9 Apr 2011

H is for Herbs.

About 15 years ago, after graduating from university, I studied herbalism for a few years. I wanted to be self-reliant when I was away from civilisation, to be able to treat minor injuries and discomforts myself, with what I found growing around me.

During the day, I worked in an independent bookstore. In the evenings, I took classes in physiology, botany, aromatherapy and phytochemistry.

It was a great time, even though I spent the bigger part of my early wages on herb books I didn't necessarily need.

About half of the course consisted of practical work. We made syrups, tinctures, elixirs, balms, oils and lotions. I imagined myself an alchemist, stashed away in a lab in a cobweb-ridden tower.

Other evenings were spent in the kitchen, where we learnt to chop and taste, cook and bake with herbs, flowers and roots. I dreamt of becoming a chef or opening a patisserie.

It didn't happen. I've never used those skills professionally, but I've continued experimenting, in the kitchen as well as in my improvised lab-under-the-stairs.

Today I want to share a few easy herbal recipes, using everyday ingredients.

Most of them make great presents. Find a nice bottle, make a vintage-style hand-written label (which you can personalise as you see fit) and decorate with a ribbon, raffia, flowers or sprigs of herbs. Or how about trying them out with friends or family during a well-deserved, health-inspired spring get-together?


Herb-infused oil

  • vegetable oil, enough to fill the container of your choice. Most food quality oils will do, but the milder the flavour, the more you'll taste the herbs.
    With mediterranean-style herbs like basil, thyme or oregano, I use a good olive oil.
  • fresh herbs. To give an idea of quantity: per cup of oil (roughly 250ml), I use about 1 cup of fresh herbs.
    I make this with either one herb or a mixture of several. My favourites are: thyme, tarragon, bay leaf, basil, rosemary, oregano, chillis and garlic. Lemon thyme and (a bit of) sage make a particularly good combination.
  • Wash the herbs and dry them well.
  • Gently bruise the herbs to help them release their flavour.
  • Put the herbs in a jar, add some fresh pepper.
  • Pour the oil over the herbs. (Some recipes want you to heat the oil. I don't do that. I'm not a fan of heating vegetable oils because it changes the nature of the fats.)
  • Close the container and keep in a cool, dark place for about a week. (Some recipes advise you to keep it longer. I find 1 week is enough; I prefer a more subtle herb flavour. You can taste in between to see if it needs a few more days.
  • Strain the oil and pour it in the container you've chosen. You can add a sprig of dried herbs, a few peppercorns and/or dried chillis for decoration and additional flavour.
  • Choose a good quality oil. This will affect the outcome, as it's the main ingredient.
  • Experiment with different herbs and combinations.
  • After infusing the oils, don't keep them too long or they will turn rancid.
  • Adding some lemon zest to the recipe gives a nice tang.
  • You can make herb vinegars in quite the same way.
  • Use this recipe with just oil (e.g. almond or sesame oil - check for allergies first!) and calendula flowers (marigold) to make a great body or massage oil.

Herb-infused wine
  • To make a herb-infused wine, add cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, lemon or orange zest, ginger, lemon balm, ... to a bottle of white, red or sweet wine.
  • You can either heat the wine with the herbs (don't boil!) and then strain, or add the herbs to the bottle, close, and leave it standing. Taste regularly and remove the herbs if the flavour is strong enough.
  • I like to do this with mead or a nice-but-not-so-spectacular dessert wine, to give it more layers of deep and interesting flavour.
  • These wines make a great and cherished after-dinner drink. They improve your digestion and general well-being.

Avocado Face Mask

  • 1/2 ripe, preferably organic avocado
  • 2 tablespoons of warm herbal tea (camomile for a soothing effect, peppermint to refresh)
  • 1 teaspoon of honey
  • Purée the avocado with honey and tea to a smooth mixture.
  • Apply to your face, avoiding the eyes.
  • Leave on for 10 minutes.
  • Rinse off with warm water, then once more with cold water.
  • If you're concerned about allergies, test out the mixture on a small part of your skin (e.g. the inside of your wrist), leave it on for a few minutes, rinse off.
  • If you have some left: add onions, garlic and lime juice. Eat with nachos / corn chips. ;-)

Enjoy :-)
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  1. Wow, those herbal recipes sound great. I just might have to have a character in one of my stories make use of them. Awesome H!

  2. The study of herbs does seem like a magical world. I have always wanted to grow herbs for cooking. Just this week happened to see Martha Stewart and Meredith on The Today show discussing the pronunciation of herbs. You've heard the pronunciation argument I sure.


  3. @Jeffrey: for a character, I would recommend the avocado face mask. It would fit most genres, including horror =)

    @Tea: it certainly is, in many ways. Magical also in the sense that there's much about herbs that we don't know (yet).

  4. That is excellent knowledge to have as a writer.

    My character gets hurt in the novel while on the run in the forest. I had to research all kinds of plants to find out which ones could be used to stop bleeding or ward off infection. It was fascinating.

    And, um, I could never do an avocado facial. They're too delicious to put on my face. In my mouth, maybe. :)

  5. Herbology is fascinating, to think that cures for many ailments are growing around us if we only weren't so ignorant!

  6. Herbs are the best. My husband grew them for wholesale for 18 years. Taught himself how. He has quite the green thumb. Me...not so much . :)

  7. I've always loved herbs and all the wonderful things you can do with them. I even tried growing an herb garden a couple of times. Unfortunately, I never really did anything with any of them other than using chives and dill in my cooking and drying catnip for the cats.

  8. This is so cool! Sounds like a dream existence working at the book store by day, mixing "potions" by night. I've bookmarked these recipes and will try out that avacado facemask w/ my daughter some time---thanks so much!

  9. Wonderful! I'm going to have to try the infused oil. I love cooking, and I can imagine how much flavor that will add.

  10. @L.G: Fortunately, the recipe only calls for half an avocado =)

    @KarenG: I agree. And many of them are great and healthy cooking ingredients.

    @Bish: sounds like a great job for someone with a green thumb :-)

    @C R: it's so much fun. I stick to the kinds I use most and that are easy to grow.

    @Nicki: it wasn't always rosy, but I'm still glad I did it. :-) Have fun with the recipes!

  11. @Shelli I'm glad you like it :-)

  12. Thankyou so much for the recipes! I'll definitely try out the infused oils!

  13. wow -this is amazing, thanks so much! I would love to delve more in to this but life always seems so busy!

    Thanks for sharing :)


  14. @damyantiwrites: great! Have fun, and: bon appétit. :-)

    @Amelia: you're welcome :-) The good thing about working with herbs: you can make small things that don't take up much time, like these oils, and then expand from there if you want. Nice to 'meet' you here!

  15. I've wanted to take courses like those! Mainly to inform my writing, but also just to have the basic knowledge of plants. Good for you, and thanks for the recipes!

  16. Nice to meet you through the A-Z challenge! Hope to see you around!

    What a great idea for a present! Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing :)

  17. @Alison: It's been great in many ways, even though I've never turned it into a career.

    @Bz: nice to meet you too! What a useful topic you've chosen for the challenge. My background is in languages and literature, so it's a nice way to refresh my memory.


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