Monday, April 30, 2012

It's About Thyme

Thyme is a mediterranean herb that is characterized by variety. The genus Thymus contains approximately 350 species of thyme, but the one we're mostly familiar with is Thymus mongolicus (Common Thyme), which is primarily used in culinary applications. Depending on the species, thyme is a woody, perennial low-lying plant or a small, subshrub. It developed in the Mediterranean Region, in the temperate coastal regions of southern Europe and northern Africa. Humans are not the only species to use thyme as a food source; the larvae of certain butterflies and moths (Coleophora niveicostella, Coleophora serpylletorum and Coleophora struella) feed exclusively on Thymus.
Photo of Thyme provided by Andy Ciordia

In addition to being a culinary staple, thyme has incredible properties that make it a great plant for drought-tolerant gardens. One species of thyme in particular, Thymus Serpyllum, also know as Creeping or Magic Carpet Thyme, spreads along the earth as a low-lying groundcover. Groundcovers are particular helpful at increasing soil stability, moisture retention, and weed suppression. Also, Creeping Thyme is a perennial that flowers all summer and looks beautiful when it creates a bed of flowers.
Photo of Creeping Thyme provided by Andrea_44

RECIPES: Zucchini and Thyme & Green Beans with Almonds and Thyme
Thyme is used as a spice in meat and veggies dishes, and also in sauces, soups, and as a garnish. We've chosen a couple of recipes (see links below) that you can try over the summer as they are paired with seasonally appropriate vegetables. Zucchini are notoriously prolific in the summer, as are green beans. Please enjoy and let us know if you liked these recipes!

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Wise Sage

Sage, or Salvia, is the largest genus in the Lamiaceae (mint) family. There are approximately 700-900 species of sage, but the species used most often for culinary applications is referred to as garden sage or Common Sage (Salvia officinalis). Sage is identified by its green/gray leaves and blue to purple colored flowers. It is a perennial, evergreen subshrub with woody stems. It actually does originate from the Mediterranean region, but has since spread, or naturalized, all over the world. Sage is renowned for its culinary and medicinal applications. It has numerous uses in fresh and dry forms, and it it also useful as an essential oil. See Salvia Officinalis for more information.

Photo of Sage provided by feministjulie

There are several other species of sage that are useful for more than just cooking and medicinal applications. Most of the California coastline and some inland areas, particularly in the central and southern parts of the state, are home to coastal sage scrub (see map of California for locations). 'Sage scrub' is a catch-all term that encompasses several plant species, not just those in the genus Salvia. For example, the scientific name for California Sagebrush is Artemisia californica, which is outside of the genus Salvia. The most common species of Salvia that grow in the coastal sage scrub areas are Black Sage (Salvia mellifera), White Sage (Salvia apiana), and Purple Sage (Salvia leucophylla). The coastal sage scrub range has been reduced over time because of development practices. In many counties and cities, it has been given a protected status and permits are required to remove it for further development. In addition to preserving coastal sage scrub for its unique character, these plant species are protected because they provide habitat for several animal and insect species. Most notably, the California gnatcatcher is a federally-listed threatened species, and requires coastal sage scrub (critical habitat) for its survival. Other species commonly found in coastal sage scrub are: Red-Diamond Rattlesnakes, Orange-Throated Whiptails, Cactus Wrens, and Sage Sparrows (see picture below).
Photo of Sage Sparrow provided by Dominic Sherony

RECIPE: Burnt Butter and Sage Sauce (with pasta or gnocchi)

Common Sage has a strong, peppery taste that can be quite pungent and earthy. It is usually used in meat rubs, stuffings, and sauces. The recipe that we're showcasing today uses sage as the main flavorant for a burnt butter sauce, which is absolutely delicious. There are several variations of this recipe. The one from the Food Network link (provided below) includes red pepper flakes, but you can omit it if you like (check the comments to see how other chefs personalized this recipe). If you're not sure what to pair it with, I really enjoy this sauce with pumpkin or squash ravioli. Homemade potato or sweet potato gnocci is fabulous as well.

The sauce is easy make. First add the indicated amount of butter to the pan and cook on medium-high heat until it starts to brown and the aroma deepens. Then add the sage directly to the butter. The sage will immediately begin to fry and crisp up. If you are going to add gnocchi or pasta make sure you time it to finish at the same time as the sauce (it only takes a minute or two to make). Toss the pasta/gnocchi with the sauce and serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Rosemary, the Dew of the Sea

Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, is a woody, perennial herb that is part of the Lamiaceae family (aka the mint family). The name rosemary derives from the latin rosmarinus, which broken down further means ros~dew, and marinus~sea. Many contend that rosemary was given this name because it required very little water to survive and could literally sustain itself and even thrive on moist on-shore breezes.

Photo of Rosemary provided by Cinnamon Cooper

Rosemary is a plant that can grow under many climactic circumstances, however it originated in the mediterranean climates of Europe and parts of Asia. It maintains its hardiness in cool temperatures and can withstand droughts, but it is best situated in warm, mediterranean climates. Rosemary can flower year round with the proper climate; it produces petals in white, purple, and blue--these are also edible, or they can be used for garnish. Rosemary can be started from seed or you can take a cutting of an existing plant and plant it in your own backyard.

To use the cutting technique, look for a stem without flowers that is about 4-7 inches long. Clip the base of the stem at a 45 degree angle. Place the newly cut stem into a clear glass of water (if you can't submerge the stem in water right away, wrap it in a wet cloth until you can). After a week the rosemary cutting will begin to grow roots and after two weeks the roots should be long enough to replant the cutting. If your cutting does not sprout roots after 9-10 days, try taking another cutting and start from scratch. The best time to try the cutting technique is in the fall, when the stem will spend more energy developing roots as opposed to trying to produce flowers.

Rosemary is a highly aromatic herb that has many culinary properties. It has been used as a meat preservative, a flavorant, and in smoking applications (since it is rather woody). It has a very strong scent and flavor and people tend to cook or pair it with other robust flavors like red meats, mushrooms, and red wines, but rosemary has some subtler applications that many cooks can appreciate. For example, the recipe described below mixes rosemary with sugar, jam, and cream:

RECIPE: Rosemary Scones with Jam

Photo of Rosemary Scone courtesy of esimpraim

Rosemary scones are not your typical sweet and candied confection. The addition of rosemary brings a whole new layer of depth and flavoring to the scone. To achieve the subtle flavoring, make sure you chop the rosemary leaves finely and toss out any of the wooden stems. Also, you may add whatever jam you prefer to the center of the scone, but I prefer raspberry or strawberry. Here is a link to a Strawberry and Rosemary Scone recipe created by Giada de Laurentiis:


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why Didn't Basil Make Our Mediterranean Herb List?

Basil is an herb commonly used in Mediterranean cooking, however it is not necessarily an herb that is native to a Mediterranean Climate. There is a distinction that needs to be made in this regard. The region known as the Mediterranean specifically refers to the land masses that border the Mediterranean Sea, in particular the northern boundary of the Sea, which includes: France, Italy, Turkey, Greece, and several small islands. Our postings this month will refer to herbs that have developed in a Mediterranean Climate, which is characterized by hot, dry summers and short, cool winters. Although the region known as the Mediterranean is also part of a Mediterranean Climate, it is not the only global location where this climate type if found. In general, Mediterranean Climates develop on the western edges of continents because of high pressure climactic conditions. Plants that develop in these regions commonly share the characteristics described in our previous posting: they require very little water, thrive in somewhat arid conditions, and are able to withstand temperature extremes. Thus, plants that are characterized as Mediterranean Herbs did not necessarily develop in the geographic region known as the Mediterranean, but rather, they are native to the global Mediterranean Climate zones (see picture below for geographic locations).

Image of Mediterranean Climate Zones:
Basil originated from India and Southeast Asia and some contend parts of Iran. The Tropic of Cancer, the geographic line which approximates the demarcation of tropic from sub-tropic regions in the Northern Hemisphere, passes through India. Although there are several climate zones and micro-climates in India, it receives a higher average rainfall than most Mediterranean Climates (see Monsoonal climates) and is largely tropical. Similarly, Asian varieties of basil, such as Thai Basil developed in the Southeast Asia, which is predominantly composed of tropical climates.

Image of Thai Basil provided by Choking Sun
Basil was imported to the Mediterranean Region during the spice trades; some estimate that it made its way to Southern France in the 15th century. The Italians began to cultivate their own species of basil, like Genovese and Sweet basil, for culinary and medicinal applications. After several centuries of cultivation in the Mediterranean, there are now species of basil the grow abundantly in the wild. So technically, there are some species of basil that have evolved and adapted over time to grow natively in a Mediterranean Climate. However, the type of basil that you would normally purchase at at your local garden store such as Sweet or Thai basil will require more water than a typical Mediterranean plant and they are also susceptible to cold weather. But you never know...I've planted Genovese and Sweet Basil in the Inland Empire and given them very little water and they have thrived. Go figure.
Image of Sweet Basil provided by Matt Burris

Now for the part you've all been waiting for...the Pesto recipe. Regardless of basil's characterization as a Mediterranean or non-Mediterranean Herb, we can all agree that its influence on the culinary culture of the Mediterranean Region (let alone the world) has been significant. Anybody who has tried some of grandma's homemade marinara sauce or finished their plate of pesto pasta longing for seconds knows that basil is a fantastic cooking herb. I've checked out a couple of Pesto recipes online and I've decided to combine some of the better features of them with my own recipe. So here it is without further ado...

Perfect Pesto

1 Large Handful of Sweet Basil (you can use Genovese Basil as well)
1/4 cup of toasted walnuts (you can use pine nuts too, but walnuts have a higher fat content and they're yummy)
1/3 cup of freshly shaved parmesan cheese
3 cloves of fresh garlic
Salt and Pepper to taste
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (add this at the end)

-The key is to hand chop people. I know the fancy gadgetry of the modern age has made us lazy, but I promise you that the twenty minutes or so that it takes to chop everything will be worth it. Some people say that you need a special knife to do this, but I just find the biggest, sharpest blade in my drawer and go to town. The process of chopping is going to allow the essential oils of the basil, walnuts, and parmesan to erupt into an intense flavor cornucopia.
-Chop everything into small pieces, but not too fine because you want to be able to taste the individual ingredients.
-Add all of your chopped ingredients to a mixing bowl and gradually and SLOWLY pour in some extra virgin olive oil. As you pour the oil make sure to stir the mixture quickly to ensure that the small pieces suspend themselves in the oil. Remember: SLOW pour, QUICK stir.
-Now for the final tidbit of advice: try to time this process to finish at the same time that your pasta is finished cooking. Adding that highly aromatic mixture with its fresh oils to hot pasta will seal in the flavor of your mixture. Angel hair or spaghetti pastas both work well with pesto, but pesto makes anything taste great, so experiment and see what tickles your taste buds.

Image of Pesto Dish provided by Katrin Morenz