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3/13/2007

Make a Cooking Wreath

Making a Cooking Wreath
Copyright© Jim Long, 2007

I started making these tiny wreaths many years ago as little thank you gifts to give during the Holidays. I’d package the little circle of herbs in nice tissue paper, with a ribbon and recipe card attached, and present them to friends.

I’ve used this method to teach kids about the uses of herbs in my garden, but soon learned that adults enjoy making them as much as children do.

The wreath is tiny, about 5 inches in diameter. Why make them so small? Primarily because they are meant to be seasoning for a pot of soup, added near the end of cooking for the best flavor. if you made the wreath larger, it would be too much seasoning for a regular stew pot.

Any of the seasoning herbs can be used. It’s best to use long-stemmed ones, to make it easier and more fun to do the weaving. I often construct the wreath for a specific kind of soup. For example, if I am going to attach a recipe for chicken soup, I would choose from the following list of herbs for the wreath:

Rosemary
Thyme
Celeriac leaves
Sage
Garlic chives
Garlic leaves
Sweet marjoram
Small lovage leaves
Parsley
Lavender
Lemongrass
Winter savory
Lemon basil

But if I am going to attach a recipe for a beef or pork based soup when I give the wreath as a gift, I might choose from this list:

Rosemary
Chervil
Thyme
Savory
Onion leaves
Chives
Garlic chives
Tarragon
Oregano
Basil
Hyssop
Bay
Small hot peppers

A vegetarian-based recipe could draw from any of the herbs on either list.

To begin the wreath, gather together your ingredients. You will need about six sprigs of herbs in varying lengths. Longer pieces can be woven into the wreath easier than shorter ones. You will probably also want three or four shorter pieces to add into the wreath for bulk and variety.

Choose a sprig of rosemary or similar woody, long-stemmed herb, about 12-14 inches long. Simply bend it into a loop that is about four inches across, twisting the ends around each other. You don’t need to tie it in place, simply hold it together with your thumb and finger, then add another long-stemmed herb, twisting it over and around the first one and overlapping the ends of the first.

Continue adding additional sprigs, a piece of sage, some thyme, onion leaves, garlic chives and others, until your wreath looks full.

Keep in mind, when the wreath dries, it will shrink, so add enough herbs to look still look full after the wreath has dried.

I like to add a long leaf, such as an onion top from winter onions, or a leaf of lemongrass at the very last. I wrap it around, spiraling it like a ribbon all the way around to secure all of the herbs and give it a finished look. The two ends of the leaf can be tucked under some of the other herbs and any loose ends can be trimmed off with pruners.

You may also want to tuck in a nice, small red pepper or a sprig of golden marjoram for some color. Chive flowers dry well, as do garlic chive blossoms, oregano flowers and others. Tuck the stem into the wreath so it is secure.

Now you are ready to dry your wreath. You can simply put it in a dark, dry place, like a pantry or a cabinet. Even the oven, without heat, works well. It’s important to dry your wreath out of the light in order to keep the color and flavor of your herbs. I generally dry mine in a food dehydrator, which has a temperature control and remains dark inside. If I use basil or parsley in my wreath, I will dry it on a low setting to keep those herb’s good green color.

Don’t, however, dry the wreath in the microwave! That’s the worst way to dry any herb, simply because the microwaving process vaporizes the essential oils in the plant. Have you ever noticed how good the smell of the microwave is after microwaving an herb? That’s because the oils that give the herbs their flavor and fragrance, are now in the air, having been removed in the microwave.

Also, hanging the wreath in the kitchen isn’t a good way for drying, either. Light and cooking odors will diminish your wreath’s flavor and color. The best way is either in a dark space, or in a food dehydrator.

Once your herb cooking wreath is completely dry, you are ready to attach a ribbon or string (which should be removed before cooking), with a recipe card for using the wreath. You may want to wrap it in tissue paper to keep it nice, or store it in a plastic sandwich bag. Store it in an airtight container, out of light, until ready to use or give away.

Here’s an example of my recipe card that I attach when giving the wreath as a little gift:

This is a cooking wreath from my garden. It contains the right amount of herbs to season a pot of soup. Here’s a simple recipe, or use the wreath with your own favorite soup recipe.
Wintertime Chicken Soup

2 chicken breasts, cut in pieces
1 stalk of celery, diced
1/2 cup diced onion
2 carrots, peeled, diced
Optional: rice or pasta
The entire cooking wreath
Dash salt and pepper, to taste

Bring 2 1/2 quarts of water to a boil and add the chicken and vegetables. Cook until the chicken is tender, about 20 minutes. Add the optional rice or pasta and reduce heat to a simmer, cooking 10-15 minutes. When you add the rice/pasta, also remove the ribbon from the cooking wreath and add it to the pot of simmering soup. Simmer until done and serve.

A vegetarian friend would receive this recipe card attach to their cooking wreath:

Bring 2 1/2 quarts of water to a boil. Add an assortment of your favorite diced vegetables, such as celery, carrots, a turnip, some cabbage, onion and garlic. Simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Add 1/2 cup pasta or rice and simmer until nearly tender. Add the cooking wreath (with the ribbon removed) and simmer for another 10 minutes. Remove the wreath and serve.

Effects of Dream Pillows on Teenagers

From "Down to Earth" column in The Herb Companion magazine, Dec., 2006
Copyright© Jim Long
The Effects of Herbs on Teenage Boys
Recently a friend of mine who’s a psychologist at a treatment facility for juveniles, asked me to speak about being a writer on career day. I didn’t think kids would be very interested in my own life choices, but I agreed to go.

The treatment facility, a kind of hospital, accepts kids from the ages of six to seventeen, who have been abused, most often sexually abused. They also do some treatment of kids with drug problems, but a high percentage of the kids are there for physical abuse.

I went, prepared with some examples of my books, thoughts on how one’s life choices matter, ideas on how when you are young, you can do or be anything you choose, if you only have the information to help you choose. I also took along a few herbs clippings from my garden, tucked away at the bottom of my box, just in case I fell flat with everything else I was going to talk about.

My first group was nine boys, ranging in age from thirteen to sixteen. They had heard all of the life choice stories before, having been in the facility, and in counseling, for many months. One boy folded himself up in his chair with his knees drawn up to his chin, pulled his t-shirt over his head and proceeded to doze off. Another put his head down on his desk, another was drawing. They were polite, a few asked questions, but I was not rapidly winning them over. Most were likely wondering why they’d come to “the writer guy’s class” instead of down the hall, where the uniformed Army fellow, just back from Iraq, was speaking about his life choices.

There were two boys, about fourteen, sitting with their chins on my desk where I was speaking. When I took a breath from a story I was telling, one of them reached into my little box and pointed at the rosemary sprig I’d brought and said, “So why did you bring rosemary?”

He really caught me off guard. I stalled. Why had I brought the rosemary? Did I expect kids who’d been beaten, or kicked around, to know or even care what rosemary was? Before I could answer the boy’s question, he said, “My grandma grows rosemary. We use it to cook with. Can I touch it? I like the smell.”

I handed him the rosemary and he inhaled the fragrance. “Taste it,” I said. “You probably will remember what it tastes like.”

The boy sitting near the end of the desk with his feet drawn up on his chair and his chin on his knees, with the t-shirt pulled up over his head, peeked an eye through the top of the shirt to see if the boy would actually taste the plant.

The boy tasted a leaf, and smiled. “I remember this taste,” he said, obviously remembering something pleasant from home.

From the back of the room, the kid drawing said, “You can actually EAT that? Gimmie. I want to taste it, too!” “ What else is in your box?” someone said across the room.

Within seconds, the tide had turned. The room was mine in a way I couldn’t have imagined minutes earlier. I laid out the herbs I’d brought: rosemary, mint, lavender, some thyme and basil. Immediately one of the boys focused on mint and said his mother grew it. Another said he knew lavender because his mother always put some in a little bag under his pillow so he could sleep at night.

I brought out the dream pillows I’d brought and one of the boys immediately understood how useful they were at helping ease restless sleep. The room was fully awake, each and every boy was asking questions.

I’d not seen the obvious connection between having been abused and being in that treatment center, and not being able to sleep. I thought back to when I was fourteen myself, and was molested by a teacher who I trusted, and how much difficulty I’d had sleeping. I remembered the nightmares, the fear, the inability to tell anyone, or the power to confront the teacher. Yes, back then, a dream pillow that quieted my nightmares would have been profoundly helpful. So I switched gears, and gave a shortened version of the dream pillow program I often give to adults.

The kids responded. They all had sleep problems, they all wanted a dream pillow. I promised I would find a way to get them a dream pillow. For my next session in the afternoon, I gave only a brief nod to the career subject and concentrated instead on herbs and dream pillows. The second group of boys all responded as enthusiastically as the first.

What was amazing to me was that a bunch of teenage boys, all of whom had huge issues in their lives to deal with, knew about, and were strongly interested in herbs. Not only were they interested, many of them could identify one herb from another. The counselors who sat in on the sessions seemed impressed and encouraged me to come back for sessions on just the sleep herbs subject. Some of them asked questions about their own stress-related sleep problems.
I initially had to convince the treatment supervisors of the kids’ interests. I had to show that the herbs I used couldn’t be used “for any other purposes” or had any harmful effects. They weren’t hallucinogens, couldn’t be smoked, weren’t worth trading or selling. And lastly, that they might have some beneficial effect on the kids’ sleeping. With that out of the way, we scheduled a day to come back and talk to the kids in a longer session.

Not only did I go back and give the dream pillow program, I took along the herbs and made dream pillows. The boys chose between a pillow that would ease their nightmares and give them a good night’s sleep, and one which would let them dream and they would remember the dream. The group was about equally divided between the two. One of the boys who’d been in my earlier short class, said he had used the pillow I had given him but he didn’t have any dreams and I reminded him that it was the mix that gives good sleep without any nightmares. He was satisfied that the nightmares had disappeared and asked if he could now have one that let him remember his dreams as he was sleeping much better.

The usefulness of herbs for people in crisis ever cease to amaze me. Sometimes I’m caught off guard, surprised by how far reaching these fascinating plants can be. Who would have imagined that a group of abused teenage boys would respond so excitedly and warmly to a box of assorted herbs? But then, when I was that age, I know I would have, so I guess it shouldn’t be such a surprise to me now.

Questions and comments always welcome through Jim’s website: http://www.Longcreekherbs.com.