Monday, 12 August 2013

Enjoying the Herbal Teas

Besides saving money, a frugal lifestyle encourages creative thinking by making you look for different ways to do things. If I'm not happy with how much a product or service costs, then I have two choices - accept it or find an alternative. Learning to grow and process my own tea herbs was one of those alternatives. Why should I pay $3.49 or more for 20 mint teabags when I can buy a plant for that same amount, then stick that plant in the ground and which, if forgotten and not kept in check, would soon yield enough mint to supply the entire neighbourhood.

I only grow the tea herbs I like - candymint, catnip, chamomile, lemon balm and lemon verbena and don't bother with any others.
Besides the candymint, I also make use of the wild mint growing all over our yard. (You should smell the yard after if has just been cut - if you could get high on mint, we'd be floating.)
Shown on the left is the candymint - on the right is the wild mint. Both make excellent tea.
I really enjoyed learning about the herb plant's properties, the best way to harvest and preserve them and everything else that goes along with growing and preparing herbs for tea. Candymint (peppermint) tea tastes great, but also calms the nerves and soothes a queasy stomach. In combination with specific other herbs it can lessen headache pain. For instance, a stress headache can be lessened by making a tea using equal parts candymint, basil leaves and chamomile or for migraine relief, replace the chamomile with lemon balm. Besides tasting good and being caffeine free, all herbs have some special quality.

All this talk about tea made me think back to when I was young and my mother would often serve a couple of pieces of chocolate with the afternoon tea, which was always such a treat. I changed the black tea to mint tea and serve it with some Ferrero Rocher chocolates and its still a real treat.

Candymint, also known as peppermint, is a great starter tea for the new herbal tea drinker. It tastes good by itself, calms the nerves, and quickly takes care of a queasy stomach.

Catnip contains vitamin C, so it’s a good tea for colds and to clear sinuses. It is also a mild sedative so is used to promote sleep. An effective ‘Sleepy-Time’ tea can be made by mixing equal parts catnip, candymint, chamomile and marjoram leaves.
Catnip should never be taken by pregnant women.

Chamomile flowers are the part used to make tea, although I always add some of the leaves. Chamomile has mild sedative properties which helps promote sleep; it’s anti-inflammatory properties soothes ulcers and speeds healing. It improves the appetite, eases gas pains and is a gentle laxative.
It should not be used by anyone allergic to ragweed since it contains the same type of pollen.

Lemon Balm helps to chase the blues away. Inhaling the aroma is enough to start that ‘feeling good’ process, drinking the tea completes it. It calms the nerves and provides relief from migraine headaches.
Lemon Verbena has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. It relieves nausea, bloating and cramps, is effective against cold and flu symptoms, lessens coughs, loosens mucus, helps with sinus infection and soothes the respiratory system. A tea made with equal parts lemon verbena and thyme leaves will soothe colds and coughs, while a tea made with equal parts lemon verbena and sage leaves will bring down a fever.

Herbal teas, taken for medicinal reasons, should be treated the same way as over-the-counter medication. A little is good to provide immediate relief, it that doesn't work, see a doctor.
Herbs should be harvested when the oils responsible for flavor and aroma are at their peak. The timing depends on the plant part to be used. Herbs grown for their foliage should be harvested just before the plant flowers. For most herbs, the leaves are the part used to make the tea, with chamomile being one of the few exceptions. Chamomile is harvested just when the flowers start to droop.
  • Begin harvesting when the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. I usually just harvest about 50% of the season`s growth at any one time. Doing this continuously all season long is the best way to keep the plants growing strong.
  • Harvest mid-morning, after the dew has dried and before the heat of the day.
  • Candymint and lemon verbena are harvested by cutting the top half of the plant anytime during the growing season. This will encourage bushier growth.
    Catnip and lemon balm are harvested by cutting back entire stems at the base of the plant.
  • Harvest Candymint, Catnip, Lemon Balm and Lemon Verbena before flowering or leaf production will decline.
  • Chamomile  flowers have their most intense oil concentration and flavour just when flowers start to droop. 
  • The perennial tea herbs can be clipped until late August. Stop harvesting about one month before the first frost date. Cutting after that may encourage new growth which won`t be able to harden-off properly before winter.
Freezing is one of the easiest ways to preserve herbs. First, wash as follows:
Handle herbs carefully to avoid releasing the oils, place in salad spinner and quickly wash herbs in very cold water, spin dry, and empty onto paper towel to absorb leftover moisture, then remove the leaves from the stems and chop coarsely.

For chamomile, I jusr slide my fingers over the top half of the stem to remove both leaves and flowers. Chamomile leaves and flowers don't need to be chopped before packing in ice cube trays..
Shown at left - wild mint has been washed and chopped and is almost ready for the freezer.
The ice cube trays are filled with the chopped herbs, then covered with boiling water and placed in freezer. Once frozen, the herb-cubes are placed in dated and labeled freezer bags. If making up herbal combinations, mix in bowl before packing into ice-cube trays, then proceed as above.

Another method for freezing is to spread the herbs loosely onto a cookie sheet to freeze, then transfer the herbs into a large plastic bag and seal. When they thaw, herbs will not be suitable for garnish, but can be used for teas and in cooking. Do not re-freeze herbs after thawing.

I only freeze herbs. I haven't had much luck with drying and if I were to try it again, I would first buy a food dehydrator, following the directions provided. But since freezing works so well and is so easy, buying one of those appliances is not on my priority list.

Drying is the traditional method of herb preservation. If the herbs are clean, do not wet them. Otherwise, wash as described above, leaving them to dry on paper towels or dishcloths until all surface moisture has evaporated. Remove any dead or damaged foliage. Then, tie the stems into small bundles with twine or string and hang them upside down in a warm, dry, airy place out of the sun. Be sure to make small, loose bundles and allow for good air circulation around each bunch. It is best to dry herbs indoors in a large empty closet, attic, or unused corner of a room. 
Microwave drying is a quick and easy method to dry small amounts of herbs. Lay a single layer of clean, dry leaves between dry paper towels and place them in the microwave for 1 to 2 minutes on high power. Drying will vary with the moisture content of the herb and the wattage of the microwave oven. Let the leaves cool. If they are not brittle, reheat for 30 seconds and retest. Repeat as needed. Thick leaved herbs may need to be air dried for several days before microwaving.
Oven drying can also be used. Spread the herbs on cookie sheets and dry at the lowest temperature setting possible. 
Home food dehydrators also does an excellent job of drying herbs. Follow the directions provided with the dehydrator.

Herbs are sufficiently dry when they are brittle and crumble easily. When the leaves are dry, separate them from their stems and package the leaves in rigid containers with tight fitting lids. Glass or hard plastic are best, although heavy-duty zip-lock plastic bags can be used. To preserve full flavor, avoid crushing the leaves until you are ready to use them. Store dried herbs in a cool, dry place away from sunlight, moisture, and heat. Many herbs can be kept for a year if stored properly.

Live plants. I've started candymint and lemon balm plants with shoots from the parent plant. The new plants will be brought indoors for the winter, while the parent plants remain in the garden. The lemon verbena plant can't survive outside over winter, so I'll take up the whole plant to winter inside.

To make a good cup of tea, you need to start off with fresh cold water in the kettle which you bring to a boil. In the meantime, fill the teapot with very hot water from the tap.  When the kettle has boiled, empty the teapot, put in 1 tablespoon of fresh herb (or combination) for each cup of water and pour in the boiling water. Let steep about 5 minutes - more or less to taste. Enjoy.
If using a frozen herb cube, remove from the freezer before doing anything else. This allows the cube to thaw while the water boils and the pot is heated. Place thawed herb in pot, pour in the boiling water and let steep the same as if using fresh herbs.
  • Use a tea-ball to contain the fresh herbs or strain before using. Use a teapot with lid to keep the essential oils from escaping.
  • For sweetener, use honey - not for children under 1 year.
Some other ways to benefit from herbal teas:
  • Irritated Eyes from Allergies: Double the strength of chamomile tea, let steep for at least ten minutes, soak a facecloth in the tea, wring it out so it doesn't drip, place in freezer for a while, then lay back and place the cloth over the eyelids. Feels so good.
  • Tired Feet: Soaking the feet in a strong mint tea added to a bowl of warm water is another 'feels so good' remedy.
  • Mosquito Repellant: Rubbing skin with a catnip leaf will keep the mosquitoes away.
  • To Re-Energize: A cup of tea made from equal parts lemon verbena, candymint and rosemary leaves will do the trick.
Just a little add-on. Several people mentioned to me that they never thought about using the salad spinner for washing herbs. I use this for a lot of things, including cherry tomatoes, grapes, berries, etc. As long as the product isn't too heavy, it works just fine. If I don't know how or where the product was grown, I'll add a shot of vinegar to the water hoping that will remove any possible spray residues.
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I want this blog to be interesting, informative and current. Your comments let me know if I'm on track, so comments are greatly appreciated.
Thanks - Lenie