By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is an ancient herb from the Legume family of plants, Fabaceae. It is sometimes called Foenugreek, bird’s foot, Greek hayseed or goat’s horn. Not often seen in modern gardens, fenugreek is herb, spice, vegetable and medicinal all rolled into one tidy little plant. Grown primarily as an arid-land crop in countries such as India, Nepal, Argentina, France and Spain, fenugreek does well in xeriscape gardens. Because of its diverse uses, this herb deserves a much stronger presence in the kitchen, the medicine chest and the garden.
Fenugreek is a small, tender annual with lightly hairy, wiry, hollow stems. In ideal growing conditions, some varieties may reach up to 2 ft. (61 cm) tall. As a legume, fenugreek’s oval, trifoliate leaves (groups of three) are reminiscent to those of clover. The fragrant, cream-colored flowers are borne at the leaf axils and resemble those of the common garden pea. These flowers produce thin, erect, 6″ (15 cm) pea-like pods that contain approximately sixteen brownish-yellow, angular seeds.
Growing fenugreek is Fenugreek is about as easy as growing beans or peas. Like beans and peas, fenugreek should be sown directly into the garden mid-spring after all danger of frost has passed. To improve germination, soak the seeds overnight before planting. Allow five to ten days for germination and thin to stand 4 to 10 in. (10 to 25 cm) apart.
If you have ever shelled peas or dry beans, you already know how to harvest fenugreek. Pick the pods of fenugreek only after the shells turn from green to tan and the seeds rattle inside. Remove the dried seeds from the shell and spread them out in pans or on screens in the shade until they are very hard and completely dry. Store them in an airtight jar until ready to use.
Before adding fenugreek to any dish the maple-scented seeds of fenugreek should be slightly dry roasted in an ungreased pan. This reduces bitterness and enhances their sweet, nutty flavor. Once toasted and cooled, the seeds can either be finely ground and used as is, or soaked overnight and pulverized into a paste – much the way chickpeas are prepared.
The flavor of fenugreek blends wonderfully with all types of fruit, baked or stewed vegetables, meat, seafood, pastries, cookies, breads, pies, cream cheese, dressings, dips, spreads, and sauces. Widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine for thousands of years, fenugreek lends its unique flavor to curry powder blends, Bengali five-spice, and dishes such as chutney and halva. In North America and many countries around the world, fenugreek is silently spicing up foods such as pickles and bread, and is in imitation flavorings such as maple, caramel, vanilla, and butterscotch.
Aside from the seeds, the fresh or dried leaves of fenugreek are used in dishes like curry, dahl, and chutney. The leaves also lend themselved to use in dishes of vegetables, rice, meats, soups, stews and eggs. Use untreated seed to grow sweet-spicy sprouts and micro-greens that are excellent in salads, slaws and sandwiches. Young bean pods and stem tips can be eaten raw or lightly steamed.
In addition to being edible, fenugreek is also medicinal and has been used by traditional healers the world over as an effective anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, digestive aid, emollient and hypotensive.
The seeds are very high (up to 40%) in mucilaginous fiber. This slippery substance acts as an emollient and anti-inflammatory and is used to soothe, soften, and protect irritated skin and mucous membranes. It is very useful for coughs, sore throats, and fever.
Fenugreek seed, approved by the German Commission E, is used in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease by reducing cholesterol absorption and triglyceride and blood sugar levels and by lowering high blood pressure. Crushed or powdered seeds are used to treat inflammations such as boils, cysts, bruises, sprains, and swollen glands, and they are often used as an emulsifier in food and drugs.
The chemical make-up of fenugreek is oddly similar to that of cod liver oil, and decoctions of fenugreek are used to treat constipation and other situations where cod liver oil might be used. The seed infusion is an excellent digestive aid.
Be aware that fenugreek seeds are a natural source of diosgenin, a bio-identical plant form of the female hormone progesterone. Do not use if you are or expect to become pregnant. Consult your doctor if you are an insulin-dependent diabetic before using fenugreek medicinally. Using more than 100 grams of fenugreek daily may cause mild intestinal upset, loose stools, and maple-scented urine or perspiration. Otherwise, fenugreek is considered to be an exceptionally safe medicinal herb.
With all of the wonderfully diverse properties that fenugreek brings to the table, it is amazing that more people don’t grow it. This simple little plant from the Legume family is vegetable, green, herb, spice and medicinal all rolled into one!
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