Stir Crazy: Tips for growing herbs in the winter

News-DemocratDecember 9, 2013 

When I visited my sister recently in Chicago, I was amazed to see basil growing in a pot. She can't grow it in the summer outside, but in a room with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides, her basil is flourishing in the winter.

I forget all about fresh herbs in the winter, and I know I shouldn't. I have a sunroom where I could easily grow them. But I spend all summer babying what I grow outside and I wipe my hands of the work once cold weather arrives.

Still, if you have a south or west-facing window, you can enjoy fresh herbs in the winter without too much effort, says mygardenguide.com.

Some herbs are better suited to the indoor life this time of year than others, including parsley, oregano, thyme, sage, chives and basil. As far as caring for your herb plants, there's not much to it:

1. Water in the morning or early afternoon and never at night, which might cause leaves to become moldy or prone to fungus.

2. Don't overwater the plants, says the website. Some, like oregano, prefer the soil on the dry side. Soil should be moist but not waterlogged.

3. The reverse is also true. Make sure you water enough. With enough sun and a bit of TLC you should be able to enjoy fresh herbs all winter long.

Belly up to the bar

While I enjoy making cookies for the holidays, if you put one in front of me, then offer me a brownie, I'm going to take the brownie. Or, the blondie. Or, almost any bar cookie.

I guess I like the richer, gooey texture. And there's so much you can do with a bar mix, like adding nuts and flavored chips and chunks of chocolate.

Plus, a big bonus for anyone looking to cut down on time spent making sweet treats for Christmas is that a bar mix is made in one pan. In and out of the oven once. Cut up into squares or diamonds. Rich enough so if you make a double batch, you'll get a couple dozen or so treats.

I offer this recipe from Ree Drummond, the amazing home cook, blogger and author of " The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays" (William Morrow, $29.99). It's an easy one that will have friends and family asking for the recipe.

Dulce de leche comes in a small can. Think of it as a creamy, caramel milk. It's really condensed milk cooked down, so look for it in the same area of the supermarket -- probably the baking aisle. If it's not there, check the Mexican food section.

Dulce De Leche Brownies

Nonstick baking spray

5 (1-ounce) squares unsweetened chocolate

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

7 ounces (about 1/2 can) dulce de leche

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Generously spray an 8-inch square baking pan or an 8-by-10-inch baking pan with nonstick baking spray.

Place the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave it in about 45-second intervals, stirring each time, until it's completely melted. Set it aside to cool for 20 minutes or so.

Add the butter and the sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Cream them together until they're light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. With the mixer on low, slowly drizzle in the chocolate until it's all combined. Add the flour and vanilla, and mix it until it's all combined, scraping the sides of the bowl halfway through. Spread the batter into the greased pan.

Next, crack open the can of dulce de leche, and place half of it in a glass bowl. Warm it in the microwave for 30 to 45 seconds, just to make it a little more stirrable.

Drop large dollops of dulce de leche on the surface of the batter, then use a knife to slowly swirl it through the brownie batter. Don't drag the knife sideways through the batter; hold it so the thin side of the knife leads the way.

Bake the brownies 45 to 50 minutes, or until the center is almost totally set. Let the brownies cool in the pan 15 minutes, and then carefully turn them out of the pan and let them cool completely. Use a very sharp serrated knife to cut the brownies into squares, and place them on a pretty cake stand. Makes 16 brownies.

Sweet gift

This 2002 recipe from Taste of Home is so pretty: Creamy white fudge glistening with colorful pieces of gum drops. What a nice gift this would make. Be warned: It's very sweet, so cut the pieces very small.

Gumdrop Fudge

1 1/2 pounds white candy coating, coarsely chopped*

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups chopped gumdrops (spice ones work very well)

Line a 9-inch square pan with foil; set aside.

In a heavy saucepan, combine the candy coating, milk and salt. Cook and stir over low heat until candy coating is melted. Remove from the heat; stir in vanilla and gumdrops.

Spread into prepared pan. Cover and refrigerate until firm.

Using foil, remove fudge from the pan; cut into 1-inch squares. Store in an airtight container at room temperature. Yield: about 3 pounds.

Each1-inch square piece has 74 calories, 3 grams fat, 2 mg cholesterol, 11 mg sodium, 12 grams carbohydrates.

*Note: Ghirardelli or other premium white baking chips can be substituted.

Here's how to reach me: Phone, 239-2664; e-mail, sboyle@bnd.com; or write, Suzanne Boyle, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427.

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