Wednesday, August 30, 2006

First Distillation with the New Still

Several months ago, the Yahoo list for the magazine started talking about distillation. Tamara Hartley-Hunt helped put together a buy on stills from her friends at Heart Magic. Maggie from Prairieland Herbs has talked about how much she enjoys it for quite some time, and I've been interested ever since I read about using a pan, a brick, a bowl, and an inverted lid filled with ice. But I digress... I decided to spring for this still, and it has been sitting in the box through the move. This morning, Maggie gave me a kick in the pants and I got started. This is sure to become my latest obsession.
After figuring out the instructions for putting the thing together, the rest is fun and exciting.... well, once I got the hoses on the condenser to stop popping off and shooting water all over the kitchen.
In the shot above, the still is set to go, and in this picture it is actually turned on. The water is clear in the bottom chamber. Nothing has started to drip into the collection flask yet. What you can't see is the wet towel used to sop up the water that got all over the counter, nor can you hear my panicky phone call to my sister asking for a hand. However by the time she got here, all was under control.
Here you can see that the water is starting to boil. The condenser (the long thin tube above the green clamp) is starting to have tiny bits of steam adhere to the inside and cool from the water running inside the walls of the tube. It is something like a donut, with cool water pumped through the "donut" part. The steam comes through the "hole" part. This still came with the hot plate, and that has a heat shield on the back, where the collection takes place so that the oil and hydrosol are not exposed to the direct heat.
Now the boiling water is starting to darken. If you look at the flask under the drip spout, you'll notice that it is starting to collect some hydrosol. Inside the spout, there is a chamber where the essential oil collects. Eventually, the water turns very dark. I kept adding ice cubes to the water in the pail. Inside the pail is the pump that circulates cool water in the condenser. I was surprised how quickly the water in the pail became warm.
We filled four 2 oz. spray bottles with the hydrosol and still have a full 8 ounces in the collection bowl. It was a little surprising how much hydrosol there was. As far as the essential oil, there were probably about 30-50 drops. Maryanne put it on her arm to test it, but I (of course) tasted it. It tastes slightly different from other peppermint essential oils I've tasted. Greener and VERY nice. It all smells delightful.

The spent plant material. It probably could have cooked longer, but we decided to turn it off because we had some errands that needed to be run. I emptied them after returning to the cooled still, and was very glad that I'd followed the instructions that suggested cutting the pieces to about 1" for ease of removal.
Clean up was pretty much of a breeze. Some bottle brushes might be in my future, though.

The very next thing I did was head out to pick the Holy Basil for tonight's adventure. I've been babying that stuff all summer to keep it from flowering. Pinch, pinch, pinch. See my green thumb? Ok, well maybe it's more like brown, but that's because of the purple stems of the Holy Basil.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Sept/Oct issue is out!

The newest issue of The Essential Herbal is in the mail and should be reaching subscribers and shops right about now. We had fun putting this one together, and used the arbor of gourds that I've talked about in past posts for the cover. All of our regular writers were here, in addition to some wonderful articles from guest writers. Even Molly got an article together, talking about what it was like to grow up with an herbie for a mom.
We had to increase the size of the magazine by 4 pages this time because of all the wonderful information. 32 pages is our goal, but this time we just had to go to 36.
Below, you'll find the table of contents...

Table of Contents

~Harvest Crossword PuzzleField Notes from the Editor
~Suburban Herbie—Roots and Runners by Geri Burgert Finding depth and friends in herbs.
~Never Enough Thyme by Susanna Reppert Help With Kelp
~Fried Dandelion Flowers from Roni Palmer
~Kids Korner with Karen Lee Hegre
~The Olive Tree by Gail Faith Edwards
~Favorite Recipes Sarah Liberta Overstuffed Artichokes and Savory Herb Bread Pudding
~Horehound Lozenges, Karen Lee Hegre
~Intl. Herb Conference Report by Karen Creel Lots of news and recipes from the conference
~Making a Fresh Herbal Wreath by Mary Ellen Wilcox
~Down on the Farm– by Michele Brown Round Two and Beyond
~Gorgeous Gourds by Tina Sams How to craft with gourds
~List Article—compilation Trying New Things
~The Herbal Pantry by Susan Evans
~Marshmallow by Maureen Rogers Everything you ever wanted to know and more about this plant.
~Making Mead by Connie Nordhus Homemade Inebriants
~Growing Up Herbie by Molly Sams Reflections on growing up with an herbie mom

Monday, August 21, 2006

wandering through the day

This morning started with a fairly unpleasant visit to the auto mechanic's. On the way home I remembered that I'd brought along a camera to take pictures of the pumpkin field - and from then on, the day went more smoothly.
Every year the fields of pumpkins astound me. They are hardly even noticeable until suddenly the bright orange orbs show up from under the leaves (much like my watermelons are currently doing) and although I haven't really captured it here, it is an amazing site that seems to make me believe in Cinderella... or return briefly to childhood... or "something". It feels fanciful to see them. Exciting.
The weather is not doing them any favors this year, as it is incredibly dry. The leaves are wilted, showing the pumpkins earlier than usual. Normally, they would remain hidden for a few more weeks, and then magically appear, round and enormous.

After arriving back home and taking care of a little business, it was time to trek on down the path to my sister's to can tomatoes. Along the way, I stopped at the little water lily pond to see what was blooming today. Two different colors! I love how leathery the leaves look next to the delicate flowers.

Next stop: cannery row. All the ripe tomatoes had been gathered, and it was time to peel, trim, and cook them for canning. We started with 1 and 1/2 5-gallon buckets full, and ended with 9 quarts of delicious, beautiful tomatoes. We mix together the red and yellow tomatoes, and they look pretty together. Our family has an old "comfort food" recipe which is simply canned tomatoes with sliced hard-boiled eggs mixed in. It doesn't sound all that special, but it is really good. I know that sometime in the coming winter, I'll be cooking up some eggs and SO glad to have the tomatoes.
After cleaning up a little bit, I went outside to see if there were any new kinds of butterflies out on the bushes. This little brown guy was feasting. All the shades of tawny, tans, and brown make up a beautiful muted pattern that is made even more attractive by the sheen that the sun added.

Then, much later, after a round of bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, we went outside to find a whole colony of sphinx moths. Several of them were on the 4 o'clocks. The one I took a picture of was drinking from a cleome. These things scare me. They are twice the size of a hummingbird that was sharing the clump of 4 o'clocks with them yesterday. Not only that, but they occasionally zoom right at you - as if to scare you off. It works! A couple of flashes from the camera really gets them perturbed.

There is always something going on around here. Today Bob decided to let the chickens out for a little play time. They are fairly new, and the plan is for them to be free-range. Well, they left for the day and we have no idea where they went. Bob worried about them (after that nasty turkey incident with the neighbors) and went looking a few times during the day. In fact I knew when he stuck his head out the back door and crowed trying to lure them back, I was sure that image would never leave my mind. Just before dusk, they started to straggle in. First the rooster, then 3 of the girls. "Comby" and "Stubby" were the last of the girls to finally come home. Bob says they are grounded for a week. That'll teach 'em.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The World’s Costliest Spice – Saffron

From the Sept/Oct '05 issue of The Essential Herbal Magazine, submitted by Susanna Reppert of The Rosemary House

The World’s Costliest Spice – Saffron

2016 harvest from 50 bulbs - about a tablespoon of saffron.

Almost all cultures have included Saffron in their cuisine. From the ancient Phoenicians to the Pennsylvania Dutch, saffron has always been the most costly and desirable of the seasonings. Spanish paella or arroz con pollo, the fisherman’s bouillabaisse, Swedish saffron buns, Indian curries, African couscous, Italian rissoto, chicken potpie and gravies, fish sauces and coloring for butter and cheeses are just a few of its uses in international cookery.

Commercially cultivated in Span, saffron can be grown in all temperate climates. It is a fall blooming crocus (Crocus sativus) which is planted now to bloom next fall. The harvest is the little orange stigmas, three per flower, which accounts for its costliness. More than 200,000 stigmas , make a pound of saffron , all laboriously picked by hand.

Once the herb of only wealthy, thrifty Pennsylvania Dutch insure their supply of this distinctive seasoning by growing their own. Saffron is easily grown in any sunny well drained garden where it enjoys an occasional feeding of bonemeal and compost and soon forms a colony of little productive bulbs.

These beauties come from The Rosemary House (see website above).

Plant the corms two inches apart and three to five inches deep in average well drained soil but – a word to the wise – mark the spot!

You can sort of make out 6 horizontal rows of the crocuses waking up in fall.
The bulbs are dormant most of the time and vulnerable to over planting or inadvertent weeding.

Here it comes...
When the small lavender crocus like flowers appear (they open only in sun) harvest the orange stigmas, air dry them on a sheet of white paper and then store your precious saffron in a tightly lidded dark glass bottle.
The harvest from one morning.  The saffron harvest continues for about 2 weeks.

Used in Biblical times as seasoning, medicine and dye, in ancient Rome, Greece and the Orient Saffron was also a perfume. Aromatic, hot and pungent to the taste, today it colors cakes, and confections golden yellow or adds distinctive flavor to exotic dishes. The Arabs believed that saffron kept in the house would drive away dreaded lizards. In the middle ages, adulterers of saffron where beheaded for their crime. It has been written that Henry VIII so craved saffron that he forebade the ladies of his court to use the rare spice to dye their golden hair. The Song of Solomon provides a lyrical reference”…an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits: camphour, with spikenard, spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes. With all the chief spices: … Awake, O north wind: and come, thou South: blow upon my garden , that the spices thereof may flow out.”
Bloom that has been been harvested.

Friday, August 18, 2006

butterflies on the butterfly bush

Lately I've been noticing how many different kinds of butterflies visit the bushes outside the house that were planted for them. They dance in the fields nearby, and flutter over the mint blossoms and dill and parsley, but they love to gather for a party on the butterfly bushes. Aside from these beauties, there are monarchs starting to show up the past few days, the caterpillers of which recently dined on dill.
The little white and yellow sulphurs (I think that's what they're called) are everywhere, and tiny little azure blues that surely are often mistaken for fairies seem to love the mint. Not all of them are brave enough to be photographed, unfortunately.

At some point, I'll drag out one of my field guides and learn their names, but for now its so much fun to watch them dip, swirl, and dart around looking for nectar. Yesterday I watched a bumblebee emerge from a marshmallow flower so drenched in pollen that he could scarcely manage to fly.

There was a time when I thought only the most majestic of these bugs were really pretty, but have come to think the most mundane are equally impressive.
Hopefully I'll add to this in the days to come as more and more of these gorgeous creatures show up at the nectar "watering hole".
And thankfully (!!!!) high speed has reached my area. Moving here was easy, going back to dial-up was rough. On top of all the other things that now take forever on this "machine", blogging pictures is hit or miss, with the pictures sometimes not showing up. One more week, and I join the rest of the world again!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Moona - Moona. Makes me Luna

The fullish moon rose over the deck last night, and helped the preceeding day make sense. The day was one long comedy of errors - from the first phone call (which left me just shaking my head) ... to finding out I'd been wearing the wrong glasses for 3 days... to the final mis-communication with my daughter. We did manage to get the magazine proof approved, make four batches of soap, several deliveries, and most likely acquired a new account, but nothing went smoothly. In the long ago, barely remembered days of my youth, I spent about a year as a police dispatcher. That was when I learned that there can be no doubt that the moon does affect us. Each 28 days there would be a surge of calls from people who had lost touch with reality. It became clear that these people had no idea what their names were - much less what phase the moon was in. Growing up, the females in my family would sometimes notice that we had all slept poorly on the same night. It took us years to figure out that none of us could sleep on full moons. Guess we should have taken up howling.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Life is too good sometimes

The last few days have been pretty idyllic around here. We got the next issue of The Essential Herbal off to the printer, and it is so much fun to be able to wander off the porch and find the perfect photo to complement an article or recipe.
It is relaxing and almost timeless here. We gathered at my sister's down the hill for a supper of chicken corn soup last night, and then I came home and sat on the deck to watch what would become a spectacular sunset. It was breathtaking, and as I watched it made me think how some moments are beyond description.

We have what could be termed a communal garden. I grow the a bunch of things and most of the herbs, while they grow a bunch of other things down there. We both browse both gardens for what we need.

Today I went out to gather what needed to be picked and found that my eggplants are going nuts. Their cucumbers are almost scary in their proliferation. I don't even want to think about the tomatoes or the beans that are to come. Foolishly, I planted a few different heirloom varieties, and Bob planted about 20 Big Boys, and Yellow Boys. I planted 3 different heirloom varieties of beans and 5 or 6 different peppers. We'll cross those bridges when we get to them. The watermelons are doing great, while the honeydews have yet to set fruit. I really love this.
I went searching for recipes from friends today and this was one I got:

Sicilian Eggplant Caponata is to die for, more so if you grewup on Italian food like I did... LOL
1 lg eggplant or 2 smaller
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed (I always use more but I love garlic!)
3 celery stalks
1 can (1pound) Italian plum tomatoes (Roma)
10 large green olives, quartered and pitted
3 T pine nuts
1/4 c capers
1/4 c wine vinegar
2 T sugar
Wash eggplant. Do not peel. Cut into 1" cubes. Season with salt and pepper. Fry in heated oil until tender. Take out and set aside. Saute onion in sameoil until tender. Add garlic, celery, tomatoes and olives. Cook slowly for 10 mins. Add eggplant, pine nuts, and capers. Heat vinegar and stir in sugar. Add tovegetable mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook 5 mins longer.Serve chilled as an appetizer or relish. Makes 6 servings.
Sandi BlackKat Herbs