Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Day of the Herbs: Catnip, Mint, Basil.

       I spent hours today harvesting, washing, sorting, and tying catnip, peppermint, and basil for drying and freezing.  I must say that the pleasure of breathing in their scents is reason enough to grow any or all of these, but I wondered what uses I might make of them, since they all grow in my gardens.  What a little research revealed surprised me. 
My cats  We refer to them as the twins.
       When I think of catnip, my first association is of cats and their fondness for this herb, but catnip isn't just for felines. I admit that I planted catnip in my Children's Garden after my daughter informed me that it had applications involving children, but I had no idea it had so many uses beyond intertaining cats and the people watching them.  Before the importation of tea from China, English tea was a catnip brew said to invigorate the system while calming nervousness and relieving cramps.  I find more than one source that suggests an infusion of catnip tea with honey to relieve colds and fever by inducing sleep and perspiration--without raising the body's temperature.  The tea is said to aid against colic and restlessness in children, and headaches and upset stomachs no matter what your age. 
       My sources warn against boiling catnip leaves; infuse only, they say.  Apply a poultice of mashed flowering tops to external bruises.  Use catnip to repel rats.  Wow.  All that and you can rub it on meat as a flavoring and eat the young shoots in a salad.  Make candied catnip leaves by glazing the leaves with a mix of equal parts egg white and lemon juice, then sprinkling with raw sugar.  Dry for a day or longer before serving. 
       Have I tried any of these?  No, but I've been experiencing serious night cramping in my legs.  I'm wondering if catnip tea will help.
       I have made iced peppermint tea as a cooler for hot summer days and mint jelly, which goes especially well with pork.  Mint can also be used in sauces, vinegars, syrups and in desserts.  My personal favorite is mint chocolate chip ice cream, but I'm never made that.  Fresh leaves add taste and color to new potatoes, peas, fruit salads and drinks.  Grown near roses, the plant deters aphids.  Leaves deter ants, fleas, and mice.  For centuries, mint sprigs have been used to sweeten the air in a room.  Cold mint tea treats hiccups and flatulence.  Leaves macerated in oil are used to massage migraines and muscular aches.
       Even more than the other two, I love the smell of basil, but I've never known what to do with it.  Recently I made basil butter, suggested for use on pasta, eggs, vegetables, and fish.  It really dressed up the cod nuggests I cooked one night for a quick, easy dinner.  My husband said several times that we should have that again.  I tried it on a spaghetti side dish a few nights later.  Again, it met with approval, but I thought it could use some garlic and olive oil.  Basil butter is simply three cups finely chopped basil mixed with half a cup butter and two teaspoons lemon juice.  It will keep frozen for up to six months. 
       Basil is best torn with fingers instead of chopped.  Add it to your cooked dishes during the last minute of cooking.  Use in salads and in tomato dishes, in pesto sauce and to flavor vinegars.  The plant is supposed to deter flies.  Use basil in bath water.  Basil tea is an aide to digestion, and in oil form is used to treat mental fatigue.        
      With all the applications these herbs offer, it's surprising we don't hear more about them.  Well, maybe not so surprising since we can grow them ourselves, and don't have to pay someone else to process them into nice little pills for our benefit and their profit.  Obviously, I'm new myself to the herbal arena.  I'm looking forward to learning more. 

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