One Part Storyteller, One Part Herbarian
by Beth McCollam
Wendy Winkler considers herself a storyteller, but one taste of her herbal blends gives the impression she’s a classically trained chef, not someone who graduated with a degree in Classical and Medieval History. “Growing up, my parents and grandparents did some gardening, but never anything involving herbs,” Winkler says. “When I moved away from home, I really loved experimenting with new foods and recipes. I can still remember, and taste, the first time I used fresh garlic and basil in a recipe.”
This mother of two homeschooled children and relative newcomer to herbs is also the owner of The Brown Hare Herb Co., Ltd. Her herbal blends include Herbes de Provence, Tuscan Dipping Oil, Seasoned Salt, Italian Herb Blend, Lemon Herb Butter, Fines Herbs, Garden Herb Butter and Chive Butter. All are available exclusively at the Ohio Herb Education Center in Gahanna.
To become inspired for new blends, Winkler will read a recipe and think ‘that sounds good, but I’d use…’ or think ‘what do I have, and how can I make it taste different than the last time I had it?’ She admits to having dozens of cookbooks and will mix and match techniques and flavors to develop what she likes. Winkler’s original curiosity was piqued when she and her husband traveled and spent a couple of weeks in Istanbul, Turkey. “I insisted we go to the Spice Bazaar,” she says. “I’d read about it and I had to see it. I was simply awestruck by the colors, varieties and scents.”
World travel, a love for cooking, a large box of herbs and spices she received as a Christmas gift, and a move to Gahanna, Ohio’s herb capital, gave Winkler the incentive to try using herbs more often and in everything. She joined the Gahanna Herb Society in 2010 and says that is when her ‘real’ study begun. “I see myself as an herbarian who studies the history and implications of herbs in daily life,” Winkler says. “Sort of a specialized culinary historian, if there were such a field. I love reading the theories from Medieval herbals on how herbs could treat things, and finding mention of them in literature or in art.”
It is this point of interest which sparks the storyteller in her. Through The Brown Hare Herb Company and the Ohio Herb Education Center, she enjoys sharing stories of herbs and how they relate to biblical stories and mythology, or to groups like the Silent Generation, those born during The Great Depression and who came of age during World War II. “I see the spark that goes off,” she says. “These are people who feel they may not have learned anything new in years, but when I can connect something they know to something new, they are hooked.”
Winkler contributes articles on herbal lore and creates educational content on culinary topics to present as lectures and workshops. She considers it her “little sphere of influence” where she can still be at home for her family and have a creative outlet. Winkler is a frequent lecturer at the Herb Center and tries to stay up to date on herbal topics and issues as best she can. Her blend of storytelling, continuous learning and natural culinary instinct is an inspiration to aspiring herbalists.
“Don’t be afraid to start,” she says. “It’s never too late and it couldn’t be easier. Culinary herbs are an easy gateway. Stick with the cuisines you tend to eat a lot. Italian? Try Genovese basil, oregano or marjoram. Mexican? Try peppers, cilantro or cumin. French or traditional? Try chives, parsley, tarragon or rosemary.”
Fresh Herbal Vinaigrette
(This recipe is simple, fast and full of flavor. It will dress up a bed of greens, and can be used as a marinade for chicken or as a sauce on grilled or baked fish. To kick it up a notch, try substituting lemon thyme for regular thyme and tarragon-infused vinegar instead of white wine vinegar.)
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 T whole-grain mustard
1-2 T lemon juice (to taste)
1 ½ T white wine vinegar
1 tsp of finely chopped thyme
1 tsp of finely chopped tarragon
¼ c extra-virgin olive oil
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
Combine the shallot, mustard and herbs with the lemon juice and vinegar in a small non-reactive bowl, such as stainless steel or anodized aluminum. Briskly whisk in the olive oil to form a temporary emulsion. If time is a constraint, place all the ingredients into a glass jar with a tight lid and shake until combined. Allow the vinaigrette to rest at least an hour (to allow the flavors of the herbs to mingle), and whisk again if it begins to separate.