Category Archives: herbs and spices

Basil mania

Basil Mania

Bay-sil, bah-sil, whatever you call it, it’s one of the most fragrant and delicious herbs around.  High in vitamin K, basil also has some healthy properties to it’s oil which is anti-bacterial and also highly anti-inflammatory.  These properties combine to make it a very heart-healthy herb to include in your diet. Recently I went to The Arbor Gate nursery and took their Basilmania class.  Starring Chef Chris Crowder and Herbal Expert Ann Wheeler it was an information packed event.

It turns out that there are a vast number of different varieties of basil.  According to Ann there are 64 native species of basil, however we now have hundreds of varieties because it is a “promiscuous cross polinator.”  I also learned that pepper basil is the only one which does well in the shade.  Three years ago I was given a gift of pepper basil from my friend Paula and it has indeed done well on the shadier west side of my house.  Now, due to rather mild winters, it’s still going strong.  And it does indeed taste like a pepper plant.  The one basil which I was really taken with while at the nursery was the lime basil.  It is so powerfully fragrant and the leaves so deliciously citrus-y that I kept wanting to nibble at it.

In addition to talking about basil, there were demonstrations of different recipes using it.  Recipes mentioned included adding basil to tartelettes, a bellini, a vegetable mousse and more.  Here’s one recipe created by Chef Chris Crowder shared from The Arbor Gate website:

Frozen Basil Strawberry Mousse

2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup sugar plus 1/3 cup
3 cups quartered strawberries
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1  tablespoon unflavored gelatin
1/3 cup sliced strawberries, for garnish
1 tablespoon chiffonade of fresh basil, for garnish

Process the basil and the 1/2 cup sugar in a blender or small food processor and pulse until combined, stopping to scrape down the sides as needed. Place quartered strawberries in a medium bowl and sprinkle with the basil sugar. Allow the mixture to stand for 20 minutes.

Cut parchment paper into 5 long strips, about 2-inches wide and 12-inches long. Wrap one strip of parchment around the top of a 3-ounce ramekin and secure with string or tape to form a collar that extends above the top of the ramekin. Repeat with the remaining 4 strips and ramekins. Set aside.

Whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form and refrigerate until ready to use.

Combine the lemon juice with 3 tablespoons of water and the gelatin in a small bowl. Allow gelatin to soften, about 5 minutes. Place the macerated berries and sugar in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Pour mixture through a fine-mesh strainer and press to release the juices; you will need about 1 1/4 cups of the strained juice. Discard the pulp and seeds.

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine 1/4 cup of the strawberry puree and the 1/3 cup sugar over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Just before the mixture begins to boil, remove the syrup from the heat and stir in the gelatin mixture until well incorporated and dissolved.

Combine the gelatin mixture with the remaining strawberry puree in a medium bowl. Set the medium bowl inside a large bowl filled with ice water. Stir the strawberry mixture until cooled and syrupy.

Fold the reserved whipped cream into the syrup mixture, gently but thoroughly, until well incorporated and the mixture is one solid color. Fill the prepared molds with the strawberry mousse, cover, and freeze until firm, at least 4 hours.

Allow mousse to stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes before serving. Remove the parchment paper from the molds and garnish with fresh sliced strawberries and basil.

However you pronounce it (and whether you think it’s an -erb or a herb) basil is a delicious plant which definitely deserves to be made into more than just pesto.

Breakfast casserole

Crockpot Breakfast Casserole

Overnight breakfast success

I love using my crockpot for all different kind of recipes.  And really, there’s no reason not to. Crockpots are simple to use easy to clean up, and an energy-efficient way to cook. But as great as they are for dinners and snacks, breakfast is where a crock pot really rocks.
There’s nothing better than coming downstairs to a nice hot breakfast, ready and waiting. But you didn’t have to cook it. Because you made it in the crockpot. After all, if you’re willing to leave it on all day to make dinner, why not leave it on overnight to make breakfast? Especially when you’re cooking for a crowd. After all if you’ve got a house full of guests that’s the time you don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen cooking anyway. So let your crockpot do all the work and you’ll look like a kitchen star.
This casserole is a family favorite. While it takes a little bit of prep time it’s delicious and totally worth it. 
Sweet potato crockpot breakfast casserole
  1. Slow Cooker Breakfast Casserole
  2. 2 large sweet potatoes, washed and shredded
  3. 1 onion, chopped
  4. 1 bell pepper, chopped
  5. 2 cloves garlic, minced
  6. 3 tablespoon coconut oil
  7. 1 pound cooked meat - organic and preservative free
  8. 1 cup shredded cheese - we prefer white cheddar
  9. 1 dozen organic eggs
  10. 1 cup whole organic milk
  11. 1 teaspoon herbs of choice - suggestions include oregano, basil, chives, thyme, but you can use whatever you prefer
  12. 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  13. 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
  1. Grease inside of crock
  2. In a pan saute potatoes in 2 tablespoons coconut oil until starting to brown, remove and set aside
  3. In remaining 1 tablespoon of coconut oil saute onion, peppers and garlic until warmed through and starting to soften
  4. Layer in the crock 1/3 potatoes, 1/3 vegetables, 1/3 meat, 1/3 cheese, repeat layers, top layer will be cheese
  5. Mix together eggs, milk, herbs, salt and pepper
  6. Gently pour egg mixture over layers in crock
  7. Cook on low 8-10 hours (or overnight) until eggs are set
  1. Delicious served with a little salsa on top
The Ingredient Guru, Mira Dessy
For more great crockpot recipes:

Garden Update

I woke up this morning to a deliciously cool morning, breezy, sunny, birds singing, perfect garden weather.    So I took myself out into the garden for a little early morning weeding and puttering around in the dirt.  

This has been a horrible year for vegetable gardening for me.  I confess I’m a wimp.  If it’s raining or over 90 degrees I don’t like to be out there.  We didn’t get rain but we certainly had more than our fair share of extraordinarily hot days.  And we had a drought.  The end result of which is that we got peas, beans, tomatoes and hot peppers.  But the zucchini didn’t grow (I had always thought it was impossible to NOT grow zucchini — shows what an expert I am), the broccoli and sweet peppers were stunted and bitter, and many of my herbs grew so poorly that I was unable to harvest anything.  I’m afraid to try to dig the potatoes, I don’t think anything is there.

This morning however I was thrilled to see some things survived and are actually doing well.  Here in East Texas our Fall weather is mild enough that many folks refer to it as a second spring.  We are fortunate enough to have an extended mild season that allows us to grow another set of crops.  Given the hope that follows the soaking rain we had a week ago I’m recharged and ready to get back into the garden.

the cabbage is starting to recover
a baseball sized lemon – the only one on the tree

our eggplants are starting to fruit
the harrdier herbs survived: oregano, sage, chives, pepper basil, a curry plant and yarrow
our fig tree is producing a bumper second crop

Being outside made me realize how much I have been shut inside during the heat of our summer.  Yes, I went for walks and bike rides, but to just spend extended amounts of time outdoors enjoying the yard and my surroundings — didn’t happen.  I’m grateful for the cooler weather, the opportunity to be back outside and the resiliency of mother nature.

Black Bean Casserole

black beans | photo: Paul Goyette

Unfortunately this got eaten before a picture was taken so no casserole picture.  [note to self:  learn to take more photographs of food]

Over on my Facebook Fan Page I posted a Meatless Monday menu of black bean casserole, roasted asparagus, spring onions, cauliflower and cauliflower greens.  It was a delicious dinner.  I received a request for the recipe and decided to post it over here at the blog.

I love oven roasting veggies, it’s such a simple way to put them together and really makes fabulous leftovers.  And black beans are a great flexitarian choice; they’re tasty, easy to prepare, and go well with so many different types of dishes.

Adding beans to your diet, if you don’t already eat them, is such a healthy thing to do because not only are you getting protein, you’re getting lots of fiber.  One cup of black beans provides 15 g. of fiber and 15 g. of protein.  A pretty good deal in my book.  Even better you’re also getting a lot of B vitamins, primarily thiamin and folate, plus iron, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and manganese.

This black bean casserole is one of my favorites because with the addition of the corn tortillas it makes a complete protein.  The original recipe that I developed calls for a generous sprinkling of shredded cheese on top however due to my new dietary restrictions I am avoiding cheese.  I’ve discovered that the rice cheeses and other “fake” cheeses are just too unpleasant for my palate, both in taste and texture so I’ve been feeding what I bought to the dogs (who are thrilled) and just leave out the cheese altogether.  But if you’re a cheese fan and can eat it, use about 3/4 C.

Being where we are in the growing season at the moment with tomatoes so very expensive (and my garden burned to a crisp due to drought) I’ve turned to my favorite Pomi Chopped Tomatoes which come in a box rather than a can so there is no BPA.  When tomatoes are in season and not hideously expensive I definitely prefer them and use about four in this recipe.

Black Bean Casserole

2 T. olive oil
1 large red onion chopped small
2 cloves garlic minced (more if you like lots of garlic)
2 ribs celery chopped small
1/2 of a 26 oz box of chopped tomatoes
2 cups cooked black beans
1 t. cumin
6 medium size corn tortillas cut or ripped in half
2 T. minced cilantro
1 T. lime juice
2 spring onions chopped
sea salt and pepper to taste
hot sauce (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F
Lightly grease a medium round pie dish
In a pan heat olive oil, saute onion until wilted
Add celery and garlic and saute until celery is wilted
Add black beans, tomatoes, and cumin, cook until heated through
Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste

In pie pan layer 4 corn tortilla halves with 1/3 black bean mixture
(the top layer is where the cheese goes if you’re using it)
Repeat layers ending with bean mixture
Cover and bake 30 minutes
Remove from oven, sprinkle with spring onions, cilantro and lime juice

Note:  when tomatoes are in season and I use fresh I often top this with some chopped tomato


Growing A Garden

Rosemary | photo: Nataraja

It’s been very dry here in the Eastern Piney Woods of Texas.  So dry that there are now warning signs all over town about the potential for fire hazard.  Needless to say this is not boding well for my garden.  This is our third year here and each year we do a little bit better than the year before.  But we also spend a lot of time and energy moving things around trying to find just the *right* spot on our postage stamp-sized property.  We seem to have finally found the right spot for the tomatoes and they’re producing faster than we can eat them which is a delicious thing.  If I start to get too many I make something my friend Libby calls Tomato Junk and shove it in the freezer ready to use at a moments notice for pasta dishes, salads, egg scrambles and more.

I’ve just gotten back from the store where I have purchased, yet again, a rosemary plant.  This is my fourth one of the season.  I had one last year.  It did pretty well.  We enjoyed using it in a lot of recipes, especially veggie marinades, last summer.  Then winter came.  It was a bad winter (for Texas) and many things in my yard did not make it.  One of them was that poor rosemary.  Okay, it happens.  So I went and bought another one.  For some reason it wasn’t happy where the first one was and it died.  I bought another one and moved it to the bed across the way.  That one died too.  Then I bought another one and planted it in a pot with the lavender.  The lavender is still going but the rosemary?  Yup, dead as a doornail.

So I’ve bought another one (luckily they are just $4 a pot so I can afford to keep shelling out until I get it right) and I’m really hoping this one will make it.  I’ve got a different location in mind, a little more shade, hopefully a better location and nowhere near the areas where the others have not survived.

Along the way I keep being reminded that gardening is an ever-evolving process.  Especially after learning how to garden in one area of the country and then moving to a vastly different agricultural zone and temperate climate.  Learning what plant where takes time and attention and effort.  Luckily most of what my husband and I plant in our garden seems to grow well or I probably would have given up by now.   I also like playing in the dirt and this certainly gives me an excuse to keep on doing it.  And it’s a great way to get some sunshine and fresh air, something I recommend for everyone.

Since I mentioned it, here’s the recipe for Tomato Junk.  There are no precise measurements, I just throw it all together but somehow it always works out.

Tomato Junk

a lot of very ripe tomatoes, washed, cored, peeled and quartered
a sweet onion, chopped
a clove or two of garlic, minced
a bunch of basil, minced

Using a generous amount of olive oil in the pan saute onions and garlic until the onion starts to wilt
Add tomatoes and cook until they start to break down
Add basil and cook another 5 minutes

Remove from heat, let cool and then package for the freezer in 1 cup containers

I do not add salt or pepper to this as I season it when I use it

The High Density Orchard

Indus Valley Sustainable Living Institute

Recently I visited the Indus Valley Sustainable Living Institute run by my friend Priyanka.  It was wonderful to see all the amazing things that they do there and learn about recycling and reusing on a bigger scale.  One of their tag lines is “eco-logical design.”  I love it.  What a perfect phrase and concept for living sustainably and in harmony with our environment.

While I was there I was able to see the high density orchard.  It’s amazing to see all the different fruit trees that are planted in a very small space.   They can be grown closer together in part because there is no need to plant them wide enough for commercial machinery to get through for harvesting.  There’s also no need to prune/thin to maximize production.  The trees will be shaped to make getting through the orchard and around the trees easier, but they will produce enough to be sustainable.

I was very happy to see the way the orchard was laid out.  Priyanka shared that they have 6 citrus, 3 figs, 3 persimmons, an avocado, 2 apples, 4 bananas, an olive, two pomegranates a loquat, black berries, blueberries, grapes, strawberries, and “a few more growing around here.”  Their combined orchard and vegetable garden is all in within a 1/6 acre piece of the 1.25 acres that encompass the property.

It made me realize that what we are doing with our little 1/4 acre property is just right, at least for us.  It also made me realize that yes I can have an avocado if I simply move the butterfly ginger just a pinch to the right.  Another interesting concept was that in the orchard squashes were growing in between the trees.  Priyanka told me that many times vines are encouraged to grow up the tree trunks as a means of support.  I think that’s great and plan to figure out how I can protect baby squash from the ravages of my little terrier-mix puppy and try to put some in there.

Having your own vegetables and fruit is a great way to connect with your food.  On a very basic level there is just something fabulous about picking tomatoes and basil from your own garden to toss into the pan and make a meal.

I have been using Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening for years.  It’s been great and allows me to grow a large number of vegetables in a relatively small space.  For those who don’t have a yard, container gardening can be the way to go.  There is quite a lot that can actually be grown in containers and a well done container garden is very attractive.  From Container to Kitchen, The Vegetables Gardener’s Container Bible, and Bountiful Container are all good choices to help you get started with container food and herb gardening.

Another good book is Rosalind Creasy’s Edible Landscaping.  With a lot of great information about incorporating food plants into the garden in an aesthetic and pleasing way it’s a good resource and has a lot of useful ideas for those of us (okay mostly me) who aren’t good at landscape design.

While there isn’t a similar book that is specifically focussed on growing fruit trees and bushes there are a number of books related to small scale homesteading.  These include The Backyard Homestead, Mini Farming, and The Practical Homestead. I’m going to check them out and see if there is information there that I can pass along.

In the meantime if you garden, in the yard, in a container, on your windowsill, I’d love to hear about it.

Blood Pressure

This post is for my friend Sam who wonders what foods are good for lowering blood pressure.

Hypertension is a growing concern in this country.  Especially when coupled with the unfortunate reality of  restaurants that over-salt their food.  Not only restaurants, even at home, we are overexposed.  Most of us tend to over-salt our foods, then we become addicted to that level of salt flavor.  It can take some time to readjust our palates.  A diet high in fat, sugar and sodium, but also a high stress lifestyle can all contribute to high blood pressure.  It is important to note that if you have blood pressure problems you need to let both your doctor and any nutrition professional you are working with know what you are doing.  Herbal remedies, lifestyle changes and medication all taken together can cause a drop in blood pressure.  Hypotension, blood pressure that is too low, is just as bad for you as hypertension.  A typical adult blood pressure is considered to be 120/80.

Alfalfa is an herb with a reputation for lowering blood pressure.  Other herbs believed to be beneficial for lower blood pressure include parsley, ginger root, nettle, and sage. Often taken as an infusion or a tea these should be avoided if you are on any sort of blood thinners.

Celery is an easily available food that has been recognized in Chinese medicine as being effective for lowering blood pressure.  Studies done in Western medicine appear to confirm this benefit.  Containing both potassium and sodium celery is not only a vasorelaxant it is also a diuretic helping to relieve the body of excess fluid.

Garlic is also known to be very beneficial for reducing not only blood pressure but also cholesterol.  Fresh garlic is better as the beneficial allicin is fully available when chopped or minced.  Letting the garlic sit for 5-10 minutes after cutting allows the allicin to fully develop.  Cook garlic lightly for 10-15 minutes (in other words closer to the end of the cooking time) to get full benefit.

Hibiscus tea is known to be very effective for lower blood pressure.  The dried flowers can be purchased either through health food stores or even some larger chain grocery stores.  A double-blind study published in 2009 in the Journal of Human Hypertension concluded that non-medicated hypertensive diabetic patients had a positive outcome from drinking two cups of infused tea every day for one month.  The report further stated, “This study supports the of similar studies in which antihypertensive effects have been shown for [Hibiscus sabdariffa].

Sam also wanted to know about salt.  Specifically the “fake” salt that many folks go on when they are told they can’t have table salt anymore.

That “fake” salt is usually potassium chloride.  Because it’s not sodium it’s deemed to be better for you by some medical practitioners.  I will say that if you need to avoid excess sodium I think it’s better to also avoid the potassium chlorides and look for other taste alternatives.  Adding herbals blends like no salt-seasoning mix is a great way to add flavor without the salt.

I also like using lemon juice on things like black beans or sweet potatoes where I might normally use salt.  The tangy flavor really adds a boost without the need for salt.

As to the difference between salts.  I prefer to use sea salt because table salt is typically highly processed, stripped of minerals, chemicals are added to prevent clumping, and then iodine is added back in.  Sea salt is simply dried and bottled.  No additives and all the minerals are still in there.  Sea salt does tend to have less iodine than table salt and iodine is important for our health.  Adding sea vegetables to your diet is a good way to make sure you are getting enough.  Kosher salt is a coarse salt named for the process by which it is created.  To my knowledge there are no additives and it is not stripped of minerals.  But the larger crystals limit some of the uses for it depending on the flavor profile of the dish you are making.

The average person should get from 1,500 to 2,300 mg of salt per day.  1 teaspoon has about 2,000 mg and it’s important to remember that many foods already have sodium in them so we don’t need to add much.

Aromatherapy Field Trip

Steve and I recently took a trip into Houston.  We were headed for the Museum of Natural Science but would up making a little detour before visiting the museum.  Across the street from the Museum, located at One Hermann Street, is a garden that is open to the public.  One part of the garden is an Aromatic Garden.  Filled with raised beds of mints, culinary herbs, rosemary and other aromatics it is truly a delight for the senses.

We wandered through the beds delighting in the plantings and stroking the different plants to release their scents, admiring how many different kinds of mints and basils and thymes, and more there are.  The smell, the texture, the setting all combined to make a very relaxing and delightful stroll.  I confess that my hands smelled quite delicious by the time we were done.

Next door to the Aromatic Garden is the Rose Garden.  Abounding with blooms of all sizes and colors we wandered from bed to bed exclaiming over the different colors and scents.  Some of the showiest roses had no scent at all while some were so overpoweringly perfume-y that one small sniff was more than enough.  

I could feel my blood pressure dropping and a sense of calm envelop me as we enjoyed both of these gardens.  It was a moment of mindful meditation.  Even now, thinking about them as I write I find a peaceful feeling rising forth.  Such is the power of scent and beauty that it can help us to slow down and enjoy the moment.  Not for nothing do we have the phrase “take time to smell the roses.”

While I have aromatic herbs in my garden I’m now considering adding some roses to I can recreate a small dose of the experience we had this morning for those days when I can’t get all the way into the city.  If you have a small corner of your garden available you might want to consider doing the same.

photo courtesy of Stan Shebs | Wikimedia Commons

Turmeric, The Word Of The Day

I just got back from the annual conference of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.  It was a fabulous two day event, lots of wonderful conference sessions, catching up with friends, making new ones, and great food (of course, what else would one expect at a conference of nutrition professionals).

I attended sessions on a wide range of diverse topics from “Dietary Triggers of Pain and Inflammation” to “Nutrigenomic Regulation of Adaptive Stress Response” to “Fermentation Around the World” and I was struck by the fact that one word kept coming up over and over again.  Turmeric.  It truly was THE word, not just of the day, but of the weekend.  One seminar that I took with Agnes K. Green of The Healer Within Us even referred to turmeric as a “major mojo” herb.  I think she’s right; examining all the wonderful benefits of turmeric it’s easy to see why it is gaining such popularity.

Made from the root of the Curcurma longa plant, turmeric is a power anti-inflammatory herb.  It has uses ranging from treating flatulence, colic, jaundice, and bruises to being helpful for IBS, rheumatoid arthritis, and is now being researched as a powerful anti-cancer ingredient.  High in manganese, B6, iron, and potassium it gives a pleasant kick to recipes with it’s warm, distinctive flavor.  Although most commonly thought of for curries, it goes well with many dishes, such as egg salad, rice salads, lentils, soups, pickles, and relishes.

Some folks even use turmeric to make a tea.  According to Dr. Andrew Weil, Okainawans, noted for being remarkably long lived, “drink copious quantities of turmeric tea.”  In addition to the other health benefits mentioned above studies are showing that turmeric has some effect on reducing the inflammation of brain tissue associated with Alzheimer’s.  Major mojo indeed.

Although I like turmeric and use it in my cooking, I’m beginning to believe I may not be using it nearly enough.  I’ve added the following books to my wish list:


and plan to start experimenting more in the kitchen.

If you’ve got any particularly tasty recipes that you’d like to share, please feel free to pass them along, we could all use a little more of this beneficial herb in our diet.

Be well.

photo courtesy of Sanjay Acharya | Wikimedia Commons

quinoa tabbouleh - delicious recipe

Quinoa Tabbouleh

Tabbouleh is a Middle Eastern salad dish; it makes a great meal when paired with falafel (fried chickpea patties), dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), hummus and other Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food items. It’s primary ingredient is cracked bulgur wheat, something that is not allowed for those who cannot eat gluten. In order to make a version of tabbouleh that would be suitable for a gluten free diet I’ve substituted quinoa as the base.

Quinoa is a gluten free grain.  Actually it’s a pseudo-grain.  Quinoa has a lot of fiber, and is high in B vitamins, calcium and iron. It also has balanced amino acids which gives it a good protein profile. Before you use quinoa you’ll need to wash it (unless you buy pre-washed).  This is because the outer coating has saponins on it. If they don’t get washed off they will make the quinoa taste soapy. When cooking quinoa the ratio is pretty much the same as rice, two cups of water to one cup of grain, simmered for 14-18 minutes.

Most tabbouleh is made with parsley and mint.  In this recipe I exchanged the mint for cilantro which makes a delicious change and gives it a bit of a kick.  Rich in phytonutrients, fiber, iron and magnesium the cilantro adds even more to the nutrient profile of this recipe.

This is one of my family’s favorite summertime recipes.  Easy to make it’s delicious as a side dish or it makes a great part of a composed salad plate.


Quinoa Tabbouleh
  1. 2 C. cooked quinoa
  2. 1 C. finely minced cilantro
  3. ½ C. minced parsley
  4. 1 clove garlic minced
  5. 1 t. sea salt
  6. 1 C. cherry tomatoes – halved
  7. 1 red pepper, small dice
  8. 3 scallions, mostly white part, minced
  9. 3 T. fresh lemon juice
  10. 2 T. olive oil
  11. ¼ C. pine nuts
  1. Mix all ingredients together
  2. Stir well
  3. Add fresh ground pepper to the top
  4. Enjoy!
The Ingredient Guru, Mira Dessy