For centuries, mankind has used herbs to enliven a dreary menu, conjure up spells for healing and for evil, but today, if you watch enough episodes of the food channel you will find herbs, once again being used for culinary delights. Rosemary often blooms at Christmas with a mist of tiny white, blue or pale lavender flowers. The plant, not hardy in winter, can be brought indoors feeding it once a month with a liquid plant food and water well, every day. Misting it will help to keep it from drying out, keeping it in light but no need for sunlight in the winter months.
Dried herbs make wonderful holiday wreaths especially those with a strong fragrance like lavender and thyme. Dried rose petals mixed with juniper, pine or yew sprigs will add to a festive table decoration. If it’s a gift you’re looking to make, try the herb and spice wreath. All you need is a base of assorted greens and place bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, whole nutmegs, sprigs of Rosemary, ginger root, and using small jars place cardamom, caraway or anise seeds among your greens.
If you don’t have access to florist wire, dental floss will work well to fasten the bay leaves together or any other dried herb you choose. If a culinary wreath is not what you think your friend would like, make one with dried flowering herbs.
Gathering your herbs at different times of the season will give you a variety of colors. For yellow, tansy dries nicely and is fragrant as well with oregano blossoms, gathered again at different times will give you a color pallet that will mix well with yarrow. Our often maligned but not true to its reputation flower is golden rod. It too dries in a variety of shades. Seedpods are a nice change from the lacy flowers and a walk through your garden, in the fall will give you the necessary accents you will need for this wreath. Go outside and use your imagination.
Cookies are a favorite at holiday time and herbs make a definite difference in that plate of cookies you bring to your hostess. Try adding an herb to those shortbread cookies. Any of the dried herbs and spices like ground coriander seed, cloves or anise will liven up the traditional shortbread or butter cookie recipe. Herb breads are always a welcomed treat and for those of you who still have a bread making machine stored in the cellar, making a fresh loaf of herb bread will not only fill your kitchen with a homey scent but make your family ask for more. Try a combination of rosemary, thyme and sage but don’t get too heavy handed with either one. A half-teaspoon of anyone of them will do the trick. Tarragon is a tasty herb for bread, all by itself. Just be sure to have softened butter at the ready.
Herb butters are a treat on store-bought bread and any combination of ground, dried herbs can be used and frozen for use during the holidays. Using candy molds, found in local craft stores makes an interesting addition to the dinner table. Collecting all of the molds throughout the year, one can make and serve herb butter at any holiday gathering. Who wouldn’t like a witch’s hat spread on their nice, warm toast?
For those cold evenings, spent with friends, a punch bowl of warmed Port wine will bring an aroma of winter herbs and spices using bay leaf, coriander seeds, cinnamon, star anise, ginger root, allspice and cloves. All of these ingredients need to be whole, not ground, as the wine will become cloudy and unappetizing. Using a small, piece of cloth, tie the herbs and spices in a little bag, floating it in a half gallon of wine warming it slowly on a low flame. Believe or not, Port wine can burn. This brew is known as Bishop’s wine, a wine fit for a “king”. Interestingly enough, most of these herbs and spices can be purchased at the local Adams stores. Golden Bishop’s wine consists of apricot juice, sauterne, vermouth, brandy nutmeg and Rosemary. Now in as much as the former Bishops wine can have an unknown quality of herbs, usually to suit the taste of the guests this punch needs specific ingredients: 2 quarts apricot juice, 1 gallon dry sauterne, 1 quart dry vermouth, 1 pint apricot brandy, 1 pint unflavored brandy and 8 springs of Rosemary. Now obviously this amount is for a large crowd but simple math will get you to a family size portion. The trick here is to refrigerate the Rosemary with the apricot juice for three hours. Then just before your guests arrive, put a large cake of ice in your punch bowl and pour in the ingredients. If the Rosemary looks wilted or unappetizing, float some fresh sprigs if desired.
Lovage, a fairly unknown herb can be used in potato dishes. Grown by the Orange Historical Society, this herb, tasting somewhat like tender celery leaves, is a cherished dish served at the Woodbridge Tavern Night. As a soup, it works wonders in the winter to warm the heart after being out in the cold. Any commercial soup can be enhanced with herbs although cooking soup over a hearth as was done in the Colonial Days, takes on a special character of its own. Next time, the electricity goes out, light a fire and using a heavy skillet, warm up some soup, throw in some herbs and enjoy. Iron kettles are readily available now, as iron seems to be a popular metal for cooking. So next time you are at a kitchen store, buy a small, iron kettle for those winter soup days.
Basil was a favorite charm in Greece and used to banish the mysterious beings called Karkanzari who made life miserable for the peasants. These creatures wandered about during the twelve days of Christmas supposedly being the souls who had found no rest in heaven and had returned to disturb the living. To banish these unwanted guests, the priest came to each house with a cross adorned with sprigs of basil. Dipping them in holy water, he sprinkled and blessed each room and the Karkanzari disappeared.
The Epiphany or January 6th can give the hostess another opportunity for guests. The 12 days of Christmas ends on January the 6th heralding the arrival of the Three Kings, Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior. It was originally a pagan celebration with wild tricks, masquerades and practical jokes and obvious upheaval of the social order of the time. By the 16th & 17h centuries, the Puritans put a stop to the carnival atmosphere. The wreaths of Christmas can be refreshed for this celebration by adding fresh thyme, rue, pennyroyal and Rosemary, herbs to honor the Wise Men. Gold stars can be added for that royal flavor. Frankincense and myrrh, burned together can add to the delight of the evening but proportions are required: 6 frankincense to 1 of myrrh. This should be put into your fireplace, off to the side to heat slowly. If the flavor is not to your liking, you can shovel it into the center of your hearth to burn itself out.
This time will be enhanced with your fruitcake which by now, if made early in the season will be of good cheer. Slice it thin, serving it with rum butter, thinly spread on each piece. Your guests will probably laugh at your trying to “get rid” of your fruitcake but this cake is also known at Twelfth Night Cake, so serve it to your guests and laugh at their reactions.
Enjoy the holidays everyone.