Laura Lencioni

The Oak Park Farmers Market’s 45th season is underway from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday through October. Vendor stalls are moved from the usual Pilgrim Church parking lot site on Lake Street to nearby streets to allow room for safe social distancing and preorders offered via an online app as part of a pilot program.

This year has been a time of upheaval and change for everyone. Of the many changes that happened in my life, two of them have in particular changed the way I experience the Oak Park Farmers Market. One, I am high risk for COVID-19, and two, I have, in the midst of many unwanted changes, had the opportunity to work on (and will eventually purchase) a farm in SW Michigan. This is a dream come true for me and truly the silver lining to the whole coronavirus situation.

Consequently, I have not been able to shop the live market all season and, since I am in Michigan working on my farm most weekends, I have only been able to shop the online market occasionally. I really miss the weekly interaction with the farmers at the live market and especially miss cooking with the astounding variety of local produce and meats. So, when I sat down to write this blog post I struggled at first to find something to share based on ingredients I had purchased at OPFM. I was working in my kitchen garden thinking about topics for this blog and found myself staring at some pretty flowers in my pollinator patch.

It dawned on me that this particular garden bed consisted exclusively of plants purchased from OPFM early in the season, and now they are a lush, beautiful perennial garden that, among other things, feeds my brother’s honeybees. Then it occurred to me…pretty much all of the plants in my garden that I did not start from seed came from OPFM. Also, it occurred to me that I don’t believe I have ever shared with Oak Park Eats one of my favorite culinary adventures, making herbal tea! 

If you are a gardener, regardless of whether you are a novice or expert, knowing where your plants came from is very gratifying. This is especially true if you have an interest in native or heirloom varieties. OPFM is one of my favorite places to buy plants in the spring. For one thing, the plants have been locally raised and so are well adapted to our climate. In addition, it is fun and helpful to talk to the farmer about varieties of plants and how to grow them. The selection is fantastic with some unusual varieties. The plants tend to be larger and more vigorous than plants purchased from a hardware store or grocery store. The plants I purchase from OPFM consistently outperform the plants I purchase elsewhere, and even those I start myself (I don’t have a commercial greenhouse to start my seeds in).

This spring, I started a “kitchen garden” that consisted of 4, 30′ long rows that were 4′ wide. My OPFM plant purchases really helped jump-start my garden.  Here is what I bought and planted, and here is what I am doing with my harvest:

From I Love Native Plants, I purchased:

  • Spotted Bee Balm- This pollinator-friendly flower also makes a healthy herbal tea that tastes like a cross between oregano and mint
  • Wild Bergamot or wild bee balm – This bee balm has purple flowers. This pollinator-friendly flower also makes a healthy herbal tea that tastes like a cross between oregano and mint
  • Purple Coneflower- makes a good herbal tea ingredient that helps boost the immune system during cold and flu season
  • Illinois Bundle Flower-This flower has been used medicinally in the past, but mostly the seeds are good food for wildlife
  • Sky Blue Aster-I don’t eat asters personally, but they are an important fall food source for bees, and I like honey.
  • Anise Hyssop-This herb has a nice licorice flavor that is a great ingredient in herbal tea mixes.
  • Joe Pye Weed-this can be used as a tea herb but should be used with caution. I haven’t made tea with it yet, but it is another fantastic way to feed honeybees
  • Butterfly Weed-This is another herb that can be used medicinally, but I have yet to try it, as it should be used with caution. This is another great pollinator plant.
  • Royal Catchfly- This flower has striking red blossoms. I don’t think it has any culinary or medicinal uses but it sure is pretty.

Nichols Family Farm:

  • Cauliflower Starts- Unfortunately for me, the resident garden groundhog seems to have beaten me to the harvest. I only got one small floret, that I ate raw right in the garden. Tasty, but gone too soon.
  • Broccoli Starts-Mr. Groundhog got ALL of my broccoli! Next year I need to protect my plants better.
  • Green Cabbage- I just harvested these last week, and am making sauerkraut
  • Lemon Verbena-This lemony fresh herb is one of my all-time favorite herbal tea ingredients
  • Pineapple Sage- This plant has a milder flavor than regular sage but has beautiful red flowers. Added to a dried herbal tea mixture, this ingredient mellows out the flavor of a tea blend.
  • French Tarragon-tarragon is great on meats. I especially like it on pork. However, it adds a nice flavor to an herbal tea mix!
  • Greek Oregano- The quintessential spaghetti sauce herb, this also pairs well with sage in an herbal tea blend.
  • Arugula- I’ve been eating this spicy salad green all summer in my salads. However, it also tastes good as a cooked green especially paired with radish or turnip greens for a spicy blend!
  • Cilantro- This herb goes well with tacos, but I also love to add it to green fruit smoothies along with Kale for an extra boost of nutrition
  • Ginger (Peruvian Yellow) The health benefits of this plant are well known. I love to chop the roots up and freeze them for adding into smoothies. I also love to dry the leaves and to add a milder ginger flavor to an herbal tea mix.
  • Chives- I like to chop up chives and add them to salads. They are also amazing in omelets.
  • Grey Sage- My favorite use of sage is for seasoning a free-range holiday turkey, but it also makes a fantastic tea herb.

As you can see, even though I am no longer shopping the market weekly I do actually eat from the farmers market almost every single day. Upon reflection, I realize that my garden wouldn’t have been nearly as productive without the plants I purchased. I am grateful for the professional head start my plants got in greenhouses on local farms! Don’t think it is too late to get started on growing your garden, I Love Native Plants will be back this fall and it is the perfect time of year to plant many perennials!

Brew a cup of garden tea

I’d like to leave you with my “recipe” for herbal tea. Full disclosure, it isn’t a recipe per se but more of my general approach to making herbal tea mixes.

What I like to do is to wash and shake or pat dry my tea herbs.  Depending on the type of herb I will hang bundles upside down in a well-ventilated area for several weeks, or pull the leaves off of the stems and use a dehydrator.

Herbs can also be dried in the oven in a single layer on cookie sheets if your oven allows for temps of 200 or less. However, most ovens are a bit too hot and you will lose some flavor this way. Air-dried or dehydrator really is the best way to go.

Once dried, I store each kind of herb in its own mason jar. Then, I take a pinch of this and a pinch of that and put them in tea bags or in a tea infuser and steep in boiling water for 2-5 min for a milder tea or 5-7 minutes for a strong tea. Sometimes, I mix a bunch of dried herbs in a large bowl and pre-make tea bags or I make a separate mason jar of my favorite mixes and label accordingly.

Here are a few of my favorite herb combos from the herbs I grew this year:

  • bee balm, anise hyssop and sage
  • lemon verbena and anise hyssop
  • French tarragon, sage, and oregano
  • ginger and lemon verbena

However, the possibilities are endless, and I recommend experimenting with your own blends to see what you like best. Use the sniff test…if you like the way it smells as you put the herbs in the infuser, you will likely enjoy the taste of the tea. Herbal tea is the perfect way to aid digestion after a good meal or to unwind at the end of a cool autumn day.

*Guest blogger Laura Lencioni is the chair of the Oak Park Farmers Market Commission.

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