#UnearthedParty: Book Review + Cooking with Herbs

Today I have a special book review to share with you: Alexandra Risen’s new release, Unearthed: Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden. You might know about my participation over the part year in the Book Club Cookbook cooking project [see all my posts here]. Well, the same lovely group of food and book-loving folks are now launching a new food blog party feature… and I am happy to be part of the fun! So without further ado… my contribution to #UnearthedParty!

#UnearthedParty - a book review & herb cooking ideas on thepajamachef.com

Here is a description of the book from the publisher:

In this moving memoir, a woman digs into a garden and into the past and finds secrets, beauty, and acceptance.

Alex’s father dies just as she and her husband buy a nondescript house set atop an acre of wilderness that extends into a natural gorge in the middle of the city. Choked with weeds and crumbling antique structures, the abandoned garden turned wild jungle stirs cherished memories of Alex’s childhood: when her home life became unbearable, she would escape to the forest. In her new home, Alex can feel the power of the majestic trees that nurtured her in her youth.

She begins to beat back the bushes to unveil the garden’s mysteries. At the same time, her mother has a stroke and develops dementia and Alex discovers an envelope of yellowed documents while sorting through her father’s junk pile. The papers hold clues to her Ukrainian-born parents’ mysterious past. She reluctantly musters the courage to uncover their secrets, while discovering the plants hidden in the garden — from primroses and maple syrup–producing sugar maples to her mother’s favorite, lily of the valley. As every passionate gardener knows, to spend time with the soil is the opposite of escapism — it is to embrace our own circle of life and hold it close.

As usual, my five point review:

  • I loved the theme of restoration and redemption in this book. The author had a hard family life… she never thought she would marry and have a family because of her past, but eventually she did. I loved reading about how she found healing through her garden. As she worked with the soil, clearing the overgrown land, her soul and her spirit were cleared as well. It was like this project was meant just for her… and reading about this was captivating. As the author’s story is told through present-day incidents and flashbacks, the result is a seamless story about triumph over life and the land.
  • The author’s parents survived World War II in the Ukraine, and later immigrated to Canada. I enjoyed learning about that country, and considering the effects of immigration and war on families and the next generation. We live in a privileged time, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that.
  • The book was well written and wove together memoir-type musings, information about gardening, and enthusiasm about foraging and even a little bit about living off the land [in the city]. The author’s passion for gardening is evident. My one complaint about the book is that some of the gardening/foraging information is a little dry and textbook-y. But it IS informative, and made me want to work outside. 🙂
  • Each chapter cleverly was named with a different food/plant that connected with the themes of the chapter. Sour cherries, sumac, mulberries… the plants run the gamut from common to unique, and each chapter includes a recipe using its respective plant. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily make many of these recipes just because I don’t have any idea where to forage these items in Nashville, but the book does provide suggestions on foraging if you are interested and emphasizes–multiple times–how to do so safely.
  • Lastly, this book has inspired me to tackle tough problems, whether the overgrown elements of our yard that we’ve ignored [#truth] or even things with #BabyVolde such as improving his nap habits. I can’t emphasize enough that this isn’t just a book about the restoration of a garden, but about the restoration of a life too.

But wait, that’s not all! Normally my book reviews stop here, but since this book is all about food and gardening, I’ve gotta share the food love. 🙂 Instead of making a recipe from the book–they are all SO creative but the ingredients are a little tough for me to source seeing as I have a newborn… I thought I would round up some of tried and true methods of incorporating fresh herbs in my kitchen. I think herbs are a great way to ease into gardening [and maybe the author would agree]. Most are super simple to grow and only need some water and sunlight to thrive. Every year, I always grow a bunch out on my deck and it’s so fun to snip a few while cooking.

Here are some of my favorite ways to use fresh herbs! When I can, I’ve added links to recipes or basic instructions. If you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments. Enjoy!

I like to make herbs the main star in the following dishes:

  • for grilling/baking – marinate chicken, fish, or beef with a herb marinade. Blend together several handfuls of fresh herbs like basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, and parsley with some vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Let meat marinate in a plastic bag for 8-24 hours, then cook as desired.
  • for pesto sauce to use with pasta, grilled meat, etc. – you don’t have to use basil and pine nuts for a fabulous pesto! I love making mint-pistachio pesto and thai basil-almond pesto. Yum!
  • for salad dressings – I grow thai basil just to make this dressing every year. No joke!
  • for flavored water – I love keeping a pitcher of water in the fridge and adding a handful of mint or rosemary leaves to the water, using a wooden spoon to muddle them. Mmm, so refreshing! Sometimes I add fresh berries too!
  • for making shortbread cookies fancy – these rosemary shortbread stars are my favorite!

Herbs are also great when you want to add extra flavor to your basic favorites.

  • homemade hummus – this cilantro lime version is fabulous! Don’t be limited by the hummus varieties in the store. Fresh mint + pineapple sage is a wonderful combo of herbs that would be great in hummus!
  • roasted chickpeas – basically, drain and rinse a can of chickpeas then toss with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, salt, pepper, and 3 tablespoons finely chopped herbs of your choice. I like fresh basil, marjoram, and chives. Bake on a rimmed baking sheet for 25-30 minutes at 400 degrees F, flipping halfway through. Roasted chickpeas are a great snack and are also wonderful on top of a salad.
  • any sort of cheesy or potato-y dish, like Baked Cauli-Tots or Mashed Potato Casserole
  • any type of biscuits or rolls
  • herbs can be mixed in with salad greens for added freshness and flavor
  • herb simple syrups are wonderful for making fresh drinks in the summertime. Your favorite lemonade, iced tea, or iced coffee recipes can be amped up by making a herb-based simple syrup. My ratio for simple syrup is to mix 1 cup each sugar [or honey] and water in a saucepan. Add 1/2 cup herbs, then bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Allow to cool and let the herbs infuse for 30-45 minutes. Strain out herbs, and store in a jar in the refrigerator. I like making honey lemon-thyme syrup, ginger-mint syrup, honey-rosemary syrup, and plain ‘ole mint syrup… but I can honestly say that I’ve never made a BAD simple syrup. 🙂 Mix into your favorite drinks as desired.

For more herb inspiration, check out this article from Fine Cooking! Don’t forget to harvest your herbs at the end of the summer. Just wash and dry, then hang up for a few days to dry completely. Store in a jar and use all winter long. You can also preserve herbs by freezing in olive oil using an ice cube tray. I’ve also heard you can just freeze washed and dried herbs in a plastic bag in the freezer. Never tried that but it sounds easy enough!

I know this post may be a little all over the place, but I hope you see how much I liked this book and cooking with herbs. Hope you check out this great book and start cooking with herbs. 🙂 Please share your favorite ways to use herbs in the comments below!

Please visit #UnearthedParty folks on social media to learn more. I also want to give a shoutout to the author for her WONDERFUL maple granola, and to Rolling Rock Farm for sending a gift pack of sea salt & pepper blends. Thank you all for making this party something special!
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publisher
Alexandra Risen, author
Book Club Cookbook, party organizer
Disclosure: I received a complimentary pre-release copy of this book from the publisher. However, I was not required to write a positive review. The thoughts expressed above are entirely my own. Thanks for the chance to read this great book and join in the party!

 

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