Winter Tonic

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

The kitchen garden in winter...and the snow hasn't stopped yet.

The kitchen garden in winter...and the snow hasn't stopped yet.

Wintertime is teatime in our household – or, if you want to get technical about it, herbal infusion time, since some people feel that you can only call it ‘tea’ if it comes from the true tea plant, Camellia sinensis. Whatever you call it, our evening ritual, after the sun has been set for about 3 hours, is to put on the kettle (yes, it whistles!) and ponder my dried herb collection. Will it be lavender and lemon balm? Or bergamot and anise hyssop? Sometimes just rosemary is all I want. But this year, peppermint and lemon verbena are the combination I’ve been reaching for over and over. The flavor and aroma of the sweet mint and floral lemon blended with a teaspoon of unpasteurized organic honey is comfort in a cup on a cold winter night.

Dried herbal teas make great gifts and friends, knowing my fondness for them, have given me many good blends over the years, and I also like to try the intriguing combinations that line the grocery store shelves. But nothing, for me, beats the flavor of herbs that I’ve dried myself and it’s so easy to do – all you need is a dark-ish location with good air circulation and a way of hanging bundles of herbs.

Borage is supposed to be a mood uplifter when ingested but I find looking at this photo from summer gives me a similar boost in mood.

Borage is supposed to be a mood uplifter when ingested but I find looking at this photo from summer gives me a similar boost in mood.

I didn’t dry many herbs this year since I’m having trouble finding the herbs I want to grow at my local garden centers (this spring I’m, unfortunately, going to have to rely on online retailers to provide me with what I need) but I did have an abundance of peppermint and borage, which I harvested regularly throughout the season. I cut fairly long stems, about 30cm long, bundled them in bunches about a couple of centimeters around, and tied them with twine (some people use rubber bands but I didn’t have any on hand). I left long enough ends on the twine to tie the bunches to the shelves on my seed-starting table and, in about 3-4 weeks (the leaves should feel dry and strip relatively easily from the stems but not crumble into dust), I have dried herbs that can be used for anything, including teas.

To make a tisane, I use about a tablespoon of dried herbs to a cup of water and steep for about five minutes. Most teas I sweeten with a little honey and sometimes I’ll add a little lemon. I like to keep it simple and don’t usually blend more than two herbs but you’re only limited by your creativity and sometimes orange peel, a cinnamon stick, and/or a little ginger can make a tea extraordinary. And don’t forget about other parts of the plant such as hips, although be aware that they take a little longer to dry than leaves.

All the things needed to do a herbal infusion.

All the things needed to do a herbal infusion.

My beat up gardener's hands are soothed and warmed by a cup of tea.

My beat up gardener's hands are soothed and warmed by a cup of tea.

It’s so easy to dry your own herbs and, on a cold winter night, when my hands are wrapped around a hot cup of aromatic tea, I’m reminded of summer and the good things I grew – it helps to get me through these dark, snowy times. 

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