One of the greatest joys of having a garden, indoors or out, is to prepare your own delights from the good earth’s bounty. Whether you grow it yourself or get the freshest produce at the local market, nothing makes the holiday season more special than ‘homemade.’
Sugar and Spice
We have just about wrapped up this year’s herb garden, but I still have enough lavender and mint to make Julie’s herbed sugar. For each cup of fresh herbs, measure two cups of white sugar. Wash and dry the herbs. Pick out all stems or woody parts, then bruise the herbs well with a mallet on a cutting board. Crush them until the aroma fills the room, then mix the leaves with the sugar and put them in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake the jar every couple of days and let it mellow for about two weeks. Use mint sugar to make your own peppermint candy. Lavender sugar is awesome in cookie dough. Use it in your favorite cardamom spice cookie recipe or for traditional lemon bars with an herbal twist. Holiday baking will never be the same!
One of my favorite spicy flavors is anise, either regular European anise (Pimpinella) or one of the Asian star anises (Illicium). We enjoyed the delicious Turkish Arak while cruising on the Bosporus in May. It is only one of the dozens of anise-flavored liqueurs for holiday quaffing. A friend of mine makes the most wonderful German holiday cookies, pfeffernüsse and springerle, using anise as a key ingredient. Very similar in flavor to licorice, anise is easy to grow in the herb garden.
It’s All in the Spice!
The Honey Crisp apples have been extraordinary this year. The fresh harvest carries with it a stronger perfume than apples that have been stored in the cooler for six months. One crunchy, crisp bite reminds me that autumn is apple pie season. Apples pair well with most traditional baking spices. We are fond of apples with cloves, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom and, perhaps surprisingly, white pepper. Make an easy holiday treat for your neighbors by whipping up some custom apple-pie spices by blending: 1 T cinnamon, 2 t ground nutmeg, 1 t ground cardamom and 1 t ground allspice. Put it in a decorative spice jar and attach a copy of your favorite pie or strudel recipe. Or, follow Julie’s favorite autumn ritual: stud an orange with cloves and simmer it in fresh, local cider, along with a few sticks of cinnamon for a hearty, mulled cider. Top it off with your favorite ‘hot shot’ for a heavenly, warm cocktail.
My pear tree has outdone itself this year. It is a very old tree, probably planted about the time the house was built in 1935, and we have no idea what variety it is. It seems to be disease-resistant. I never spray it, and it is self-fruitful unless there is a boyfriend tree hiding in our neighbor’s woods.
As an alternate bearing variety, this venerable tree gave us nothing last year, but this year—in spite of such a beastly summer—we have a bumper crop of fruit. It did get regular watering from the irrigation system, but that heat still was brutal for tender young, developing fruits. To enjoy these golden orbs all year, wrap them in newspaper and lay them out in single layers covered with light tissue. Peter’s favorite way to enjoy these juicy, sweet treasures is mixed with butter lettuce or mixed baby greens, candied pecans and Maytag blue cheese crumbles. Add mild white balsamic vinaigrette and a grind of fresh black pepper, and you’ll have a blissfully delicious salad.
Next on my culinary list for blending spices and fresh fruit is pear-fig chutney. Even the slightly ugly, dented dropped fruits can be magically transformed into a magnificent compote. With the redolence of fresh spices, including sharp cinnamon and nuanced nutmeg, the simmering sweet pears and figs had us all salivating before the fresh rosemary-rubbed pork roast came out of the oven.
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
Both the rosemary and sage shrubs have been bounteous in spite of July’s killer heat. The summer-dried sage sachets are ready for holiday giving. There should still be fresh sage in the garden for stuffing the turkey next week. My sage went feral during my travels abroad, crowding out the more genteel herbs and rooting in where it touched the ground. Now there are seven plants where once there was one. It would be nice if rosemary was so rambunctious! I’m testing the newer variety of rosemary called ‘Arp’ since some fellow gardeners say it’s hardy enough for St. Louis now. Both of my ‘Arp’ plants did well last winter, but it was unusual winter and hard to judge. If these plants hold well this year, I’ll let you know because you, like me, are probably tired of dragging heavy pots of rosemary into the house each winter or buying new plants every spring. I’ll keep my fingers crossed!
The rest of the primary herbs, oregano, thyme and parsley, all have rebounded extremely well since the cooler autumn weather and rain have arrived. The Italian parsley has prospered in my absence and begat a million babies. Now, I’m busy transplanting seedlings to wider spaces and dreaming of next year’s pesto. Happy Harvest!