A couple weeks ago my friend Polly offered to teach a bunch of us how to make herb vinegars — using fresh herbs right out of her garden. I had never been to her house, and when she said we could hang out in the “shack” behind her house, I pictured … well, some sort of little lean-to propped up next to her garage or something. Uh, no. Polly’s Herb Shack is the sort of place I’d pay good money to go stay in. It’s so calm and peaceful and cute. Couldn’t you just while away a whole afternoon on that porch swing? Inside, Polly’s decorated in a retro style with sweet touches such as red gingham on a vintage white kitchen table, antique photos, old lamps and a typewriter that looks exactly like one my grandmother had. And then, after Polly gave us a quick lesson on herb vinegars, she turned us loose in her herb garden and let us cut all we wanted. We brought jars and vinegar (and food and wine, of course, for sustenance while we worked — being creative and culinary is exhausting!). You can heat the vinegar and measure things out and be all methodical and scientific about it, but basically we just stuffed jars full of herb and spice combinations — with other goodies such as lemon peels and garlic cloves — and poured vinegar over our concoctions and took them home to hope for the best. We’re going to let them steep for several weeks (if you heat the vinegar in the first place it doesn’t take as long), then strain and decant into pretty bottles and impress everybody with our homemade gourmet know-how. I’m anxious to see how the herb mixtures turn out. While we were creating in The Shack, we were saying things like “Does coriander go with basil?” and “How do you think lavender and oregano would be together?” Who knows??? My jars are 1) lemon and lime thyme with cloves and cracked whole nutmeg and apple-cider vinegar; 2) orange and chocolate mint with cardamon and white-wine vinegar and 3) chives, garlic chives and garlic cloves in red-wine vinegar. I also added some lemon peel to a couple of the jars but I can’t remember which ones now. What do you think — did I make some good picks?
My friend Polly has one of the most beautiful home gardens I’ve ever seen. She’s a retired teacher, and most of the work she’s done in these photos has been in the past three years. Can we say “incredible energy?” She and her husband travel around the world, but I think I would just park myself in the backyard if mine looked like this. I especially love her zen approach to gardening: It’s organized, but not formal or structured — the plants, flowers, herbs and vegetables just sort of spill out in exuberant joy. And she’s got such whimsical touches everywhere: Birdhouses, sculptures, yard art, chairs, gates, fences, stepping stones, arches. It’s a treasure everywhere you look. Polly and her husband live within the city limits of Florence, Alabama, but with the deer grazing in the front yard and the creek dancing over on the side and the abundant shade trees cooling everything off, you feel as if you’re at a wonderfully isolated woman-made Eden — yet bustling civilization is just at the end of the driveway. To my mother’s eternal frustration, I remain ignorant of all things gardening. I mean, I can tell a rose from a daisy (that’s the yellow and white one, right?) but that’s about it. Yet even a non-garden person like me can recognize and appreciate a green paradise such as Polly’s garden. I’m just glad there are folks like her in the world who know what they’re doing with seeds and dirt so folks like me can enjoy.
Are you like me when it comes to spices? Digging through the jumble of your spice drawer is an archaeological dig of your culinary life: Oh, there’s that bottle of tumeric you needed when a Middle Eastern recipe called for 1/8 teaspoon — and you haven’t used it since. There’s the dip mix you bought at a friend’s home-selling party and the remains of your prolific sesame-seed bread-baking period. (Who knew you could get tired of sesame seeds?) There’s the souvenir pink Hawaiian sea salt you never opened. And what the heck is ground coriander seed anyway? Perhaps you need to do some spice cleaning. Or, you may have your spices neatly labled and constantly updated. If so, would you please come do that for me? I’ll even bake you some bread with sesame seeds on top! In the meantime, if you have McCormick spices of unknown age but you vaguely remember wearing shoulder pads when you bought them, go to the McCormick Web site — http://www.mccormick.com/Spices101/HowOldSpices.aspx — and type in the code on the bottom of the jars. Just be prepared. Apparently I still have a bottle of McCormick Chili Powder I bought when I had only the one child — and my second child is 22. Ouch. I do not want to find out what 23-year-old chili powder tastes like. I see spice-drawer cleaning in my very near future.