill flowers and self-sown calendula from my all-container garden decorate the plate, transforming this store-bought staple. (Double or triple click on any image to enlarge.) Fresh corn and mango salsa receives a decoration of cilantro flowers which I needed to pick to keep the plant producing leaves. If you allow the plant to form and drop seeds, it's work is done and it dies. I'm multitasking here, pruning the plant and making the salsa look more enticing.
      Below, more of my herb garden.
      Top and bottom photos © Alan & Linda Detrick all rights reserved, Ellen Spector Platt design.

      Wednesday, September 15, 2010


      Part of Jen Platt Hopkins 2010 garlic crop drying in her shed.

      May I brag?
      Daughter Jen has won a blue ribbon for the second year at the New Hampshire State Fair for her "Plate of Garlic". Each entrant must offer five (and only five) bulbs on a paper plate for the judging. Jen's garlic is both sweet an pungent, though the judges work only from appearance, not taste! Jen harvesting garlic in her garden surrounded by deer fence.

      Jen grows vegetables, herbs and cut flowers in her Zone 4, Canterbury NH garden. It's a place where I weed for hours on end, surrounded by her lovelies and their delicious scents, away from my daily air of Manhattan. She grows stiff-neck garlic ( Allium sativum ophioscorodon, short name ophio, or top-set garlic) This species sends up a hard flower stalk that makes a tight loop at the top of the stem in some varieties, then forms a capsule at the tip holding tiny bulbils. The bulbils, about the size of a grain of wheat can be saved and planted. They take three years in the ground before they are big enough to dig for home use.

      Stiff or soft?
      Stiff-neck garlic is thought to be tastier than soft-neck varieties (Allium sativum), though it doesn't store as well, only 3-6 months so doesn't appear in your supermarket. The stiff-necked is also thought to be medicinally much more potent. The soft-neck garlic doesn't tolerate cold well and is usually restricted to southern gardens; but a few varieties have been adapted to colder regions. Its used for garlic braids because the stems are soft.

      Just wait til next year
      A superb characteristic of garlic is that the grower can set aside a small portion of the crop each year (called 'seed garlic') for next year's planting. Jen keeps big blemish-free bulbs for her 'seeds', harvesting in July, then planting in mid to late October after a light frost. After pulling from the ground bulbs are cleaned, then hung in an airy, dark place to dry. Before planting, cloves are carefully separated from the stem, but NOT peeled. Each bulb will produce 6-8 large cloves. Tiny cloves are used in cooking and not replanted.
      Jen's first garlic came from a nearby farm, now defunct, and she's been saving her own seed garden for seven years. Friends Mary & Paul down the dirt road in Canterbury grow fruits and vegetables for their daily use. Mary stores her seed garlic by threading it through the slats of a wooden crate. (below)
      To Eat or Admire?
      Not only did Jen win first prize for her 'Plate of Garlic' but in 2008 she also won a blue ribbon in the category: "Dried Herbs, decorative", with a swag of stiff-neck garlic, calendula, sumac seed heads and chive flowers.It's the-same-but-different from the stiff-neck garlic swag that I created for my book 'Garlic, Onions & Other Alliums', by Ellen Spector Platt, Stackpole Books, 2003. Mine included three varieties of hot peppers, bay leaf, and sage, the idea being to use whatever herbs you have at hand with the stiff stems of the garlic providing the structure, and everything else being wrapped in bunches with wire to the garlic. What's the garlic equivalent of 'the apple doesn't fall far from the tree'?
      To learn all about garlic and other alliums, see my book, above.

      Wednesday, April 14, 2010

      herbs make you happy (and pak choi doesn't hurt)

      Sometimes life is tough. There isn't enough time in the day, deadlines loom, responsibilities seem overwhelming. What do you do? Take a deep breath and get to work.

      This morning my task was a true tonic: planting herbs and a few edibles for two clients who have just recently become interested in growing food. We started slowly last year with a few tomatoes and this spring I've added lettuce, some spicy purple pak choi,

      and "Bull's Blood" beets.

      These plants look as good as they taste, and add color, shape, and texture to any container.

      It's too early for hot weather crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, but greens are perfectly happy with night time temps in the 40's. Peas also thrive in cooler temperatures and will soon be wrapping their grasping tendrils all along that terrace railing.

      Similarly, it's too early to plant sweet basil, but rosemary, dill, lovage, and sage are happy happy happy.

      And after a morning in the garden, so am I.

      Thursday, March 25, 2010


      At the top of my peeve list must be neighborhood stores, garden centers, and even the vaunted Greenmarket at Union Square where vendors sell tender crops like tomatoes and basil weeks before the last frost date.(double-click on any image to enlarge) What are they thinking? Where will these plants languish before they're planted by the gardener? Surely people aren't buying for their windowsill herb garden or their indoor hydroponic farm.
      OK, I admit
      that I planted
      my pansies
      March 15th this
      year, but I
      know that a
      little frost,
      even snow
      won't hurt
      them too
      much. Plant
      your sage,
      chives and
      thyme if you
      want to, any-
      thing peren-
      nial, but the
      vendors pictured top and below are complicit in garden failure. I can only think it's a way to get a second sale when the first plant fails in the cold weather. The Channel 1 meteorologist is predicting possible frost tonight. It's still March folks. Don't sell basil yet! (above right, ESP and her pansy 'hangover')2. For a consulting project, I've been thinking a lot about failure lately, and the roll it plays in the life of the novice gardener. I used to read some of those gorgeous gardening books by famous British writers, thinking I should be able to produce a similar garden. Well, the heat and humidity of a Philadelphia summer, not to mention the freezing winters, didn't exactly match a climate like Gloucestershire, England, and no publisher exactly made that clear. In fact the opposite. Gardeners from England and their publishers often imply that we could and should be doing what they do; another opportunity for failure, when a novice gardener doesn't know enough to even ask the climate questions.
      3. A third opportunity for failure is offered by garden catalogs showing macro photos of tiny blossoms without showing the flower in a larger context. A buyer purchases a plant like the one above expecting it to be loaded with 6" blossoms, then must face the reality of 1/2" blossoms. It happened to with witch hazel. I read the description, saw the huge blossoms, and was later astounded by the discrepancies with what I got: small blossom on a shrub that held over its dead leaves from fall. (see above) Whose failure is that? Certainly not the novice gardener?

      4. My fourth and last peeve (at least for now) are the plantings in the islands of upper Park Ave. I've heard that a special trust exists to support these plantings. Season after season there's a stage set of one type of flower, tulips in spring, begonias in summer for example. While I admit that the taxis and traffic lights make excellent foils for the color of the tulips, could we have some imagination please? An actual garden instead of floral theater?Now that I've confessed my current top four peeves, please write in your pet gardening peeves. You'll feel better for it.

      Below, mid spring as I like it, at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 4/19/09.

      Sunday, November 8, 2009


      Sorrel Pesto Appetizer

      This low fat appetizer is like a crustless quiche, served warm or at room temperature. The sorrel has a lemony taste, and is easy to grow as a garden perennial.

      2 ½ cups nonfat cottage cheese

      4 cups sorrel leaves, washed and spun dry*

      8 ounces low-fat cream cheese cut in pieces

      1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

      2 large eggs

      2 cloves minced garlic

      4 teaspoons chopped fresh basil

      ½ cup pine nuts

      Salt and pepper to taste

      *substitute a pack of frozen chopped spinach if no sorrel is available: pre-cook and drain in the same way as below. Still very good but missing that lemony zing.

      Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Chop sorrel leaves. Drop in boiling salt water for a minute. Drain well in a strainer, squeeze out additional liquid by hand, and pat dry with a paper towel. Let cool. Drain cottage cheese in the strainer and press out excess liquid. Put all ingredients except pine nuts in food processor and blend until smooth. Then mix in pine nuts and adjust seasoning.

      Bake in a buttered 9” round pan for about an hour, until lightly brown on top. Let cool. Cut in wedges. Serves 12 as an appetizer, 8 for lunch.

      Garnish with small fresh sorrel leaves, cherry tomatoes both red and yellow, extra pine nuts if you have them and extra pine nuts.

      Lemon Loaf Lavandula

      Not all lavender has the same great flavor. Some species taste like camphor. For cooking use any variety of Lavandula angustifolia, sometimes called English lavender. If you don't grow your own and are buying dried lavender buds, make sure it's 'culinary grade' not just anything they have lying around a cosmetics chain store.

      For the cake:

      1/3 cup butter

      1 cup sugar

      2 eggs

      1 tablespoon grated lemon rind

      1 teaspoon dried lavender buds, or two teaspoons fresh lavender buds (off the stem, no leaves)

      2 1/2 cups sifted flour

      1 tablespoon baking powder

      1/2 teaspoon salt

      1 cup milk

      Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9-by-f-by-3-inch loaf pan. Cream the butter and sugar until soft. Add the eggs one at a time until smooth; add the rind. Pinch the lavender with your fingers to release more oils and add to the mixture. Combine flour, baking powder and salt, mixing lightly with a spoon. Add the dry ingredients and milk to the creamed mixture, alternating in two or three pours. Bake for about an hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. While the cake is baking make this glaze.

      For the glaze

      1/2 cup sugar

      1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

      1/2 teaspoon dried lavender buds or one teaspoon fresh buds

      1 tablespoon grated lemon rind

      1/4 to 1/2 cup Grand Marnier liqueur a delicious option

      Mix all ingredients in a small saucepan, pinching the lavender buds with fingers before adding. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from stove.

      When the cake comes out of the oven, let cool for about 10 minutes, turn out of the pan and place on a plate, right side up. Prick the top with a fork in several places and pour the glaze over the loaf letting it absorb slowly. Let the cake cool before slicing. Pass any extra glaze in a small pitcher when serving the slices.

      Tangy Herb Cheese

      Line a strainer or colander with rinsed cheesecloth, or if you don't have that, position several drip coffee filters inside. Spoon unflavored yogurt in the filters or cheesecloth. Place the colander on a deep dish, cover loosely with wax paper, refrigerate, and let the yogurt drain for eight hours or overnight. Put the drained yogurt in a container and add 1 to 2 tablespoons of your favorite finely chopped fresh herbs like thyme, rosemary and chives. Spread on crackers, celery or cucumber slices.

      Tuesday, October 13, 2009


      © Alan & Linda Detrick, Ellen Spector Platt design.

      I grow culinary herbs on our condo rooftop and make them available to everyone in the building. Fortunately for my selfish needs, 95% of the residents don’t seem to cook, or don’t like fresh herbs, so there’s plenty for the few of us who do.

      I usually have old favorites like basil, thyme, rosemary, lavender, cilantro, dill, mint, perilla, calendula and anise hyssop but the collection varies from year to year and I’m always excited to try a new taste. This year I NEEDED Stevia rebaudiana, commonly called honey leaf, candy leaf, sweet leaf, or sweet herb, and I planted two 4" pots in larger containers.

      When I nibbled a leaf in
      May, I wondered what
      the excitement was
      about. I’d read that
      stevia is 200 to 300
      times sweeter than
      sugar, and this leaf
      had just a tinge of
      sweetness.But by late
      September, when tiny
      white blooms appeared
      and the leaves were
      ready to harvest,
      they were infinitely

      Right, stevia and thyme

      In the garden stevia is
      not a pretty plant;
      leaves and flowers are
      quite undistinguished. It grows as a small shrub with shallow roots, native to tropical and subtropical regions of South America like Paraguay & Brazil but it won’t winter over here. Plant after soil has warmed, in New York City, late May or early June, in an area with excellent drainage.

      To harvest I cut all
      the stems from one
      plant, rinsed them
      off and hung them
      to dry. I’ll save them
      for a lecture/demo,
      so audience mem-
      bers can taste my
      organically grown
      herb. The other
      plant I dug up
      and placed in a pot
      on my sunny office
      window. I could have
      saved the plant by
      taking cuttings, but
      not this time around.

      The leaves are the
      sweetest part: stems
      and veins contain
      some bitterness.
      Stevia is reported to
      have no carbs and
      no calories because
      the sweetening mol-
      ecule can’t be ab-
      sorbed by the intes-
      tines. Many think it
      reduces blood
      pressure, is a diuretic
      and is useful for dia-
      betics as a natural
      sweetener. There are
      some vague indica-
      tions that stevia may
      reduce fertility, which
      in my Grandma years,
      is not something I’m
      personally concerned

      In health food stores
      it’s sold bagged as dried leaves, chopped into powder or crystallized,
      as an herbal supplement. Sweetness depends on the concentration so recipes are hard to figure.

      Above: Stevia hanging to dry in my NYC closet, with peonies, lavender, goldenrod, etc..

      Try a crushed fresh leaf or two in a pitcher of fresh lemonade or iced tea. To sweeten hot tea or coffee, brew along with the tea leaves or coffee grounds.

      Buy stevia in spring at your favorite nursery or on-line from an herb grower like my favorite, Well-Sweep Herb Farm in Port Murray, New Jersey.

      Now if I can only stop myself from reaching out and nibbling on the sweet stuff every day I might have a plant left come spring.

      Sunday, September 27, 2009


      Where have all the flowers gone? On a birthday cake, most everyone.
      In New York City roses will be blooming for another month or more. Take advantage.

      Take any dessert, homemade or from a bakery, and add fabulous touches like chocolate rose leaves and edible flowers and herbs. Growing roses organically in my all-container roof-top garden, I have materials at my fingertips from May to November.
      Visitors Annabelle & Lucy decorated this cake for Annabelle's 8th birthday. We made the cake and icing together. I picked the materials with them to make sure we chose only edibles. The girls made the chocolate leaves and placed them and all the flowers on the cake.
      In addition to the chocolate leaves we used roses and rose petals, calendula petals, pansies, small marigolds, borage flowers, lavender, rose geranium leaves, and mint leaves.
      What You Need
      4 ounces semi-sweet or milk chocolate
      15 leaves from a rose bush or other non-poisonous shrub. The leaves should be dark green, leathery, mature leaves not the lighter green new leaves.
      Look for medium sized leaves with nice thick veins. Keep a little stem on the each leaf. This will be your handle.
      butter knife
      Wax paper and paper towels
      Dinner knife

      What You DoRinse the leaves quickly and pat them totally dry with a paper towel.
      Unwrap the chocolate break or chop into pieces and melt it in a microwaveable bowl on high for one minute. Stir and if not fully melted return for 30 seconds more. Let the chocolate cool off for one minute. Never get water drops anywhere near melting chocolate.
      Put a piece of wax paper on the bottom of the tray.
      Turn the leaves bottom side up, so the veins of the leaves stand out more. Hold the leaf at the stem end.
      Dip butter knife in the melted chocolate and cover the bottom side only with chocolate. Don’t cover the sides or the stem at all. When you finish coating each leaf put it on the tray, chocolate side up and let it chill in the refrigerator for an hour or more.When the chocolate is firm, turn over a leaf, grab the stem and peel the green leaf back back. Use a clean knife in the other hand to steady the leaf as you're peeling.
      IMPORTANT TIPS: Make the coat of chocolate about 1/8 of an inch thick or more. If it’s too thin the chocolate will crack when you try to peel off the leaf. Handle the chocolate leaf with a knife as you place it on the cake. Heat from fingers will quickly melt the chocolate. Place on the cake, good side up, the impression of the veins showing.The proud birthday girl with "the most beautiful cake I ever saw".

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