It's over 90 degrees as I write and threatening to get hotter! Short of heading to the local swimming hole, one of the best ways to cool down is sipping an iced drink, preferably one made from ingredients growing in your own yard or garden. There are so many amazing flavors and aromas for drinks—you will be surprised at the garden of delights a stone's throw from your back door! Many of these come from herbs, some foraged and some cultivated.
wild at heart
First stop: wild things—and they do make my heart sing. One of the best is wild ginger, a low plant with heart-shaped leaves - and no relation to true ginger. In the spring it has a small bell-shaped flower that lies on the surface of the soil, inviting ants into its ruby depths pollinate it. The pencil-thick roots contain fragrant gingery compounds plus floral notes. The roots lie close to the surface; when harvesting, leave some root and it will grow the following year. Clean the roots with a veggie brush and water, don't peel.
The sassafras tree also has a fabulous, fragrant root; it is one of the flavorings used in classic root beer. It's easily identified by its leaves which grow in three forms: simple oval, mitten-shaped, and double-thumb-mitten shaped. It's easiest to pull up the smallest saplings, which are often plentiful in the woods where they would be crowded out anyway. Just cut the root off and clean with water and a brush.
The sweet birch tree is lovely; it's the bark that contains the flavor—just like birch beer, although the color is a gorgeous deep rose. Use the twigs and branches stripped of leaves.
Wintergreen leaves and berries are tiny woodland plants that grow in enough profusion to be easy to gather in quantity, you'll know them by their fragrance when crushed.
Bee balm, which has violet or red flowers, is a member of the vast mint family, and has been a favorite wild herb for tea since colonial days—after the Boston Tea Party of 1773, many rebellious pre-Americans switched from imported tea to “Oswego tea” made from bee balms leaves.
Rose hips: the plumpest, reddest ones from the type called the “pavement rose,” they will add a tart, slightly floral quality, and will also fortify your drink with major amounts of vitamin C.
Garden herbs are strong-scented semi-domesticated plants that have weaponized their aroma. If you taste an herb by itself, you'll see why other animals don't usually eat them—they're pungent, numbing and acrid. But when diluted with milder flavors—heaven.
The mint family has lots of really yummy members. Peppermint is the one containing cooling menthol (why is it called "pepper"?), its sister, spearmint, has citrus notes instead. Shiso, or perilla, is best known as a Japanese herb served with sushi and used to flavor and color pickled ginger. In either its green or purple forms, it make a fabulous shiso mohito (try saying that after drinking one!). Anise hyssop is a great licorice-mint flavored herb with beautiful lavender flowers, and as with all the mints, really easy to grow.
Other herbs used to make infusions are lemon verbena, which smells like lemon custard, fennel, lavender, anise, and even herbs most often though of as savory, such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, cilantro and basil.
Infusions are so easy to make—they're just tea, made by soaking or boiling the aromatic plant in plain water. You can also make a herb syrup by subbing simple syrup (half water—half sugar) for plain water. Use a couple of cups of herbs or the equivalent for a cup of liquid - the exact amount isn't important since you can infuse it longer or add water to make it the strength you like.
Choose a pan large enough to hold the plants you're infusing. Chop up roots, twigs and leaves into smaller pieces. Bring the water and sugar, if you're using it, to a boil. Roots and twigs should be simmered. Green herbs should be added after you've removed the pan from the heat. Let soak or simmer for at least 30 minutes to extract the aromatic compounds. Keep pushing the plant matter under the surface of the liquid. Taste until you're happy with the strength. Pour through a fine sieve, pressing smooshy leaves with the back of spoon to get all the good stuff.
Now, taste the results and add sweetener, water or seltzer, and ice as you like it. Embellish with a green sprig, relax and chill out!
Herbs are powerful - they are packed with nutritional and medicinal components that can be really good for you! But it all depends on the amount - the same component can be nutritional, medicinal or, in great quantities, poison. It's never a good idea to binge on one foodstuff day after day, so even if you find an herb you love, take it easy and vary your diet! Second, when gathering wild herbs you'll want to make sure you've got the right plant - the nose knows, but also get a good guide or use authoritative web sites to double-check your find.
Here's a delicious, fancy recipe that shows the sophisticated possibilities of herbal drinks - don't worry if you don't have all of the herbs listed, subbing is fine. This is great to make in high summer when you've got a bumper crop.
Lemony Herb Spritzer
2/3 cup sugar
1 ½ cups basil leaves and sprigs
1 cup mint leaves and sprigs
¼ cup cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon tarragon leaves
1 tablespoon oregano or marjoram leaves
4 teaspoons grated lemon zest
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
seltzer or club soda
In a saucepan, combine sugar with 2 cups of water. Heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Roughly chop the herbs and add to sugar syrup with lemon zest and juice. Refrigerate until chilled. Strain with a fine sieve, as above. Use about 1/3 cup of the liquid for a drink, pour over ice in a tall glass and fill with seltzer. Garnish with sprigs of herbs.