67-County Alabama Garden Party: Conecuh County

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The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt (left). Conecuh County Fresh Sage, Sausage Kebobs (right)

The Cullman Tribune is celebrating the Alabama Bicentennial (1819-2019) with statewide field reporting by Alabama Master Gardener/Botanical Artist Ben Johnson South. This year-long feature, “The 67-County Alabama Garden Party,” will spotlight different counties each week. Each county will get its own “quilt block,” along with a historical profile, and we’ll share a recipe specific to the area. At the end of the year, all 67 counties will be put in a book to commemorate the Bicentennial.

Conecuh County

“Are you going to Evergreen fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.” Let’s ask Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to revise their hit song to celebrate Conecuh County, “Alabama’s Herb Garden.”

What would famed Conecuh Sausage be without the seasonings? What would Knud Nielsen, the Conecuh County-to-the-world supplier of dried flowers and foliage, be without all the herb pods and natural botanical beauty? In this sun-blessed place where HERBS & HUMANS come together, there are baskets, trugs and wheelbarrows brimming with pretty, precious, popular, priceless, pungent, palate-and-proboscis-pleasing herbal tastes and aromas.

Many herbs have origins on the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea and thrive in sunny places like Conecuh County with sand-rich soil which drains more than hard-packed clay terrain. Herbs are resilient like the determined people who established this county in 1818. Herbs don’t require much coddling and can be grown in most parts of Alabama in beds, borders, pots or even on a snippers-ready, kitchen windowsill.

To enjoy a year-round harvest of herbs, here are some lessons from Conecuh County gardens:

  • SOIL- Most herbs prefer to grow in nonacidic, lime-laden soil. Your planting area should be soil-tested for acidity and your best, local resource for that important step in each of the 67 counties in our state is the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) office. In Conecuh County, the program coordinator is Cynthia Knowlton, 251-578-2762. If your ACES soil-test indicates high acidity you will be advised how to add lime, crushed seashells, wood ash or bonemeal in small amounts for ideal herb-growing conditions.
  • SUN OR SHADE- Sage, oregano, rosemary and thyme, all perennial, aromatic, shrubby herbs, want lots of sunshine; cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley and mints prefer shady northern exposures with moist soil and indirect light; and, basil, chives, horseradish, lemon balm, lovage, sorrel and tarragon need only a few hours of sun each day.
  • BUNCHES OF BASILS- This is one of my favorite culinary herbs and there are several, distinct tastes to enjoy: Common Green is your all-purpose Genovese Basil, the one you want for pesto and tomato sauce; Thai delivers spicier flavor with licorice bottom notes, arresting in sweet-and-salty Asian dishes; African Blue has a clove-y hint of camphor and makes an intriguing tea; Cinnamon Basil tastes like its name suggests and is magical in homemade ice cream and fruit cobblers; Petite Basil is the lovechild of basil and micro-greens and is prized by top chefs.
  • RESTRAIN THE MINT- Alabama mint is livelier than a baby in a topless bar and needs to be planted in containers before it covers your yard faster than morning dew or kudzu.
  • PLANTS + PANTRY- This is not an exhaustive list, but consider these cooking herbs to plant for your favorite dishes: BASIL—tomato salads, potato salad, fondue, dips, mushrooms, squash, pesto, fish; BAY LEAF—tomato aspic, gravies, beets, corned beef, poultry; CHIVES—potato salad, omelets, carrots, baked potatoes; DILL—salad dressings, cream cheese, egg dishes, veal roasts, lamb, shellfish; GARLIC—(enhances just about everything except maybe kissing) salad dressing, marinades, eggplant, rice, tomatoes, beans, grilled meats, hamburgers, casseroles; MARJORAM—salads, seafood cocktail, peas, onions, spinach, stews; MUSTARD—macaroni salad, potato salad, biscuits, sauces, baked beans, cabbage, mushrooms, pork chops, cold meats; OREGANO—sandwiches, salads, breads, sunchokes, stews, baked fish; PARSLEY—garnish, salads, sauces, egg dishes, asparagus, fish stews; ROSEMARY—fruit cocktail, fruit salad, herb butter, parsnips (I read this in a book but I really don’t know one living soul in Alabama who eats parsnips and I’ve eaten in all, 67 counties), roast meat, meat loaf; SAGE—spreads, beans, beets, peas, spinach, squash, tomatoes, pork like our Conecuh Sage recipe; TARRAGON—avocado salad, cheese spreads, marinades, asparagus, poultry, Thanksgiving turkey dressing; THYME—seafood cocktail, chicken salad, vegetable salads, beets, Irish potatoes, meat loaf, stews, broiled and stuffed fish.

Here are some other positive, pleasurable ways PLANTS + PEOPLE come together in Conecuh County including an original recipe for CONECUH COUNTY FRESH SAGE, SAUSAGE KABOBS:

*CONECUH COUNTY FARMERS MARKET- Old School Road, Evergreen, AL 36401; open Tuesdays 1-4 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m.-noon, May-August

*CONECUH COUNTY PLANT PROVIDERS- Millers Trading Company, 103 Cooper St., Evergreen, AL 36401, 251-578-1672; Conecuh Seed & Feed, 803 West Front St., Evergreen, AL 36401, 251-578-2833

*KNUD NIELSEN- This international corporation was founded in Conecuh County by Danish plantsman, Knud (pronounced “kuh-nute”) Nielsen, Sr. in 1913 and is still family-owned with Knud Nielsen III as chairman and his cousin, Tom Nielsen, president and COO. The unique, plant-centric, Alabama business  has delighted gardening enthusiasts, decorators and gift shoppers with mounds of dried grasses and grains, pods and pine cones, mosses and more for more than 100 years. The original Knud Nielsen was an immigrant from Copenhagen, Denmark who heard tales of the prolific plant life in Evergreen, Alabama. www.knudnielsen.com (Personal testimony: Though a sophisticated company doing business in many countries, the friendly folks at Knud Neilsen provide a customer-delighting combination of efficiency + Southern charm.)

*CONECUH SAUSAGE- Family-owned and operated in Evergreen since 1947, this major provider is known for high-quality pork, blended with natural seasonings,  cooked over hickory wood; It offers six types of sausage including a spicier, Cajun-style and newly popular, All-Natural Hickory Smoked Sausage with no MSG and no nitrates. www.conecuhsausage.com

*CONECUH SAUSAGE FESTIVAL- More than 5,000 fun-loving people come from as far away as Canada to this smokin’-hot, Alabama food fest; this year’s event is Saturday, Oct. 19.

*BROWN HAWKINS RURAL LEARNING CENTER- A farm heritage hub teaching people of all ages about 19th century agriculture in the Piney Woods region of Alabama.

*CASTLEBERRY COMMUNITY- …is Alabama’s “Strawberry Capital,” celebrating many decades of sweetness and sales.

*BULL SLOUGH BRIDGE- Built in 1924, is a single-lane “pony truss” transport spanning the Sepulga River, this would be a prime spot to take a landscape photographer or painter to capture the water-loving, swampy plant life and the occasional alligator gliding through the cypress.

*PROFESSIONAL COWBOY ASSOCIATION RODEO- …and the Alabama Jr. High School Rodeo are in Evergreen, this year Oct 17-20. Even though we’re celebrating PLANTS + PEOPLE in this story, horses, cowboys and cowgirls need lots of grain, right?

*PLANTING AN IDEA-  An Alabama Sages Herb Festival in Conecuh County could be a way to celebrate an array of forward thinkers with Alabama connections. I’m thinking of: Helen Keller, Samuel Ullman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Chief Tuskaloosa, Harper Lee, Hank Williams, Knud Nielsen, Sr., W.C. Handy, Jimmy Buffet (Sage? Even the “Minstrel of Margaritaville” would agree this is a stretch). And, we could all have Conecuh Sage Sausage Kabobs and sage-infused tea.

Y’ALL COME to Conecuh County on your 67- County, Alabama Garden Party Tour, where all things herbal will make you delightedly verbal!

Many thanks to Cynthia Knowlton, Conecuh County coordinator, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Facebook/Conecuh County Extension Office; www.aces.edu/counties/Conecuh/; and Susan Coleman, Evergreen-Conecuh Economic Development director.  Also, thank you to Laurie Johnson for the playful, pretty and pretty-darned-delicious, Conecuh County Fresh Sage, Sausage Kabobs.

Conecuh County Fresh Sage, Sausage Kebobs – with pineapple and veggies (12 appetizer skewers or 6 meal-sized)  (Hint for kabobs – the ingredients never work out evenly – so plan for a big ole stir fry with whatever is left.)

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. Conecuh Smoked Sausage – cut into 1-inch pieces
  • Fresh pineapple – cut into 1-inch chunks – reserve juice for dipping sauce (supplement with canned juice if needed)
  • 3 – 4 bell peppers ( 1 each of multi colored as you choose)– seeded and cut into  2-inch pieces
  • 2  red onions  – peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • Lots of fresh sage leaves – locally-grown pineapple sage if available – some left whole for kabobs, some coarsely chopped for infused oil and some minced for dipping sauce.
  • 5 tbsp. sage-infused olive oil – buy some or make your own with directions below.
  • Reserved pineapple juice (plus canned if needed) and stone ground or Dijon mustard

Instructions

  1. If using wooden kabob skewers, soak in warm water starting now.
  2. Make infused oil – Smash 2 tbsp. of coarsely chopped sage leaves with 5 tbsp. olive oil and let rest at room temperature for at least an hour, stirring occasionally.
  3. Make dipping sauce – Combine 4 tbsp. pineapple juice, 1 tbsp. mustard and 1 tbsp. finely minced sage and set aside for serving. Later, add remaining infused oil that isn’t used for basting the kabobs.
  4. While the skewers, oil and sauce are hanging out, cut up sausage, pineapple and vegetables. Plan for 12 appetizer-sized (4-inch) skewers with each – 2 pieces of sausage, 1 chunk of pineapple, 3 pepper pieces, 1 onion piece and 2 sage leaves.
  5. Make kabobs – Thread skewers with sausage, pineapple, peppers, onion and sage leaves, alternating as you choose. Brush all sides with sage infused olive oil (reserve some for grilling).
  6. Grill kabobs – Grill over low-medium heat on outdoor grill or indoor grill pan until sausage sizzles and veggies soften (5-8 minutes). Turn every few minutes and brush with additional infused oil.
  7. Serve over a bed of greens, rice, grits or quinoa with dipping sauce – drizzled and dipped.

 

Also, check out Alabama Bicentennial: 200 ways to save Alabama for the next 200 years.

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Ben South