Rose Marie Spiro couldn't keep her gift for gardening to herself even if she wanted to. She has 20 different herbs growing by the bushelful in a 12-by-25 foot plot in her Alexandria front yard. If she didn't harvest and give them away for Christmas in the form of various flavored oils and butters and as dried bouquets, it wouldn't be long before they'd creep out of the garden and take over the front lawn.
"I just can't use them all," she said, "and I feel guilty throwing them away." So she does what she loves to do most: She gives them away.
Every year, around the first of September, Spiro goes to work hanging tiny herb bouquets upside down to dry in her garage. Once dried, some are left in their bouquets and given away to friends to set by their fireplaces. ("A sprig or two in a roaring fire smells wonderful," Spiro said.) Other herbs are separated from their stems and carefully placed, uncrushed, in attractive plastic containers with tight-fitting lids to keep them fresh. She labels the containers and gives them away with an enthusiastic repertoire of recipe suggestions.
Those herbs that aren't dried are used in various combinations to flavor red wine vinegars and peanut-vegetable oils, and left to age in recycled wine bottles. Already she's stashed 15 bottles away for the holidays and has plans to put up plenty more before the first frost. Still other herbs are chopped into butter with a food processor and then frozen. Lucky recipients get a loaf of her homemade Italian bread to go with a stick of flavored butter.
"People are usually thrilled to get something that you took the time to make," Spiro said. And while she's been known to drive 185 miles just to pick blackberries with large seeds for jam, most of her gift recipes are trouble-free and take very little time to put together. "It's true that by the time I figure in gas and time, it would have been cheaper to buy a case of ready-made blackberry jam, but to a true connoisseur it's just not the same," she said.
"Anyway, gardening is much cheaper than a psychiatrist," said Spiro with a laugh. "It's restful, like cooking" -- her second favorite culinary pastime. Growing things is a true first love nurtured by her Italian grandmother with whom she raised herbs and pole beans as a child in a Worcester, Mass., apartment. "I think this kind of thing skips a generation," she said, explaining that her own mother directs her attention far away from weeding a garden or spending hours cooking in front of a stove.
"But I really like it," she said. "I like all the different characteristics of plants and watching the way they grow. Some are creepers, like camomile and lamb's ear; others grow tall and upright like borage." She put borage in her garden more for the way the bright blue flowers look in the ground than to float in mulled cider, a beverage she serves to guests on cool fall evenings. The borage mixes in nicely with her garden's color scheme of pink, blue, lavender and white flowers, Spiro explained.
The garden is really "English mishmash," she said, "with no theme at all. It's very unstructured." To the untrained eye it looks like a colorful flower garden with lots of green between the flowers. But a second look reveals creative planning and brings admiration for the herbs both while they are in the ground and once they are clipped and brought inside.
A Mediterranean section, for example, is flush with two types of oregano (Greek and Italian), flat-leafed parsley and lots of basil. Fennel goes into meatballs and adds scent to dining room centerpieces. Flat-leafed parsley, she says, goes in everything she cooks ("none of that curly stuff for me") to complement all the garlic that she also tries to load into as many dishes as possible.
A bush of chives grows heartily, transplanted 3 1/2 years ago when she moved from Massachusetts with her 12-year-old son, Jason, and husband, Stephen Levenson, administrator of the Alexandria Human Rights Commission. There are rosemary, two types of thyme, lemon balm and a large patch of mint (which spread out of control in one short season, she shrugged). For the three Persian cats, Spiro added a bush of catnip. They love it," she said. "They roll in it, get real playful, then go to sleep."
Herbs that she doesn't give away or use in her everyday cooking go into experimental ethnic dishes, which she takes to her co-workers at Nuevo Mundo, an Alexandria clothing store which she manages. And all the employes pitch in to work on a tiny garden in a back yard behind the store.
But her gardening isn't confined to home and work; Spiro says she's also a member of Alexandria's Beautification Committee, and that means digging up median strips along King Street and planting bulbs.
For overflowing herb gardens, and the coming holidays, here are a few of Spiro's inexpensive gift ideas. ITALIAN HERB VINEGAR (Fills 4 24-ounce bottles) 72 ounces distilled white vinegar 24 ounces bottle red wine vinegar 24 peppercorns 8 cloves garlic, peeled Bunch each bruised fresh herbs (flat-leafed Italian parsley, oregano, basil)*
Simmer all ingredients together for five minutes. Strain out herbs, reserve peppercorns and garlic. Into each hot sterilized wine bottle add 2-3 fresh basil leaves, 2 cloves garlic, 4 to 6 peppercorns, 2 sprigs parsley and several oregano stalks. Use the handle of a wooden spoon to push them in. Fill bottles with strained vinegar. Cork and keep in a cool dark place. *Note: Can also substitute fennel, dill, mint, dill and mint combination, chives, tarragon. HERB BUTTERS (Makes 1 stick) 1 stick unsalted butter 2-3 cloves garlic 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs* 1/2 teaspoon salt
Place all ingredients in a food processor and process with a metal blade until butter and all ingredients are well mixed and form a ball on the blade. Remove and roll in waxed paper. Label and freeze for up to six months. HERB BLENDS
Hang herbs to dry upside down until completely dry (takes 1 to 2 weeks, depending on the humidity). Remove leaves from the stems, without crumbling, and place in attractive glass jars or plastic containers with tight-fitting lids. Store in a cool, dark place and herbs will keep their pungency for up to one year.
For vegetables: One part each marjoram, basil, chervil, parsley, chives. Add pinch each of savory and thyme.
For fish: One part each tarragon, basil, marjoram. Pinch each chervil and parsley.
For chicken and veal: Four parts each marjoram, basil, chervil and parsley.
For beef: One part each marjoram, basil, parsley, lovage or celery leaves. Pinch each summer savory and thyme.
For lamb: Four parts marjoram, basil, parsley. One part each rosemary and savory. HOT CHILI OIL (For use in Chinese stir-frys) (Makes 1 gallon) 2 quarts peanut oil 2 quarts vegetable oil 8 jalapeno peppers, left whole 8 red chili peppers (fresh or dried) 1 tablespoon sichuan peppercorns 6 to 8 cloves garlic
Place ingredients in a sterilized, wide-mouthed gallon container. Set in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks. Strain peppers and peppercorns out of oil, reserving each separately. Divide peppers and peppercorns among bottles (you will need to push the jalapenos through with the end of a wooden spoon). Pour in the oil, cork and store in a cool, dark place.