Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Ode to Calendula

excerpt from May/June '13 article TEH
Marci Tsohonis

Midsummer is only a few sunrises away.   After a terminally gray winter and an unpredictable spring, I am as eager as a honey bee to begin harvesting herbs and flowers.  In just a few weeks my favorite herb flower, Calendula, will be hard to keep up with.   I celebrate using the last of my stash of dried Calendula to make Calendula Castile soap. I make this soap in honor of the summer solstice every year. Castile soap has a reputation for being “difficult” but I have never had a failed batch.  It is a mild soap, gentle enough for use on toddlers.  The Calendula petals add a beautiful, random play of color to cold process soap.  Even the heat of the gel process will not fade their color.   

 Calendula is considered a solar plant because the petals open to face the sun when the sun is out, and close up slightly towards evening or on cloudy days.  Full-on, all day sun is just what Calendula needs to thrive.  I am up with the birds every day during the growing season, dead heading our Calendula plants.  If you are growing Calendula for the first time this year, know that every one of the prolific open blooms must be picked at least every other day, or they will quickly go to seed.  However, you’ll find that Calendula is well worth the trouble.

Calendula has been loved by herbalists through the centuries as a remedy for wounds and skin conditions.  It has anti-inflammatory properties and resolves bruising beneath the skin.  Aerial parts of the plant, tinctured, are excellent first aid for wounds, preventing infection and hastening healing.  The dried petals, prepared with boiling water as a tea (and cooled), are a first rate wound wash, and soothing to scalds. 
Creams made with Calendula oil soften the skin, soothing eczema and helping to keep the skin nourished and supple.  Calendula makes a beautiful, soothing salve for chapped hands, nicks or scrapes.

When I harvest Calendula flower heads, I leave a half inch stem attached, making it easier to press the whole flower face down on a screen for drying.  As I flatten it, I gently break off the remaining stem.  If the weather is warm, the flowers should be almost weightless, dry and crispy in less than a week.  Each petal will shrink to half its width.  You’ll be able to tell when they are ready.  Once they are dry, hold the flower head and gently pull outward at the edges of the petals to remove them from the head. 
Calendula flowers dry beautifully on a rack or screen in a warm, covered, shady area when given plenty of air circulation.  I press them onto a screen in our garden shed, and leave the windows ajar to promote air flow.  A garage would work, or even a covered patio that is out of the wind.  I sometimes notice bulk Calendula flowers for sale in natural food stores, stuffed in jars every which way, in a brownish tangle.  They lack memory of the life force when handled that way.  When carefully dried, they are a joyous addition to a summer Potpourri.

NOTE!  If you see something resembling worm larvae in either the finished oil or soap, it is most likely just a Calendula seed!  Simply lift it out with tweezers or a spoon. It is easy to inadvertently pull a seed off the head when you are removing the petals. I found several the first time I made the infused oil.  The seeds are a somewhat curly, crescent moon shape.

This is my favorite method.  Fill any size jar half full of dried Calendula petals.  Pour Olive oil over the petals, filling jar to within 2 inches of the top of the jar.  A little headspace is needed as the petals will expand once they become saturated with the oil.  (an overflow is quite messy) Stir the oil and petals a few times.  Cover the top of the jar with a double layer square of cheesecloth and apply the screw band (or a rubber band) over that.  Place in a sunny, south facing windowsill for at least 6 weeks.  Stir contents daily.

Place dried Calendula petals and olive oil in a crock pot.  I suggest you use a Rheostat/Light dimmer to regulate the heat setting on your crock pot.  Alternately, take the temperature of the oil frequently, turning the crock pot on or off, to ensure the oil temperature is maintained between 100 and 110 degrees for several hours.  The crock pot method works well, though the oil will not be quite as resinous as it would be using the solar method with a longer infusion period.

I don’t use fresh infused Calendula oil in soap recipes, generally, though there is no reason you couldn’t. It is more work to make the oil, and the yield is not as good.  But this is a special oil.   Alcohol frees and dissolves the resin in Calendula, adding medicinal properties to the oil that you would not be able to access with water or plain oil alone. I’m including the recipe, while I’m up, because it makes a highly resinous, healing oil, courtesy of the late Michael Moore.  He stated that most of the Alcohol evaporates during the cook.   Some expert herbalists consider the scent from the trace of Alcohol remaining in the oil to be unpleasant.  Others swear by this method.  You’ll need to make that call for yourself.

Want to try it yourself?  Fill a food processor with cut Calendula heads.  Little bits of stem are fine to add as well.  Pour 1/8 to 1/4 cup of 100 proof Grain Alcohol over them.  Process briefly, long enough to chop the Calendula and distribute the Alcohol.  Allow to sit several hours.  Transfer ingredients to a blender.  Cover with Olive Oil.  Blend on “Chop” until Calendula is finely diced.  Scrape contents into a crock pot.  Maintain temperature of oil & herb mixture at a range of 100-110 for 8-12 hours. Strain thoroughly through Cheesecloth or old t-shirt, squeezing every last drop of this incredible oil.

TO INTENSIFY OIL COLOR: Annatto Seed (Achiote Seed) is a natural colorant that can give your soap a gorgeous yellow-orange color, just like cheese or butter. For a light to medium yellow, heat Annatto Seed and Olive Oil 1:4 in the crock pot or on low heat on the stove burner.   Upping the ratio of seed to oil will deepen the color.   What appears to be a yellow colored oil may turn to more of an orange color once the soap has been processed in the mold, especially if you allow it to gel.  For some reason, Annatto oil turns darker in soap that has gelled than in soap that hasn’t.  If you don’t allow your soap to gel, keep the Annatto seed to oil ratio on the light side.  Too much Annatto will bleed out into the lather as the soap is used.  

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Cheese "Cookies" with Herbs

While we're busily working away on the May/June issue, here's a little taste of the current issue...

Cheese Cookies with Herbs

Rita Richardson

Need an easy, go to idea for drinks or cocktails that is tasty, simple to make, freezes well?
Why not try herbal cheese cookies. 
On the spur of the moment a friend asked me to bring a "nibble" for drinks before dinner, nothing too heavy. I trolled  the Internet for a minute or two and decided on making these ultra simple cheese cookies but I also planned to "herb them up" a bit for added flavor. 
Cheese Cookies with Herbs

1/4 cup melted butter
3/4 cup flour
1 cup shredded cheese
1 dried herb like thyme, rosemary
Press a leaf of parsley, snip of chives,a frond of fresh dill into cookie dough ball
Mix the butter, flour, cheese and thyme, if using.
Form into small balls and place on a cookie sheet.
Flatten slightly with a fork.

 Add the fresh herb if you are using them now.
Chill these for one hour then bake in preheated 400 oven 15-20 minutes.
Cool or serve warm or freeze and warm as needed.

Other herb suggestions-
Mix 1 t of dried thyme or dill into the dough
Roll balls in powdered sage or minced herbes de Provence
Dust dough balls with cayenne or smoked paprika
Roll balls in grated Parmesan cheese
Make a batch of these and store in the freezer, reheat in 400 oven five to seven minutes.
Nice to have on hand and a clever take on cheese and crackers.

Editor's Note:
I made these exactly as listed and they're great.  We're big soup eaters around here, and breaking one or two of these over the top of the bowl is wonderful!  Same goes with a good salad, and for a smaller family, making these and freezing them means that there's always some great cheesy garnish around.
I also *had* to play with the recipe, because I'm wired that way.  Adding one egg and a little more flour (1/4 c) turned these into something like a super cheesy oyster cracker.  I love them both!

( With Spring right around the corner, these might be interesting with additions like minced weeds - garlic mustard, dandelion petals, nettles, or anything interesting that catches your imagination! )