Several years ago my friend Norma and I took part in a “Holiday Decorating on a Shoestring Budget” workshop at a magical place in the countryside of southwest Michigan, Southern Exposure Herb Farm. We were delighted with the experience (you can read more about it here) and finally got a chance to go back recently.
The retreat we took part in this time was the European Hanging Basket and Herbes de Provence Dinner. It was a little early in the season for many spring flowers to be appearing on the farm yet, but the place still looked enchanting and it was nice to be able to see it in the daylight.
The owner, Curtis Whitaker, remembered Norma and me (or seemed to) which we found very charming. Two other groups of ladies were at our table but they all seemed to want to converse among themselves, so Norma and I had a chance to chat and catch up (and share the carafe of white wine conveniently placed in front of us).
The food was sublime: homemade bread with herb butter, chicken stuffed with brie, a fresh green salad with artichokes and more brie, haricots verts, and the most amazing scalloped potatoes I’ve ever had. Since both of us have been trying to detox and eat clean for the past several months, the meal was beyond decadent; in fact, neither of us could finish our plates. The dinner was followed by apple pie with lavender ice cream, which Norma didn’t touch but I had to at least sample. It was absolutely amazing; I never thought I’d like lavender flavored anything but the ice cream was wonderful.
Following the dinner we were split into groups and moved to different areas of the farm where the resident experts gave us a variety of demonstrations. My favorite was the lesson on how to make the perfect mojito.
Place into a glass:
- ¾ – 1 oz. simple syrup
- 4 mint leaves (no stalks)
- ½ lime, quartered
Muddle the mixture and add 1.5 – 2 oz. rum and ice. Top with club soda and stir. Take a small mint bunch and give it a “slap” to release the scent; place in glass as garnish.
Finally, we ventured into the tented workspace where we put together our baskets. The baskets were already filled with the individual plants, so all we had to do was take them out of the containers and make room in the baskets for everything, then cover it all with moss to hide the soil. The baskets are filled to the brim with edible flowers, herbs and scented botanicals that are meant to be snipped and used for cooking and drinks all season long.
The baskets include:
- Swiss chard – for soups and salads
- Purple flowering kale – decorative; leaves can be used for salads and garnish
- Viola – salads; nice as a garnish on cakes and desserts
- Dianthus – ideal to accent drinks and desserts
- Mojito mint – ideal for mojitos of course; also good for tea and dessert garnishes
- Basil – pasta sauces, salads, chicken and other meats
- Creeping rosemary – lovely with chicken, fish, potatoes, casseroles
- Lemon thyme – vegetables, chicken, salad dressings
- Parsley – any food except sweets; add at the end of cooking
- French tarragon – good with chicken, salad dressing, sauces
Here’s the finished basket. It needs to be hung in full sun with good ventilation, and the plants should be trimmed regularly to keep them full and healthy. I can’t wait to hang mine at the lakehouse to enjoy all summer long!
A few other tips and ideas we brought home include:
- Herb butter is easy to make: make sure to use sweet cream UNSALTED butter that is at room temperature (but not runny). Mix in 8 lemon thyme leaves and 8 chopped rosemary leaves (no stems), place into a pastry bag and pipe onto baking sheet; freeze and use as needed.
- Herbed brie is a simple, delicious appetizer: trim the rind off the top and sides but leave it on the bottom so it can served as a base. Sprinkle the top with chopped rosemary, basil, lemon thyme and lemon zest. Slice into small pieces and place onto individual crackers an hour or so before your guests arrive.
- For the best homemade pesto, use Pecorino cheese.
- Plant creeping rosemary in strawberry jars.
- As the lemon thyme spreads in your basket, add soil to the tentacles (mist with a bit of water). This will help it grow. In the garden, press the tentacles of creeping herbs into the soil.
- Violas are lovely as garnishes on cupcakes or muffins. Use a bit of honey to make them stick to the top.
Southern Exposure is truly a hidden gem in southwest Michigan. If you have the opportunity to visit, I highly recommend it. It’s a wonderful outing for friends, sisters and mother/daughter groups, book clubs and bridal parties. They offer a plethora of hands-on workshops in the spring and fall, as well as theme dinners, bus tours, garden weddings and travel adventures around the world. To learn more, visit here. Just make sure to sign up early because all of their events fill up fast!