Thursday, September 24, 2009

Meet Steve

This spring I went to an herb and plant festival and purchased a stevia plant. Let me be honest, I’m not crazy about stevia sweeteners in packets because I’m one of those people who can detect an off-herby bitter flavor those packets impart to foods. While I do not mind herby-bitter flavors in savory foods like soups and stews, I do mind it in foods like tea and puddings. So I purchased a stevia in hopes that fresh stevia would be better than the stuff in the packets. Plus I wanted to see if I could grow it. (Part of my gardening madness is seeing if I can grow it and keep it alive.)

When I got home, I plucked a leaf off Steve to taste it. The leaf has no flavor at all until you bite it, then it releases a sweetness. I would hesitate to call that sweetness sugary or honey-like, but it is sweet. The more you chew the more sweetness is released as are the more herby qualities of the stevia. The herbiness is a bit like anise with undertones of tarrragon. Not too bad.

Anyhow, the first problem I ran into is that stevia is a subtropical plant. I do not live in a subtropical area, so Steve has to come indoors during the winter. Which meant I had to find a container that would be large enough to accommodate Steve in the fall. In my research on the Net, I found that Steve had the potential to grow a few feet. That would mean Steve’s container would have to be a few feet too. But I decided to buy Steve a 10 inch container and move him to a bigger container in the fall if he needed it.

The second problem was Steve’s appearance. He was a single, long, gangly stem. The Net sources I read said that you can cut the stevia to make it branch. I cut Steve to the second leaf juncture. He looked pitiful. As I examined the 15 inch cutting more, I thought it would be a shame to throw it away. Besides, what if Steve did not survive his haircut? I couldn’t let Steve die: he cost me $5 plus another $8.50 for his container! I divided the cutting into 5 sections, grabbed a jar of rooting hormone and planted the Stevettes in a potting soil mix. Then I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

It took a week, but Steve began to grow side branches. The new growth looked healthier and the leaves were larger. I continued trimming Steve and using the leaves. The Stevettes (Steve, Stefan, Stefano, Esteban and Stephie) did not do much at all for 1 month. Then Steve Jr began sprouting side shoots, followed by the other Stevettes. I trimmed them back too to encourage new growth and they have been doing nicely.

I will continue taking care of Steve, Steve Jr, Stefan, Stefano, Esteban and Stephie and see if they will do well over the winter. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

What I learned about using fresh stevia:

1. The leaves must be cut or bruised in order to release the sweetness. Floating a leaf in water or trying to infuse it as you would tea, ain’t going to do much.

2.The sweetness of the leaves vary. Sometimes the leaves are sweeter than other times. Sources on the Net say that the leave are sweetest right before the plant blooms. I allowed Steve to get bud and his leaves are much sweeter now than before. Also I have found that the sweetness varies from plant to plant. For example, Steve Jr. is sweeter than Stefan, Stefano, Esteban and Stephie.

3.Stevia stems have no sweetness. It’s only the leaves. So don’t bother trying to extract anything from the stems.

4.Stevia leaves can be dried. Ground dried stevia leaves are called "green stevia powder". I have dried some stevia leaves and will be experimenting with that over the winter.

5.Fresh stevia leaves when prepared using the method described in the Stevia Water recipe does not impart a bitter-herb flavor to the food, per my tastebuds.

Stevia Water
Stevia leaves
You will need a mortar and pestle or a sturdy bowl and a spoon with a heavy handle. For every stevia leaf use 1 teaspoon of water.

Put the stevia leaves and the appropriate amount of water into the mortar. Using the pestle, pound the leaves. If you are using a sturdy bowl and heavy handled spoon, put the leaves and water into the bowl, holding the handle in your hand, so that the spoon belly is facing up, carefully, pound the leaves to bruise them.

The leaves will turn a darker green color where they have been bruised. When the leaves have been thorough bruised, remove them, taking care to squeeze as much liquid from the leaves as possible. The liquid in the mortar will be greenish. Taste it and it will be sweet. Use immediately or freeze in ice cube trays for future use.

Just remember that since the sweetness of the leaves may vary, your Stevia water may vary from batch to batch too.

Cold Infusion Herb Tea
Makes 1-2 quarts
2 sprigs stevia
2-3 sprigs fresh herbs (mint, tarragon, lemon verbena, lemon balm, lavender, etc.)
1-2 quarts cold water

Place the stevia and herbs on a chopping board. Using the back of a knife or meat tenderizer, tap/beat the herbs until herbs turn a darker green color. That darker green color indicates that the cell walls have been damaged and the essential oils (in the case of the stevia, the sweetness) have been released. Scrape the herbs into a pitcher. Add the water.

Allow to infuse in the refrigerator overnight. Before serving, stir to evenly distribute the flavors. Once you have finished the beverage, don’t throw away the herbs. Simply add another quart of water and allow to infuse overnight again. This can be done one more time before the flavors are completely used up.

Good tea combinations:
Tarragon and lemon verbena
Tarragon and lemon balm
Mint and lemon balm
Mint and borage

Be aware that these herbs have some medicinal properties. For example, both tarragon and lemon verbena are diuretics and lavender has some sedative properties. For that matter, stevia is said to be a diuretic too.

Also, you may make the iced tea by using boiling water, rather than cold water. But I think the cold infusion technique results in a complex flavor and aroma more true to the fresh herb. Heat will cause some of those aromatic oils to evaporate into the air. So the air will be well flavored but your herbal tea will not.

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