25 Herbs and Spices for the Okanagan Kitchen

As the task lies before us of building a sustainable local food culture, let’s make that food taste as good as we can. Herbs and spices are high value crops that can be grown in small spaces all year long.  They add extra value to food and are the foundation of a culinary culture, and, may I say, of culture itself. Let’s look at some that grow here, to whet our appetites, and then let’s get planting, growing, harvesting and cooking. The world is a place of delight. Let’s delight, I say!

1. Pansies (and violas, too)P1590401

Violas in Early Spring

Put them in lemonade, put them in a salad, add some spice or even some wintergreen. This is a spice for the heart, that makes you happy to be with your food, which, by the way, aids in digestion, and makes all food more valuable. And while we’re on flowers…

2. Dandelions

P1590469Dandelion and Its Consort

Hint: shake first.

This is another herb that makes the heart sing. Fantastic to brighten up a salad and what would look better in the centre of a strawberry shortcake or a stack of pancakes? Failing that, wine and syrup are made from this flower. With that, spring can be with you all year long, which is particularly splendid in the snow. Some dandelion wine, some wildflower honey, a bit of ginger and some canned peaches stirred on the back of the stove and then sipped from a mug in front of the window is my favourite way of welcoming in the winter. Remember: in its origins, food was medicinal; there was no distinction between food, cooking and medicine. The distinctions came later. For instance,

3. Oregano

P1060453Spring Harvest

The second harvest is already 6 inches tall. Oregano comes back year after year after year. I like it before it goes to flower, but if you like the flowery way the Greeks do it, that’s easy, too. Don’t think of making marinara sauce, spaghetti sauce, grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches, pizza, or salads without this beauty on hand. It adds depth of taste. Originally, in Greece and Rome, in the day? A medicinal herb.

Oh, about those Greeks…

p1080562Greek Oregano

OK, look. It beats me why we import this stuff, when the stuff we can grow here has at least ten times the flavour. Look. You can almost see that flavour, right?

P1080565

Greek Oregano Left, Harold’s Oregano Right

If there were a world spice championship, the Okanagan would win. 

Sticking to the Mediterranean …

4. Rosemary

P1120119Cooking Without it is Poverty Itself

Even if you have to dry it is a kazillion* times better than the stuff in the spice rack at the grocery store.

*mathematically precise term

5. Sage

P1120076Sage and Her Rosemary Friend

It beats me why sage is traditionally used mainly for stuffing chickens. This fresh herb can do most anything you ask of it, including standing in for many other green herbs. It is perennial and prolific in the Okanagan. The cuisine that celebrates this herb is barely in its infancy.

Note, not this stuff:

P1100090Sagebrush and Her Aphid Control Expert

Okanagan sagebrush is not for eating, but the smell of it, crushed or steamed or smoked and filling a room, that is another matter.

6. Marjoram

P1120071

Sunrise in the World of Marjoram

The most delicate of Mediterranean herbs is also under-used. A splendid addition to Middle-Eastern inspired dishes based around nuts, grains and lemon, mango or sumac. It thrives here. Once you let it go to flower, a little goes a long way.

7. Tarragon

P1120067

The Spice with the Bad Rap

Long ignored because of the overpowering sweet, oily nature it takes on when dried and sold in little glass jars in the grocery store, the fresh herb is a pure delight. It thrives in the Okanagan. We could supply half the world.

8. Thyme

thyme

Thyme Shaded by the Queen Anne’s Lace from the Sun

Because I like it sweet like that. If you want sharper time, let the sun rip at it! A perennial that requires almost water, and which comes in a myriad of flavours. Another under-utilized herb. Exquisite with scallops, for one thing.

9. Basil

P1120107

It Comes in Purple, too (And Thai, and Lemon, and Cinnamon, and …)

The, um, cough cough, starving sage sparrows ate my first crop before moving up on the hill to scrounge up what they could of what they could find, so I reseeded.

It loves the summer heat around this place. Great commercial possibilities.

10. Pineapple Sage

P1090488

New for Me, but it Sure Smells of Pineapple

I’m excited about what the summer will bring.

It beats me why all of these things aren’t grown in lush fields throughout the valley. After all, they are all very tolerant of drought and are the basis of any food industry.

11. Summer Savoury

P1050384

Your Potato’s Best Friend

And soups. Oh my. Dries excellently, too.

I hope you’re getting the idea that there’s a whole unrealized industry here.

12. Dill

P1120111

Another Victim of the Hungry Sparrows

Another chance to replant. I’m thinking mini-röstis with smoked trout and yoghurt. Poor apricot leaf. We mourn for her.

13. Stevia

P1120081

Move Over, Sugar Cane!

Imagine local food cultures weaned off of corporate sucrose and creating sweeteners without large inputs of land and water. I sure can.

I think it’s time for Canada to grow up and accept the fact that it is a country of some 200 global cultures and use that to make itself culturally rich, by building something together. Right now the orchardists of the Okanagan are asking for assured access to future water supplies and massive subsidies to maintain their crumbling industry … none of that is necessary. It is time, as I say, to grow up and use our water, earth and sun, here where the desert threads into the mountains, to finally move into this land.

14. Coriander (and Cilantro)

P1120093Glorious!

This is my pest control in the tomatoes. Works like a charm, by attracting wasps, which take care of the crawling nibblers that want the whole wide world.

When young, it is cilantro. Once it goes to flower, the flowers are a good cilantro substitute, but subtler in flavour. Once it goes to seed, voilà, coriander. In between, it keeps the garden healthy, and looks real fine. There is no reason not to grow this stuff year round.

15. PeppermintP1120037

Not Just for Mint Sauce

Exquisite in soups and stews, with lamb, in tea, with coffee and hot chocolate, on cream cakes and so much more. So many gardeners rip this stuff out because it spreads. Spread on, I say. In the Yakima Valley, men grow this stuff in vast fields and harvest it like hay. We can do so much better. The oils from fresh mint make even the eyes sing.

16. Chocolate Mint

P1120035

17. Orange Mint

om

Can you tell I like mint? There are so many more. Our wild spearmint is exquisite. Apple mint is the tenderest thing imaginable, and, um … do you have one of these?

P1110910

Toad

They love to come out at night and sit on the warm concrete and eat blue bottom flies.

If so, look. You might also have one of these staring at it, for hours on end, waiting for it to blink. Hey, it happens.

IMG_1906

Chuck Enjoying a Confined Space, Back in the Day

He stared down many a toad in his time. Blessings on you, my friend.

If so, do your friend a favour and plant some of this…

18. Catnip

P1120028

Catnip and Its Flowery Friends

Around this house, I call this a lawn.

Happiness will follow. Or, just zonkedness.*

*psychologically precise term.

IMG_1538Chuck and his Brother Kitty Cat After a Nip

Hey, it beats staring at toads. And as far as catnip goes, this Okanagan bud is mighty popular with the feline set. Come on, be a pal. Oh, and you can make a relaxing tea out of it too.

19. Borage

P1120114Excellent for spring flavours and green sauces. Perennial. Beloved of bees.

20. Parsley

P1120113You can use the roots too, in stews. 

A very versatile herb, and if you haven’t stuffed chicken with it, or made a cream sauce for potatoes with it, or in any other way discovered your inner Dane, well, off you go!

We buy this from Mexico. Let me put that another way: we buy this from Mexico? Here’s an idea: let’s stop being a colony.

21.  Pollen

P1610639Pine Tree Shedding its Pollen When Whacked by a Stick in the Spring

Sure, the stuff makes people with allergies go ballistic, but, really, bees collect it and beekeepers sell it as a herbal remedy. What’s more, saffron is crocus pollen, and fennel pollen now goes for a very high price indeed. A world of pollen as a spice is wide open for us (including fennel and saffron). What’s more, this is a new culinary adventure … and we can be in on the beginning of it. So, shake a tree, I say …

P1610648Inspiration!

22. Desert Parsley

P1600541Why Not Eat the Syilx Way?

Hey, it has worked around here since the glaciers melted away. The desert parsley down here in the valley withered away in the heat months ago, but up in the hills, ah, it’s just coming in now. No water required.

23. Lavender

P1070135Because You Can Cook With it Too

24. Mustard

P1030026

These are Called Weeds

Actually, this is a hayfield owned by a man who just wants to use it as a tax dodge. Ergo: no hay.

If wild mustard can grow here, so can domestic mustard. It doesn’t make sense that most of the world’s mustard grows on the Canadian prairies, from which it is shipped to France, made into Dijon, and shipped back in little jars.

25. Chamomile

P1090886Shake first!

Chamomile thrives here and easily goes native.

Why are we importing our night time teas from California and Germany? Think how happy we could make these wild pollen-gathering beetles, too! Oh, and don’t forget …

P1060428

Make Yourself Happy Too!

(Your blog, bringing home the mint!)

So, that’s 25. We could expand the list to a hundred or more. We could give this stuff to our chefs, and they could make this a world culinary capital.  In the colonial model, the valley was sold to the English as a Garden of Eden, where they could grow apples and apricots and make jams for English tables, and live a life of genteel ease. Now that we’ve grown up, and now that other colonial outposts have put us out of the apple business, we can start cooking for ourselves. It has, after all, been a bit more than a century in coming. This is an agriculture we can all get excited about. Besides, you get to play in your kitchen, too…

P1080555Alfalfa Blossom Tea Trials

Around here, my wife never knows what to expect on the table when she comes home from work!

Glorious Sumac

Autumn. In the Okanagan Okanogan, it would be nothing without sumac. In the East, the maple trees and sumacs turn red and the sun burns on the face of the earth. We get aspens and poplars, burning as yellow as Saturn, also pretty great, but we also get sumacs, both our native smooth sumacs that adore scree slopes and reach up the mountains like flames, and these great eastern imports:

Staghorn Sumac in Its Glory

Beware, they can be invasive, but only in gardens and suburban areas.

In Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere around the Mediterranean, the seedheads of sumac are gathered and ground into a lemony-flavoured chili-red spice, that takes the place of the paprika used so gloriously in Hungary and which (hint hint) is used to perfection in the White Horse in Salzburg. Sumac means “red” in arabic. Arabs and other Mediterranean people built a food culture based around it. We can too. We can give our chefs that gift. Here it is in the night:

Like a Torch!

Sumac plants can reach production in their second year. By this point they can be up to eight feet tall, depending on their water supply and their species. (Staghorns are the big ones. Back in the 1970s, I used to spend starlit evenings under the staghorn sumac that was his living room talking about the Tao with a good friend who had just come back from a few years rice planting in Taiwan. Hey, it was the seventies. We did go on to write a letter, a single letter, over a bowl of cabbage soup and garlic, that kickstarted the organic fruit industry in the Okanagan. That was the eighties. Not bad for one sumac.)

Here’s what we know: sumac fruits are ground into a lemony spice for salads and meat in mediterranean cuisine and as a garnish on hummus and salads, rice or kebab. Sumac can be used to create candles that melt at a higher temperature than paraffin and which burn with a smokeless flame, and for producing lacquer. Sumac tea is a traditional Indigenous American beverage. Sumac is traditional mixed with tobacco for some Indigenous American smoking purposes. Sumac is valuable to the floral industry. Sumac leaves produce chemicals for the tanning industry. It produces lightweight, flexible, and lightly-coloured leathers. Sumac can be used as a natural dyestuff and a fuel for beekeeping smokers. Coolest of all, dried sumac wood fluoresces under black light. How cool is that? This is not just a list of historical uses. This is a list of possible marketing and agricultural possibilities, using a native plant capable of regulating water in replacement of expensive surface water drainage systems. This is not a wild plant. It is a cultural powerhouse.

 

Tomorrow, I will move Heaven and Earth to bring you a second instalment of my talk on the future of the arts and land in the Okanagan. Today was spent trying to extricate my new maul from a twisty block of elm wood and seeing what the Vernon Art Gallery was up to, with a big $50,000 grant to plan their new building. More on both later, too.

 

 

Open Agriculture, Day 1

Welcome to the idea of Open Agriculture, farming for the future made in cooperation with the planet. I have been collecting seeds and making notes about new crops for the coming drought culture. The good news is that there is enough water to grow a rich diversity of crops. Here’s one:

 

Coriander

This spice thrives in the cool, wet climate of the spring, and in our wettest month, June, when its new leaves can be harvested for cilantro, then it can be left to go to seed in dry weather and harvested a second time, as a spice, in August or September. Some plants can be set aside and harvested for their intensely-flavoured roots, in support of Thai restaurants everywhere. It self-seeds and grows in spaces between other plants (I had some growing unobtrusively in my roses and in my potted rosemary).

An Okanagan spice industry? You bet.

Last week, I introduced the first draft of my completed project as a slide presentation at the Okanagan Institute in Kelowna. I am reproducing that event for you. I’ll have the opening for you tomorrow, in video and pdf.