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HOME GROWN: Natural pigments of the garden

Suzanne Griffith

HOME GROWN: Natural pigments of the garden

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In the last few weeks, I was accidentally reminded of the pigments, or naturally occurring colours, that can be found in nature, more specifically in the kitchen garden.
In this day and age where we are constantly bombarded by chemical based colours and dyes, like FD & C Yellow No. 5 and Red No. 40, it is interesting to take a step back and find colours as nature intended them.
With Easter on the horizon and the long standing tradition of dying eggs a popular event in our family, I’ve decided to forgo the use of food colouring, or the little coloured tablets, in favour of a lesson in the magic of nature.
Recently, I discovered two naturally occurring pigments in my kitchen garden.
The first colour, purple, I discovered when I harvested a lovely crop of malabar spinach seeds; as the seeds become ready for harvest, they are surrounded by a protective deep purple flesh.
Normally, I would allow the seeds to dry naturally causing the flesh to shrink leaving the seeds behind ready for planting or storage. The purple flesh when crushed reveals a magnificent purple colour, which I will warn also stains magnificently as well.
The second colour, green, I discovered when I decided to muddle or pulverize a handful of fresh dill weed with my mortar and pestle. I would roughly chop dill weed and apply it liberally to chicken or fish with a bit of salt and pepper. For some reason, I felt the need to use the mortar and pestle, as it does, after all, relieve stress.
By the time I was finished pulverizing the dill and began applying it to the fish that I happened to be cooking that evening it was too late to reverse the fact that the pigment in the dill had dyed the fish bright green. I had to laugh at what I had accidentally discovered.
The two “discoveries” prompted me to research other potential sources of natural pigments in the kitchen garden and beyond. Be certain to keep in mind that the pigments found in nature will likely not be as predictable or exciting as commercially manufactured and produced chemical based dyes, but after all we should learn to appreciate the colours that nature has given us.
Beets: most of us are familiar with the colour of our hands after spending some time peeling beets. I’m hoping that by boiling beets in water and reducing the resultant liquid I will be able to achieve varying levels of red and pink by in turn diluting the “beet juice” with water.
An online “how-to” also indicated that beet tops when boiled would produce a dove grey colour. Sounds interesting, and worth a try.
Onion skins: I think that I was aware of this before that they produce a buttery yellow colour. This is when you are utilizing clean dry onion skins; in Barbados this may pose a challenge. As with beets, the skins are boiled in a quantity of water, the liquid reduced and then diluted. The less dilution the more vibrant the resultant colour.
Berries: strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are also purported to make wonderful dyes, but I shudder at the thought of the cost! If I can achieve red and pink from the beets, I might just spring for a pack of blueberries so that blue is represented in our Easter baskets.
I also read a bit about dying with vibrant spices such as saffron, tumeric and paprika, and as well coffee and tea. All household items that are worth a try!
I’m looking forward to this experiment of sorts, look out for a report on our success in a future instalment of this column.