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Carole Murko

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Stockbridge, Mass.

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Carole Murko is the creator, host and executive producer of the weekly radio program "Heirloom Meals," a storytelling show she created to share treasured family recipes, stories and tips … "savoring yesterday's traditions today," on NPR affiliate Robinhood Radio, WHDD, 91.5 FM in Sharon, Conn. A culinary artist who learned how to cook by observing her mother and grandmother, Carole captures their passion for cooking, entertaining, and feeding friends and family, and translates it into her own special way of honoring the traditions she loved as a child. She regularly appears as a food expert and demo chef on Newschannel 13, the NBC affiliate in Albany, New York. Carole developed and was host of a 16-video series featuring diabetes-friendly heirloom recipes for Liberty Medical that launched on its website in November 2011. She executive-produced and was host of Heirloom Meals’ "Thanksgiving and Heirloom Meals' Christmas," scheduled to air on 90% of the public televisions stations across the nation in November and December of 2012. She writes for Edible Berkshires and blogs most days. Carole holds a bachelor's degree in economics and a minor in art history from Smith College, a master's degree in International Economics from New York University and the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation. Before founding "Heirloom Meals," Carole had successful careers on Wall Street and in interior design and decoration.

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From Which Country Is Your Thanksgiving Recipe? Image

Have you ever reflected on who you really are? Not from a psychological perspective, but from an ethnic and ancestral one. I believe that food is among the first elements that connects us to our past and defines us.

Thanksgiving is a perfect time to truly ponder our connection to our ancestral foods. We are a nation of immigrants. While we embrace and give thanks as a nation, many of us also give a nod to our roots with our family Thanksgiving recipes.

I can relate to this firsthand. I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian grandparents and my parents. Food was the centerpiece of our existence. My Nana and Baba were always referring to their parents and grandparents.

The discussion often centered on food and recipes. Or, what it was like back “then,” when the family had come over “on the boat” and settled in the Bronx. They described the hardships they faced. But somehow I know they also romanticized it a bit. It seemed that “back then” always was  better  than “here, now.” What they were really saying was they cherished those memories. Their stories of food and meals were how they defined themselves.

Italian specialties to appreciate a new life in America

As a child, I heard stories of how the relatives all pitched in to make the Thanksgiving feast, which was really an Italian-American feast. I’ll never forget my grandmother’s mantra, “Many hands make for light work.” Turkey, by the way, was an optional. All the foods came from recipes and techniques handed down through generations.

A typical menu consisted of an antipasto, a soup course, some pasta with meatballs and gravy or my favorite, manicotti, a roast of some sort with vegetables, nuts and fruit for dessert along with Italian pastries from a nearby bakery.

My mom, to this day eschews the turkey. It just isn’t her idea of Thanksgiving. For my ancestors, Thanksgiving was a time to reflect on how grateful they were to be here in the United States. However, they clung to their ancestral roots like a worn, cozy baby blanket by serving their time-tested heritage foods.

Family Thanksgiving recipes that connect to our roots

My story is not unique. I’ve interviewed scores of people who bring their ethnic foods to their Thanksgiving table to honor their ancestral traditions. A family recipe brings a wonderful sense of nostalgia, love, belonging, connection and roots that cannot be denied.

Take Brazilian-born Ellie Markovitch, for instance who now lives in Troy, N.Y. She makes her Brazilian cheese bread, pão de queijo, on Thanksgiving to keep her food roots alive.

“We celebrate the Thanksgiving meal with recipes and stories from around the world,” she said. “That is because all the members in our family were born in a different country. I was born in Brazil; Dmitri in Estonia; Lina, who is 5, was born in France; and Lara, 2, was born in the U.S.”

There’s also Loring Barnes, a 10th direct descendent of William Bradford, the Plymouth Colony governor at the first Thanksgiving, makes her family’s acorn squash recipe and the Barnes family’s baked chocolate pudding — both recipes can be linked to her pilgrim ancestors.

So, in preparation for Thanksgiving, I beckon you to walk down food memory lane with your relatives and discover, if you haven’t already, those foods that connect you to your past. Perhaps adding an ethnic dish to the menu and the story behind it will become the bridge to your past and future. These foods will help define who you are.

Barnes family baked chocolate pudding and "ice cream" sauce topping. Credit: Carole Murko

Barnes family baked chocolate pudding and “ice cream” sauce topping. Credit: Carole Murko

Barnes Family Baked Chocolate Pudding and ‘Ice Cream’ Sauce Topping

This cake was elicited from Loring Barnes, “I am having a food memory.” This is the essence of Heirloom Meals — making and eating food that transports us to a great memory! I confess, this may be my favorite recipe and it’s a keeper. This dessert will please chocolate lovers and then some. It is the perfect combination of textures and is worth the indulgence.

Ingredients

For the chocolate pudding:

3 squares melted baking chocolate

½ cup sugar

1½ cups milk, divided

½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature/softened

2 eggs, beaten

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

For the ‘‘Ice Cream” sauce:

1½ cups sugar

⅔ cup melted unsalted butter (warm not blazing hot so it won’t “cook” the egg)

2 eggs, beaten

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups fresh cream, whipped

Optional: ½ shot of Gran Marnier

Directions

For the chocolate pudding:

1. Heat oven to 325 F.

2. Grease and flour a Bundt or tube pan. (A Bundt with flutes is the prettiest and defines your slices).

3. In top of double boiler combine chocolate, sugar and ½ cup of the milk. Mix and stir until it thickens, remove top from heat, allow to cool.

4. In large mixing bowl or stand mixer combine butter, eggs, flour, baking soda and water mixture, salt, the remaining 1 cup of the milk, and vanilla.

5. Add the chocolate mixture to above, combine until completely mixed but don’t over beat.

6. Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan, bake 1 hour on the middle rack. Cool and remove from pan.

7. The pudding should be kept moist, so keep the pudding covered with foil or plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out. Be careful not wrap so tight so that you the baked pudding sticks to your wrap. A Tupperware cake container is fine, but I still wrap it a bit within that storage.

Tip: I like wraparound soaked baking strips for even baking. This is also a way to create moisture without a water bath.

For the “Ice Cream” sauce:

In large mixing bowl or standing mixer blend ingredients together, pouring in sugar and butter so that the warm (not hot) butter will somewhat dissolve the sugar during the blending. Refrigerate until serving. Add the Gran Marnier, if you’re using it.

For assembly:

Serve baked pudding gently warmed in low-temperature oven. I dust with confectioners’ sugar on the plate, but this is optional. Slice, generously dollop with the hard sauce.

“Pão de Queijo” (Cheese Bread), courtesy of Ellie Markovitch

Known as the national treasure of Brazil, this cheese bread recipe is amazingly simple. Ellie adapted it from her mother’s recipe because in the U.S. we don’t have the same ingredients that are available in Brazil. It has just three ingredients. Made with yucca flour, aka tapioca flour, they are gluten-free. Ellie shared three tips with me: Once they are in the oven, you cannot peek for 30 minutes, or the rolls will collapse, so no peeking. Also, they are best eaten hot out of the oven. And last, double or triple the recipe because one batch will get eaten before it reaches the table.

Ingredients

1 cup of sour cream

1 cup of finely grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of yucca flour

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 350 F.

2. Combine the sour cream, cheese and 1 cup of yucca flour.

3. Roll the dough into small balls in the palm of your hand, using about 1 heaping tablespoon of dough for each. Use the extra 2 tablespoons of yucca flour to prevent the dough from sticking to your hands.

4. Place the dough balls on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake in the middle of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes Remove from oven and serve immediately piping hot.

Top photo: Pão de Queijo Brazilian cheese bread. Credit: Carole Murko

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Return To The Days When The Butcher And Baker Mattered Image

I am a home cook from a food-obsessed family. Everything that happened centered on food. After all, I grew up in a three-generation household with my Italian-American grandparents as well as my parents. My household wasn’t unique in a food culture sense. But while many of the foods and recipes are similar to those from other families, the stories are what bring the food to life. The best way to delve into Italian-American cuisine and stories is through a typical family meal. And that starts with shopping for the ingredients.

My mom, Josephine Lanzetta Murko, was born on an apple farm in Claverack, N.Y., during the Great Depression and only lived there for a few years. She recounts that my grandfather could not sell an apple for a nickel and had to move the family back to the Bronx. At that time, the Bronx was still quite rural and people lived in a tight-knit neighborhood with everything within walking distance.

Saturdays in my mother’s young life were spent shopping for food with her mom, my nana. The journey, as my mom recalls, was a stroll down the “avenue.” Mom and Nana first visited Mrs. Green’s coffee shop. Mrs. Green would make custom blends for all her customers. My grandmother liked a light blend for her stove-top percolator. The aromas were so keen, and my mom recounts that whenever confronted with the smell of fresh coffee today it still triggers the memory of Mrs. Green’s coffee shop and the Saturday market treks with her mom.

The next stop was the butcher shop where customers stood two-deep and where my mom watched in fascination the knife work and dexterity of the butchers. This was what she wanted to be, a butcher, she thought, and as a little girl she wrote a paper about it. My mom has amazing knife skills, and it’s probably in her blood as my grandfather owned a butcher shop in the Bronx before his foray as an apple farmer.

A butcher shop back then was a different place. Sawdust was on the floor to absorb the meat and blood drippings while the butchers worked their magic. Once up to the counter, my mom would watch the butcher cube and then grind the beef, veal and pork they would then use to make meatballs. Nothing was prepackaged in those days, and the meats were from local animals.

Then on to the produce store where only local, in-season fruits and vegetables were sold. My mom said it was like a photo; she was in awe of the abundance of all the brightly colored fruits and vegetables. She notes that she had never had a strawberry out-of-season and that the fruit was not shiny. Their next stop was the cheese shop where they bought fresh ricotta and mozzarella and other cheeses. Imagine next stepping into a shop entirely dedicated to butter. Butter of all kinds was sold from large barrels by the pound, which sounds heavenly to me.

Saturday markets full of ingredients for soup

The bread store was perhaps my mom’s favorite. The smell alone made her feel warm and cozy and hungry. When she became old enough to shop without my grandmother, Nana would give my mom an extra four cents to buy the fresh-out-of-the-oven warm loaf, which she would then nibble on or devour all the way home. My grandmother knew this was a special treat for my mom, and to this day, warm bread and butter is one of her absolute favorite things. It’s one of mine.

Last but not least, on the shopping extravaganza was the poultry shop. Saturday was soup day. One Saturday when my grandmother wasn’t feeling well, she sent my mom and her sister, my aunt Margie, to get the chicken. They were still little girls. They selected the live chicken and waited patiently for it to be killed and packaged to bring home. While walking home, the bag started to jump.

They so wanted to drop the bag but being the obedient kids that they were, ran as fast as their little legs could go all the way home, imagining as only little girls could, what kind of spooks were in that bag. When they delivered the jumping chicken bag to Nana in a whirlwind of excitement, panic and fear, Nana giggled and told them, “Sweet girls there are no spirits in the bag it’s rigor mortis setting in.”

While my mom clearly describes the rich palette of textures and smells of the Saturday markets of her youth, she also revels about the joys of being connected to her neighbors and friends. She said they were having a great time because all the neighbors, relatives and friends were out on Saturday. This ritual was not a chore, it was an exciting day. It was the social fabric of creating the family meal. I have even heard stories of recipes being shared at the butcher counter. One Jewish lady I know learned how to make killer Italian meatballs from the Italian ladies at the butcher shop.

So, while we seem far removed from the 1940s Saturday shopping trek, I implore you to think about this question:  Is not the farmers market in your neighborhood or community a social hub of sorts?

Modern society has changed the way we shop for food and interact at the grocery store, often with blinders on as we roll our carts down the aisles. But at the farmers market you make eye contact, chat with the farmers and purveyors and smile and chat with your fellow shoppers.  I think we have found the “avenue” of my mom’s youth.

Italian Chicken Soup

I have learned that just about every cuisine has a version of chicken soup and even within a cuisine, there are many variations.  It’s what I call  similar but different.

Ingredients

One chicken cut up into parts and cleaned (this would include chicken feet in the old days)

Enough water to amply cover the chicken

2 to 3 onions, chopped

Bunch of carrots, chopped

4 to 5 parsnips, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced

Parsley, minced

Optional: Noodles, escarole, eggs. Sometimes, we added a little tomato paste, or tomatoes, the butt of the Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions

1. Boil the chicken for about 20 to 30 minutes.  Skim off the scum.

2. Add the vegetables, including the parsley and garlic. Add salt and pepper. Simmer for about 3 hours.

3. Remove chicken from broth.  You can either remove chicken from bones and put back into soup or eat separately.

4.  At this point, you can use the optional ingredients.

If using, add noodles that were boiled separately (thin or medium; your preference.)

Add escarole (cut, steam separately and drain). Mix 2 eggs, ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper then add to broth.

Top photo: Carole Murko’s grandmother and Bronx shopkeepers on a Saturday morning in the 1940s. Credit: Courtesy of the Murko family

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Stomach Woes: Look To Food, Not Medicine, For Help Image

We all have a habit of taking something for granted until, all of a sudden, it’s gone or it hurts. Have you ever really thought about your stomach? And I don’t mean whether it’s flat, flabby or fit. I mean, how it works and how what we ingest affects stomach health. Well, to be honest, I never did. I used to say I had a cast-iron stomach.

I pretty much ate real food my entire life. After all, that’s what my culinary movement Heirloom Meals is all about, the celebration of real food and our connection to our ancestral foods. However, I did subject my stomach to lots of aspirin, Advil and diet soda. Why suffer from muscle aches or worse, headaches? I also bought into the calorie-free bliss of diet soda, which for me began with Tab in college.

I swore off meat and french fries for a good chunk of my adult life only to return to them when I finally had a full-time man in my life. I have always mostly eaten real food, though. I eliminated diet soda more than five years ago and read ingredient labels. If I don’t recognize an ingredient or can’t pronounce it, it doesn’t get a free ride in my grocery cart to the checkout counter.

So, why oh why, did I wake with an odd stomach (just stomach, not abdomen) pain last summer? It wasn’t an ache, it was a dull pain. And it didn’t go away.

Freaked out and worried, I went on vacation to my parents’ beach house. My mom coincidentally had an appointment with her gastroenterologist, so she brought me along. The compassionate doctor had me hop up on the table, felt my stomach and abdomen and noticed that I was worried and scared. So she scheduled me for an endoscopy and a colonoscopy in two days. I was relieved and distressed. What would she find?

After many tests, ultrasounds and biopsies, I was told I have leaky gut. The gastroenterologist prescribed Prilosec and antacids, forever. Interestingly my primary care physician wanted me off those but he didn’t really have a solution. And of course I wanted a solution, not a mask. I decided to figure it out myself. I asked my primary care doctor to run a food sensitivities panel. I knew fundamentally that our stomachs are really our second brain. Everything we ingest goes through the stomach.

Getting to the bottom of leaky gut

Harnessing the power of the Internet, along with my affinity for research and my love of books, I started getting to know my stomach. I knew I had some inflammation, some acid reflux and irregularity. I also had the term “leaky gut” to research. I think leaky gut has become the all-encompassing diagnosis for when we can’t find anything medically wrong but something clearly is. Such comfort!

In Elizabeth Lipski’s book, “Digestive Wellness, Strengthen the Immune System and Prevent Disease Through Healthy Digestion,” she explains that leaky gut is really a “nickname for the more formal term increased intestinal permeability … It is not a disease or an illness itself. It’s a symptom of inflammation and imbalance that has many causes.”

After I received the results of my food sensitivities test, my primary care physician suggested that I add digestive bitters to my diet. I initially didn’t pay attention but then re-read my notes and reconsidered. He also recommended a probiotic. Lipski also writes “replenish your bacterial flora with probiotics … You may need to support your digestive function with enzymes, bitters and hydrochloric acid.” So I knew my primary care physician had set me on the right path.

I went on a quest to find digestive bitters and discovered that they are a tried-and-true ancient remedy for stomach issues. The list of ingredients includes such things as aloe, myrhh, saffron, senna leaves, camphor, rhubarb root, manna, thistle root etc. I also learned a lot about manuka honey. It is a monoculture honey from the tea tree, which is known for its antimicrobial qualities. It acts like hydrogen peroxide.

While I was at it I discovered a list of anti-inflammatory foods. If I had inflammation, I figured I should avoid foods that cause inflammation. Sadly the nightshades are high on the list, which include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant. I also eliminated all the food to which I was sensitive, including wheat, chocolate, bananas, beef, eggs and casein, which is the protein in cow’s milk. I credit the dietary eliminations along with the manuka honey, Swedish bitters and 4 to 6 cups of fresh ginger tea a day with healing my acid reflux and stomach pain.

I also started drinking almond milk, using Earth Balance butter, and cooking with olive, walnut and coconut oils. I also take a probiotic every day and eat lots of kale, lentils and fish. I rarely drink alcohol or caffeine and avoid most sweets.

Addressing stomach woes for the long term

Over six months, my stomach pain went away. One day I woke up and I didn’t notice my stomach, just like in the olden times. However, I know it’s not an invitation to throw caution to the wind. I am wiser and healthier knowing my stomach is fragile and is the main organ in my body to protect. As Dr. Alejandro Junger says in his book “Clean Gut”: “Your overall health is connected to a singular area of the body, your gut .… [sic] most diseases being diagnosed … can all be traced back to your injured or irritated gut.”

So I say, hello stomach, nice to meet you and now I respect you. I also understand that food is medicine and you, my stomach are the key to my health. Somehow I think our ancestors already knew that.

Top photo: Food for stomach health. Credit: Carole Murko

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Flour Power: Sifting Through A Maze of Options Image

Most recipes seem to call for all-purpose flour. But should you use bleached or unbleached? Has it occurred to you to experiment with the myriad options, including pastry flour, bread flour, self-rising flour, whole wheat and gluten-free?

Know your flours


Unbleached cake flour is good for cakes, biscuits and muffins. This blend of unbleached flour and cornstarch that replicates cake flour’s performance without bleaching.

* * *

Unbleached all-purpose flour is good for cakes, breads, pies, cookies, quickbreads, and muffins. This is the best all-around flour with enough protein for good structure, but not so much that baked goods are tough or chewy.

* * *

Unbleached bread flour is good for breads, pretzels, combined with whole grain or non-gluten flours. This flour’s high protein level gives more support to non-gluten flours like rye and it also helps the structure of whole grain breads. It makes excellent pizza crust and artisan loaves, which have a high water content.

* * *

Premium whole wheat flour is good anywhere you’d use white flour, with recipe adjustments. Ground from the entire wheat berry, whole wheat flour contains bran, germ, and endosperm. The oil in the germ can go rancid. To delay this, store it in an  airtight container in the freezer.

* * *

Unbleached white whole wheat flour is good anywhere you'd use white flour, with recipe adjustments. This flour is nutritionally identical to traditional whole wheat, though the bran is lighter in color and has a milder, sweeter flavor.

* * *

Self-rising flour is good for biscuits, quickbreads and cakes. This is a low-protein flour that has baking powder and salt added to it already.

Or have you sent your husband or wife or partner or friend to the grocery store for flour and been stunned at what they bring home? With the wardrobe of flour options, how are they to know which one to purchase?

All flours begin as wheat. The wheat berry has four parts, bran, germ, endosperm and cotyledon. White flour is created by sifting out the bran, germ and cotyledon. Whole-wheat flour is made from the entire grain. To complicate things further, there is white whole-wheat flour that is made from a hard white wheat as opposed to regular whole-wheat flour that is made from hard red wheat. They are both milled  the same way. And one begins to understand why it is difficult to decide which flour to use.

Understanding gluten content

When baking, it is important to understand the differences in all the flour options. The bottom line is it is all about the gluten content. Gluten is a protein in wheat that when hydrated creates the structure of your dough, be it cake, bread, pizza, etc. The higher the gluten content the tougher or chewier your end result.

All-purpose flour was developed to have a gluten content that works for most household baked goods without having to make adjustments.  If you use a high-protein (high-gluten) flour such as whole wheat, you will need to add more moisture or let your dough rest a little longer so it behaves more like all-purpose flour.

Even though you might be tempted to replace your all-purpose flour with white whole-wheat flour it is not a perfect substitution. The white whole-wheat flour has more gluten protein and will result in tougher dough if you do not add more moisture or allow it to rest for a longer period of time.

A flour experiment

Susan Reid, editor of “The Baking Sheet” at King Arthur Flour is a  food scientist and a flour aficionado. She did a test to show how different flours act by making the exact same recipe with a range of flours. She used a random store brand, bread flour, all-purpose flour, unbleached cake flour, white whole wheat flour, whole wheat flour, self-rising four and gluten-free flour.

Her thesis was that all flours are not created equal. One could taste and see the differences. The unbleached cake flour was the softest whereas the whole-wheat was the toughest, and the gluten-free clearly had a different structure than the wheat-based flour specimens.

So how do you select the right flour for your baking needs? Most recipes seem to call for all-purpose flour. Should you deviate from using all-purpose flour just know you may need to adjust the moisture content to obtain your desired texture.

If you are making an artisanal sourdough bread, perhaps whole wheat or white whole wheat would be your choice. But if you want to make bagels with lots of structure then a higher gluten flour would be your best choice. The key is to know you have options and to choose the best flour for the baked good that you are making.

flour transformed into bread

Bread. Credit: Amy Oliver

Remember, despite all the negative press that gluten has been getting these days, it is the most important ingredient in baked goods because it provides their structure. And herein lies the difficulty with gluten-free baking and why it is so hard to find  great gluten-free bread or cookies that have the structure of the wheat-based flours. Gluten does have a role in baking and if you are not gluten intolerant, then experimenting with the different flours can be fun and liberating.

Try making two batches the following scone recipe from King Arthur Flour.  Make one with whole wheat flour and one with white whole wheat flour. And let us know your observations.

Whole-Wheat Raisin Scones

Ingredients

For the scones:

2 cups (8 ounces) King Arthur 100% white whole-wheat flour

2 tablespoons (⅞ ounce) sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup (4 ounces, 1 stick) chilled, unsalted butter

¾ cup (6 ounces) buttermilk

1 egg yolk (save the white for topping the scones)

½ cup dried fruit (optional)

For the topping:

1 egg white

Sparkling white sugar

Directions

1. Place the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

2. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender.

3. Whisk together the buttermilk, orange juice, and egg yolk and stir into the dry mixture until a dough forms.

4. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface, and gently and quickly knead in the optional dried fruit.

5. Pat the dough into a flat disk about 7 inches across and cut it into wedges.

6. Transfer the disk to a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet. For crispier scones, separate the wedges; for softer, higher rising scones, leave them in the circle.

7. Brush the tops of the scones with the egg white and sprinkle with sparkling white sugar. Bake them in a preheated 375 F oven for 25 to 27 minutes, inspecting at midpoint to admire and turn.

8. Remove the scones from the oven when they’re light, golden brown and cool them on a wire rack.

Top photo: The great flour experiment. Credit: Courtesy of King Arthur Flour

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The Real Secret Garden, and Its Secret Herb Recipes Image

Imagine a group of volunteers that has shown up each Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., April through October, since 1957 to plant, weed, harvest, dry, store and cook. At the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass., these volunteer Herb Associates are devoted to  the dual mission of sustaining their local botanical garden by selling a wide range of in-house produced herb products, and educating the public about herbs.

"No excuse is needed for stressing the greater use of herbs and cooking. It is not a fad, it is nothing new. ... It is we in America who have forgotten our heritage of the art of flavoring and seasoning, of the art of wholesome and delicious cooking brought to this country by our ancestors." -- "The Book of Herb Cookery," by Irene Botsford Hoffmann, 1940


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» Can’t find it? Grow it yourself

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Volunteerism, passion, curiosity and generosity define the Herb Associates of the BBG. They claim they are the only group in the country that grows and sells “on site.” Inspired by the BBG’s founder, Irene Botsford Hoffmann’s cookbook, “The Book of Herb Cookery,” published in 1940, the Herb Associates essentially created a bake sale with herbs. The herb products are the result of this dedicated group’s efforts to preserve and maintain the “show” and “working” herb gardens.

A team effort to preserve tradition

One of the oldest members, who refuses to say how long she’s been a member, prides herself on the fact that the herb garden is a show garden.

“We work in it so you don’t know we’ve worked in it.” There is no hierarchy within the group. Members naturally gravitate to the tasks that intrigue them or need doing. A volunteer who joined three years ago began working in the show garden, but when it was clear that help was needed in the kitchen, she embraced the jelly and jam making.

The members emphasize that even for them, participating in the Herb Associates is all about learning and camaraderie. Many members had never gardened before. They use the volunteer experience to learn. Another member, Iris Bass, relishes the social aspects of the group. While Iris has gleaned much garden wisdom from her six years as a member, she has also put her book-editing skills to work. She edited and designed the BBG’s “The Garden Cookbook, Celebrating 75 years of Growing and Cooking With Herbs.” The herb display garden, also known as the “show garden” exists to attract and to teach visitors. All the stonework is in its original layout and the plantings were redesigned four years ago to be more thematic and infused with pops of color. So much so, the color, come mid-August, takes your breath away.

Bay leaves from the herb gardens at Berkshire Botanical Gardens are drying on a rack. Credit: Carole Murko

Bay leaves from the herb gardens at Berkshire Botanical Gardens are drying on a rack. Credit: Carole Murko

The Herb Associates are charged with dead-heading, weeding, trimming and keeping the garden in tip-top shape. There is a Hogwarts garden that is designed with a magical mystical theme. Other plants in the garden include monkswood, the spectacular clary sage, nasturtium, fluffy poppies, lavender, allium, heliotrope, potpourri roses, tansy and much much more.

When a volunteer was seen wearing a sprig of tansy in her cap, a BBG visitor proclaimed, “I haven’t seen that since my mom used to do that.” Tansy is known for its insect repelling qualities. It is also quite pretty, resembling miniature curly kale with yellow flowers and makes great dry flowers.

The keepers of the secret recipes

The working garden is a combination of annuals and perennials. The plants are all chosen for their use in either drying or cooking. The lavender plants are a hardy species that date back to the original garden. Other perennials include lovage, also known as celery herb, which is a secret ingredient in many of the recipes. The perennials collection includes mint and, of course, chives, to name a few. The annuals include basil that is grown in large pots and nasturtium, which makes gorgeous vinegars.

While the gardening begins in April with digging, edging and preparing the soil, the kitchen gears up too. Mint that was infused and frozen over the winter is made into mint jelly. All season long, however, the kitchen relies on what the garden is producing and, in perfect harmony, creates  products with those herbs.

Dried herbs from the Berkshire Botanical Gardens are stored in repurposed jars. Credit: Carole Murko

Dried herbs from the Berkshire Botanical Gardens are stored in repurposed jars. Credit: Carole Murko

Meanwhile the drying team gets busy as well. Great baskets full of herbs are washed with water, spun dry in a salad spinner, then placed on wonderful shelf-like racks with screens to air dry, and then finished in a dehydrator. It’s an ongoing and fluid process. Once the herbs are dried, they are made into a variety of dried herb mixes such as herbs de Provence, Chilean seasoning and salt-free herbed pepper.

To become a volunteer means you become a trustee of the “secret” recipes. Currently only one person knows the recipe for the herb mustard. The recipe book is off-limits to the public. Volunteers have fun tweaking the recipes, however. After all, no one really wants lime green mint jelly. They have eliminated the food coloring and have found that patrons welcome the more natural product. Like most things in the culinary world, recipes evolve to reflect the tastes of the times. And these times are ripe for the Herb Associates’ products as they are organic, and, of course, locally grown and produced.

This wonderful group of approximately 22 volunteers produces a plethora of jellies, vinegars, dressings, mustards, sauces, marinades and dried herb mixes, all with the purpose of funding the Berkshire Botanical Garden. In exchange, they preserve a way of life, fuel a passion and mostly tend a garden.

Top photo: A volunteer in the gardens at Berkshire Botanical Gardens. Credit: Courtesy of Berkshire Botanical Gardens.

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