Last December I strayed from the topic of perennial vegetables for a change and found myself writing about making comfrey plaster. I've decided to make straying from the topic a mid-winter tradition - this means that today I can write about two other non-vegetable perennial plant uses which I've been curious about for a while.
The first is the use of the sugarleaf herb Steviarebaudiana as a sweetener. I mostly wanted to do this as an exercise in self-sufficiency (potentially one less shop-bought item) but Stevia is attractive to me as a healthier alternative to sugar too. Stevia is not hardy enough for outdoor living all year round in the UK but I've been growing Stevia on my windowsill for a while ever since I learnt it will grow in a less than fully sunny spot (of which we have few). This year I took a bunch of softwood cuttings and very soon had a whole tray of plants to harvest for leaves. The photo below is of a small more recent cutting. It will need trimming soon to prevent it from flowering and seeding so it will overwinter. Here is a photo from the permies.com site of an older bushier plant.
I ground the dry stevia leaves with a hand blender and added warm water to the leaves in a jar (in the ratio of 4 parts water to 1 part leaves). I shook it up and then let it sit on the kitchen side for 24 hours.
Warm water added
The resulting infusion was strained into a jar. I decided to use the Stevia solution to make some blackcurrant cordial by thawing some frozen blackcurrants, cooking them up with very little water to make a thick puree and diluting and sweetening the strained puree to taste.
Strained Stevia infusion
Strained cooked blackcurrants
This glass of refreshing blackcurrant cordial contains two tablespoons of puree and one and a half teaspoons of Stevia solution. It was sweet enough for me and I couldn't detect any of the Stevia aftertaste that I'd heard mentioned. Perhaps it didn't come through the strong blackcurrant flavour.
Sugar-free blackcurrant cordial
You can use Stevia for almost all recipes that call for sugar - with careful attention to quantities, because it is much sweeter than sugar, and adopting some special measures in baked recipes where sugar may have a structural and/or chemical role. (Ha! That sounded quite good I thought but I don't really know what I'm talking about now - more information here). I've only baked with Stevia in a banana cake so far - this was fine but someone pointed out to me that you don't really need any additional sweetness at all in a banana cake! More experimenting to come.
The second non-vegetable perennial plant use was inspired by reading about herb bennet (Geum urbanum) in Alys Fowler's book The Thrifty Forager. She explains that the roots of herb bennet 'impart a wonderful clove flavour' when you cook with them. Well this was the vigorous, almost thuggish, plant I'd been hard at work pulling out of the pots in the backyard where it loves to self-seed itself! I looked around and found one plant left (which I uprooted to satisfy my curiosity - but I'm not worried - its children will be back!)
Only having one root I very carefully washed off all the soil, dried it and chopped the whole thing up (even the fine hairy portions which I wouldn't have bothered with if I'd had more.) The hand blender couldn't make contact with such a small portion of chopped root so I mixed it with sugar in order to blend it and produced this spiced sugar which spelt lovely - and clovely!
Sugar spiced with clove-root
I had spiced apple pie in mind at first but then decided to adapt a recipe I found for clove biscuits. (This involved adding half a cup of melted butter to one cup of spiced sugar, stirring in half a teaspoon of vanilla extract, one beaten egg and one cup of sifted flour and then letting the dough rest in the fridge for fifteen minutes. Teaspoons of the dough on baking sheets gave two dozen cookies and were baked at 350°F for about ten minutes.)
The resultant cookies do have a lovely clove flavour and are crisp with a slightly chewy centre (but were a bit too sweet for my taste). Of course the next step should be cookies both spiced with Geum urbanum and sweetened with Stevia rebaudiana!
N.B. I sell a range of perennial vegetable plants on my website.