Stevia

Stevia

The herb garden is a place where tradition rules — the same plants having been grown for hundreds of years — so it is surprising how rapidly Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) has earned a place there. When I first started gardening, it was unheard of and only a few years ago I had to buy a plant by mail order. Now it is commonly available in garden centers, where it is sometimes sold under the name Sweet Leaf. This meteoric rise (by the standards of the herb garden) has come about because it has a unique and intensely sweet flavor unlike any other common plant. This sweetness is due to several chemicals (mainly stevioside and rebaudioside) which are 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, but don’t contain any calories.

This South American herb is a tender perennial and my garden in zone 9 is close to its limit for cold hardiness. Plants usually survive the winter here, though a particularly cold winter would probably kill it off. In colder climates it can be brought inside for the winter and will survive as a houseplant if kept in a sunny place. You might also leave it outside until it dies back and then put it in a cool garage where it will stay dormant for the winter.

Stevia can be grown from seed and is sometimes grown as an annual, but superior strains must be propagated vegetatively. It can be grown from cuttings fairly easily, but I find it is best to divide the plants in spring when they first start to emerge. These break up into separate plants very easily and grow quite rapidly.

This is a tropical plant and requires short days to flower, so in northern areas it only flowers late in the year. It often produces seed abundantly, but it is only worth saving seed that is black or dark brown, as lighter colored seed isn’t usually viable.

A Stevia leaf is 300 times sweeter than sugar and can be used as a sweetener in a variety of ways. To use in baking you simply dry the leaves and crush them to a powder. A large tablespoon of powder is equal to a cup of sugar.

Stevia is most often used to sweeten herbal tea. You can add a couple of leaves to a cup, but the sweetness doesn’t seem to come out very well. A better way is to steep a quarter cup of powder in a cup of water for 24 hours. Keep the liquid in the fridge and use as much as needed for tea.

My children roll up a leaf of stevia in a couple of leaves of spearmint to make a natural candy and I have started doing the same thing.

There was once some controversy about the safety of Stevia, with some claiming that various constituents were toxic. As a result it was banned from use as a food additive in the USA and Europe for a long time (though it could be bought as a food supplement). These concerns have now been largely dispelled and it is undoubtedly less toxic than approved artificial sweeteners. It has been suggested that previous bans were promoted by manufacturers of more toxic artificial sweeteners (hard to believe, I know). Now that Coca Cola/Cargill and Pepsi have developed Stevia sweeteners, it has been approved for use. If you Google “Why was Stevia banned” you can read the whole sorry story.

Stevia is now available to add to your garden. You can find it by browsing under Herbs:

Savory Blueberry Basil Sauce

Savory Blueberry Basil Sauce

July is National Blueberry Month, and we’re celebrating with lots of information and recipes.

I just can’t get enough blueberries this season. I’ve been eating them in muffins, pancakes, and scones. They’ve found their way onto my morning cereal, and even into a couple of salads for lunch. And, of course, lots of them are going over ice cream.

I’ve also been trying them in other recipes. Recently, I made a delicious savory sauce to go over grilled salmon. I came up with the idea based off my go-to salmon glaze recipe made with limes and soy sauce. I tweaked it a bit to emphasize the sweetness of the blueberries, and added some basil for a delicious surprise. It’s also quite good over chicken, and even pork.

Savory Blueberry Basil Sauce
1/2 pint (about 6 ounces) of fresh blueberries
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/4 red onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons brown sugar (optional)
1 tablespoon oil

1. Heat the oil in a small saucepan. I used bacon grease, as that’s what I do most of my sautéing in, but you can easily use olive oil or butter. When the oil is hot, add onions and garlic and sauté over medium for a few minutes, until they have softened.

2. Add balsamic vinegar and chopped basil. If you berries are a bit tart, you can add brown sugar or honey. I taste the berries before I start cooking, to see how sweet they are, and decide how much, if any, sugar to use. I also taste the sauce again while it’s cooking, to be sure. Heat over medium until the liquid begins to thicken and bubble.

3. Add the blueberries and stir to mix well. Continue to heat mixture over medium. The berries will pop and release their juice. When it begins to thicken again, it’s ready to go over your salmon.

Blueberry Lavender Scones

Blueberry Lavender Scones

July is National Blueberry Month, and we’re celebrating with lots of information and recipes.

Blueberries and lavender are almost perfect partners. The sweet, juicy blueberries pair nicely with the pine-y, spicy flavor of lavender. And they both are in season at the same time, which makes it easy to come up with lots of delicious recipes.

Taking a look at our Pinterest wall, one of the most popular pins going around is a recipe for a refreshing blueberry lavender spritzer cocktail, which looks like a refreshing drink for a hot day. Another popular recipe making the rounds is for blueberry lavender ice cream, which looks sweet and rich.

While I have enjoyed the lavender cocktails and ice cream I’ve tried, I thought a blueberry lavender combination would be perfect for a cream scone. Mother Nature has cooperated, as the weather here in Northern California has been a bit cool and gray — perfect baking weather. I took my favorite scone recipe (loosely based on the Smitten Kitchen scone recipe) and added fresh blueberries and fresh lavender. You can substitute frozen berries and dried lavender quite easily. Just reduce the amount of lavender to about 2 teaspoons or so. Keep in mind that lavender, like rosemary, has quite a strong flavor, and less is often better. These scones are so light and flakey, with big, sweet berries, and just the right hint of lavender. They’re perfect with a cup of Ceylon tea.

Blueberry Lavender Cream Scones
2 cup all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lavender buds
4 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup cream
1 egg
2 tablespoons milk
sugar

1. Mix dry ingredients, including lavender. If you’re using a food processor, this should be a quick 8 or 10 pulses. I like to get the lavender buds a bit broken up, to keep from eating a whole bud while eating. If you are using unsalted butter, add the full 1/2 teaspoon. If you are using salted butter, reduce the amount to 1/4 teaspoon.

2. Add the chilled butter in small cubes so that they’re evenly distributed in the dry mixture. If you’re using a food processor, remove the lid and place them evenly around the blade. Pulse the mixture 10 or 15 times, until the mixture resembles course meal. Don’t over mix, or you run the risk of melting the butter. Transfer to a large bowl. If you’re mixing by hand, use two knives or a pastry knife to blend the butter in evenly.

3. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the cream, gently stirring it in, making sure to scrape the sides often. Once the mixture starts to come together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and very gently knead it only until the liquid is evenly distributed. Don’t over-knead, or you risk melting the butter and activating the wheat gluten. Both are disastrous to flakey scones.

4. Flatten the dough and pour the blueberries into a small mound in the center. Turn the sides of the dough up around the blueberries, trying to cover as many blueberries as possible. Gently work the dough around the berries, picking it up and turning it as necessary. Three or four turns should be enough to have worked the berries in evenly.

5. Place the dough in a greased round cake pan and evenly spread it to fill the whole pan. Chill the pan in the freezer for up to 1 hour. This will help keep the butter cool.

6. Cut the dough into 6 or 8 portions, and remove each from the pan using a knife or cake server to keep it from sticking. Place scones on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Mix together the egg and milk and brush on the tops. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake in a 425° F oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the tops start to color.

7. Allow the scones to cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm for a delicious treat. Store remaining scones in an airtight container for up to three days, or freeze immediately.

Mexican Tarragon

Mexican Tarragon

Mexican Tarragon (Tagetes lucida) is a beautiful addition to any herb garden. The leaves are often used as a tarragon substitute (hence the name), and the vibrant yellow flowers bloom well into late summer, and can perk up an otherwise drab landscape. The flowers are also known as Mexican Marigolds, and are an important symbol in the annual Día de los Muertos festivities, where they are placed on the graves of family members as ofrendas, or offerings. The flowers are often depicted in Huichol art, and are used to create a vibrant yellow dye.

The herb is a remedy of the Curanderos, who use it make a tea infusion for treating the common cold. It is also dried and burned as ceremonial incense, and as an insect repellant. But, most commonly, it is used as a spice — it has a flavor quite similar to tarragon, with a touch of anise. It adds a complimentary, savory flavor to eggs and other meat dishes.

As a plant, it is much more heat-tolerant than tarragon, and is often grown in its stead in warmer climates, where tarragon does not thrive.Although it is treated like an annual in regions with cold winters, it is really a half-hardy perennial in areas with warmer winters. The plant itself might die down, but will sprout back from the roots when the spring comes.

Mexican Tarragon is now available to add to your garden. You can find all of our available varieties by browsing under Herbs:

Anise Hyssop

Anise Hyssop

We are excited to announce the newest addition to our database — the lovely and delicious herb, Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). This native of the rugged northern plains (and much of Canada) may seem like a somewhat unlikely candidate for the refined habitat of the herb garden, but only until you taste it. The sweet and tender, anise / fennel flavored leaves are quite delicious and have become the favorite herb of my finicky 10 year old daughter. She loves it so much she eats the leaves almost as fast as they are produced, which makes her the only pest they have in my garden. This year I started a fresh batch from seed, with the intention of growing so much that I will get some too.

The sweet leaves are most often used for tea, but are also a nice addition to salads. The bright blue flowers can be added to salads as well (unlike many edible flowers, they add flavor as well as color), though individually they are quite small. This isn’t a very important medicinal herb, though the tea has been used for coughs, fevers and to “relieve a dispirited heart”.

Anise Hyssop is sometimes grown purely as an ornamental, for its bright, bold, blue flower spikes, though not to eat it too seems like a waste to me. The flowers are also very attractive to bees (it makes good honey) and other beneficial insects.

Anise Hyssop is a member of the mint family, but it spreads slowly and isn’t invasive like some of its cousins. It prefers a moist well-drained, fairly fertile soil, but is quite a tough plant and can survive less than ideal conditions. It can be grown from seed, division or cuttings. Some people report problems in getting the seed to germinate (it is sometimes said it needs light to germinate), but I have always found it pretty straightforward (maybe it just needs to be fairly fresh). The flowers produce seed easily and in the right conditions it can self-sow so readily that it might be considered a weed, if it wasn’t such a nice plant. If you don’t have children around to nibble it daily it can grow to 3 or 4 feet tall.

Anise Hyssop is now available to add to your garden. You can find all of our available varieties by browsing under Herbs:

Bay Laurel & Lemon Verbena

Bay Laurel & Lemon Verbena

When Herbs launched, 15 herbs were available to add to your garden. Now we have over 30 varieties of herbs available to browse through–with more varieties added this week. We would like to introduce Lemon Verbena and Bay Laurel to you and your Smart Gardens.

Bay Laurel

Native to the Mediterranean, the Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis) may have more stories and traditions than any other culinary herb I know of! In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he tells the story of the young Daphne turning into the Bay Laurel to escape from Apollo. Daphne is the Greek name for Bay Laurel, and the tree is also a symbol for the Greek God, Apollo. Also in Greece, to have a wreath of Bay Laurel is the highest nobility. In fact, the wreath was given as the prize during the Pythian Games, a precursor to the Olympics. It also translated over to the Romans, as a symbol for victory. Hence the words bacclaureate and post laureate, and the phrase “resting on one’s laurels.”

Show off your garden’s prosperity by adorning it with a Bay Laurel. Although this tree can get rather tall, yearly pruning and regular harvest can keep the plant small and shrub-like. In fact, Bay Laurel is commonly used as a topiary plant! If your winters are too cold to keep Bay Laurel outside, you can also grow it in a large pot, which you move indoors during the winter.

Bay Laurel is a great culinary herb, and I recommend adding it to any meat, stuffing, beans, soup, or stock you make. It has also been known for medicinal uses, such as alleviating arthritis, lowering high blood pressure. It also makes a great astringent, salve for open wounds, or oil to treat ear aches, bruises and sores.

Important Note: When cooking with whole Bay leaves, be sure to remove them before serving; they can be sharp enough to damage internal organs.

Lemon Verbena

As you may imagine, Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora) is well known for its addition of lemon flavor and scent into culinary dishes, herbal teas, adult beverages, and household cleaning products. Although it sounds similar to Lemon Balm, Lemon Verbena is much different. It is native to South America‘s Chile and Peru, while Lemon Balm is native to Europe and found along the Mediterranean. Also, Lemon Verbena requires full sun in order to grow well, while Lemon Balm can survive in partial shade. A significant difference for gardeners, is that Lemon Verbena is a shrub, and can grow as large as 10 feet tall in your backyard! While the size may be a bit intimidating, the large harvest and sweet fragrance will not have you thinking twice about it. You can also limit its growth by growing your Lemon Verbena in a pot. This method is more ideal for those with cold winters, as the plant cannot survive below 0˚ F.

Lemon Pot de Crème
* this recipe will require 6 ramekins or souffle dishes

1 cup water
14 lemon verbena leaves, 2 – 2 1/2″ long (fresh or dried works)
10 lemon peels, 1/2″ wide and 2″ long
6 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
6 egg yolks
1 tsp lemon juice

Preheat oven to 425˚ F.

In a saucepan bring water, lemon verbena and lemon peels and to a boil until it reduces by half, about 4 minutes. Whisk in sugar and boil until the mixture is now 1/3 cup. Strain out peels and leaves and return liquid to the heat. Whisk in the whipping cream.

In a separate bowl (that can take heat), whisk your eggs together. Gradually whisk in the hot mixture from saucepan. Stir in lemon juice.

Transfer mixture into 6 ramekins and cover with foil. Put ramekins into a baking sheet, at least 2″ tall on the sides. Add hot water to the baking sheet so that it rises to half the height of the ramekins. Bake until it sets, about 45 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool in the water. Transfer ramekins into refrigerator and allow to cool for 4 hours, or overnight. Serve chilled with a lemon verbena leaf for garnish.

Lemon Verbena and Bay Laurel are now available to add to your garden. You can find all of our available varieties by Browsing under Herbs:

Smart Squares

Smart Squares

The Smart Gardener Team listens very carefully to your feedback. Many of the Smart Add Ons we have, and will continue to offer, are in direct response to your remarks and comments. While keeping the basic product as clear and simple as possible, Smart Add Ons let you personalize Smart Gardener with additional functionality and content that is specific to your garden, growing conditions and interests. One of our newest Smart Add Ons, Smart Squares, was created in response to your feedback and requests for Square Foot Gardening capabilities.

Smart Squares is based on a square foot model for French intensive gardening. The Add On converts all appropriate plants to the standard Square Foot Gardening layout and measurements. In some cases where plants are grown vertically, we’ve changed plant heights and necessary structures in the Smart Garden plan. The biggest advantage to using the square foot method is growing more food in smaller spaces, but there are other benefits like using less water and less weeding.  If you have limited space for a garden, or just want an abundance of fresh garden goodies without too much extra work, this one is for you!

Echinacea

Echinacea

This unique cone-shaped flower is native to the United States, and makes a great addition to your garden. The plant produces beautiful purple-pink or yellow flowers with bright, pineapple-like capitula in the center. While many know this plant by it’s flower, it’s medicinal properties are highly concentrated in the roots–which are best harvested after the plant finishes blossoming.

Native Americans used Echinacea after observing sick or wounded elk eating the plant. The native peoples did not use it to treat colds, although they did use it for the common cold’s side-effects including coughing, sore throat, and headaches. Now Echinacea is a well-known plant to use when ill. In fact, most tea blends that are marketed to help treat the common cold include Echinacea! Now you can grow your own Echinacea, and use the harvested root to make your own tea!

Cold Prevention Tea

1 cup Spearmint, dried
1/2 cup Lemongrass, dried
1/2 cup Echinacea root, dried

Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Store loose tea in an airtight jar or tin.

When ready to make tea, scoop 1 tablespoon into a loose leaf tea cup or pot. Pour just boiled water over and allow to steep for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove strainer an enjoy. Add honey or lemon for extra flavor, and extra prevention for the cold!

Echinacea is now available to add to your garden; you can find it by Browsing under Herbs.

Oregano

Oregano

Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is an aromatic perennial that is essential to Italian and Greek cooking. It is also known as Wild Marjoram and is a close relative of Marjoram. Oregano is native to the Mediterranean, and loves full fun.  In areas with milder winters, it is grown as a perennial. In areas with colder winters, it is treated like an annual.

One of the remarkable things about oregano is its ability to compliment so many different flavors. It goes well with spicy and savory dishes, like chili and soup, as well as sweet and citrus dishes, like salads and glazes. Oregano is typically paired with basil in tomato based dishes, and is a standard in pizza sauces. In some pizza restaurants, shakers of dried oregano are found on the table next to the salt and pepper. It is also common in many Greek dishes, including the standard Greek salad, with sun dried tomatoes, feta, black olives, anchovies, and olive oil.

Lemon Garlic Oregano Dressing
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup fresh oregano, finely chopped
1 tsp lemon zest
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

Whisk together lemon juice, lemon zest, oregano, garlic, salt, pepper in a large bowl. Add the olive oil in slowly, whisking it into the mixture evenly.

This makes a wonderful, flavorful yet light salad dressing, perfect for spring vegetables.

It can also be used to dress grilled chicken, pork chops, and even fish. Oregano doesn’t keep its flavor if it is cooked for too long, so it is generally best to add it near the end of cooking. Whether grilling or roasting, simply cook the meat until it is done and then add the meat to a baking dish, cover it evenly with the dressing, and cover. Let it sit for about ten minutes, and then it is ready to serve!

Cumin

Cumin

Native to the Eastern Mediterranean, Cumin is the dried seed of the plant Cuminum cyminum that is so great it was even mentioned in the Bible (Old Testament and New Testament). Its first documented cultivation was along the Nile River Valley over 4,000 years ago by the Egyptians. Through trade and exploration cumin seeds have dispersed around the world as many people have become intrigued by the spice’s earthy, warm flavors. Spaniards are responsible for bringing cumin with them to the New World, where it is now one of the top 10 spices sold in the US.

Cumin has been seen in numerous meals from Asia to the Americas. Indian and Pakistani cuisines commonly add this aromatic spice to dishes, such as Chana Masala and Samosas. Even the popular spice blend, Garam Masala, has been known to have cumin in it from time to time. My favorite way to use cumin in the kitchen is for carne asada. Literally translating to “grilled meat,” carne asada is a common protein found in many carnicerias in Central America and taquerias in North America. Below you will find a recipe just in time for the grilling season!

Carne Asada
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
(use gloves!)
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 limes, juiced
1 large handful of cilantro, chopped leaves and
stems (stems have more flavor than leaves!)
2 tbsp white vinegar
½ tsp white sugar
½ cup olive oil
2 pounds steak, flank or skirt
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Toast cumin seed over a dry skillet on medium heat. Keep the seeds constantly moving while toasting, until slightly darker in color and more aromatic (about 1 minute). Grind cumin in a spice grinder, or in a mortar and pestle.

2. Stir in sugar, herbs, and spices to oil, vinegar, and lime juice in a large bowl or baking dish. Add some salt and pepper to taste. Pour over steak in the baking dish, or submerge steak into the bowl, making sure the steak is covered by liquid. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 – 4 hours.

3. Preheat grill to med-high heat, or high heat if cooking on a stove top–if cooking on the stove, a cast iron grill pan works best. Brush grates or pan with a little olive oil to prevent the meat from sticking.

4. Remove steak from marinade. If cooking on the stove, it’s best to remove excess marinade as it can burn and smoke easily. Sprinkle some salt and pepper on both sides of the steak, and place on the grill. Grill on both sides until medium-rare to well done, depending on your preferences.

5. Remove steak from the grill and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Cut across the grain on a diagonal to make thin strips.

Making It A Meal:
Warm tortillas for tacos or burritos. Top it off with pico de gallo with fresh cilantro and tomatoes from the garden!

Encourage creativity: have a taco night! Supply diners with tortillas, carne asada, grilled veggies (onion and zucchini are a great choice), rice, beans, salsa, guacamole, tomatoes and lettuce from the garden, queso fresco, and sour cream.