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8/21/2006

The Lemony Herbs

For The Heirloom Gardener magazine
Copyright© Jim Long, 2006

When I first started growing herbs in earnest some twenty five years ago, I began with all of the ordinary herbs. I grew parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, chives, bee balm, borage, tarragon, fennel, dill, and sorrel. Each year I added a few new ones, including lovage, hyssop, oregano, marjoram, basil and lemongrass.

It was probably the lemongrass that first got me thinking about plants that share a similar flavor even though they are unrelated. The fresh lemony flavor of lemongrass was something I very much enjoyed.

The flavor of young lemon balm leaves, too, shared that same fresh lemony flavor and I gave it a place in my herb garden. In a short while I was concocting recipes for using lemongrass and lemon balm in foods that would highlight those herbs' flavors. My lemon balm cake recipe came about because of those two herbs and over the years I served it many times at herb events at my farm.

The next lemony herb I found was lemon basil. It has the same fragrance oils as lemongrass and lemon balm and I made a place for it in my garden as well. Within a short time I found that lemon basil must have its flower spikes cut back on a weekly basis, otherwise it blooms, sets seed and dies. But if kept clipped, it will produce wonderful lemony leaves until the fall frosts.

Lemon basil is useful as a salad herb - simply put the clippings into tossed salads. I like to put leaves or flowers from this herb into a blender with a small clove of garlic, a tablespoon of chopped green onion, some oil and vinegar and a tiny touch of honey and whirr it up into a very quick, very tasty salad dressing.

But my favorite use for lemon basil is in mid summer, when there is a bountiful supply of the limbs and leaves, is to pick a substantial bunch, dip it in water and lay it over the grill above medium heat on the barbecue. Then I spread shrimp, still in their shell and uncooked, on top, then another layer of lemon basil on top. With the barbecue grill's lid down, it takes only about 2 minutes to steam the shrimp. They should be turned once and steamed another minute and removed from the heat. The lemony herb flavor seasons the steamed shrimp and you can eat them that way or with a dipping sauce. I like to cook the shrimp this way while visiting with my dinner guests, and let them eat the shrimp while I continue cooking the main course on the grill.

But there are lots of other lemony herbs that are as equally useful. Lemon thyme, for example. Lemon thyme combines the sweet-hot flavor of thyme (which you use in poultry dishes) and a fresh lemony flavor.

It's a small perennial plant, grown around the edges of rocks or along the herb garden border. I like to use sprigs of lemon thyme in salad dressing, and in a marinade for chicken for grilling. Chopped fine and combined with softened cream cheese, it is also very tasty spread on crackers or stuffed into cherry tomatoes as an appetizer.

Combining lemon thyme, some lemon basil and cream cheese, then spread on fresh bread, topped with cucumber slices and ripe tomato, this is a most excellent sandwich and one I look forward to each summer.

Lemon verbena is another very satisfying herb to grow. Tropical in nature, it must either be brought indoors in winter, or replaced each spring and grown as an annual. It can easily reach five feet in height in a season if not pruned and the intense lemon flavor and fragrance is easily used in a variety of ways. As a sorbet ingredient it gives a lovely, sweet flavor to the frozen dessert. Used as a simple iced tea, it's amazingly refreshing. I like to chop up a small handful of fresh lemon verbena leaves when I make a fruit salad for a large group. I combine bite sized pieces of watermelon, white grapes, strawberries, cantaloupe and lemon verbena, adding some cranberry-raspberry juice to blend it all together. After chilling the salad in the refrigerator for a few hours the lemony flavored dish is ready to eat.

To make a refreshing cold-pressed lemon verbena iced tea, put six lemon verbena leaves in a pitcher. Fill the pitcher with ice, then water to the top. Leave it for a few minutes for the lemony flavor to mix throughout the beverage, then serve. It's actually that easy!

Here's my recipe for Lemon Balm Blueberry Cake, using two of the lemony herbs:

Lemon Balm-Blueberry Cake

Herbs used:
3 tablespoons freshly chopped Lemon Balm leaves
2 leaves Lemongrass (for this use the leaf, not the bulb), snipped fine with scissors....it's important to snip with scissors, not expect the food processor to do it adequately)

Recipe:
1 package Duncan Hines or any brand Lemon Supreme cake mix (or your own white cake recipe from scratch) Combine the liquid ingredients called for on the box...usually 1 1/3 cup water and 1/3 cup oil. Put that liquid in a blender with: 3 tablespoons freshly chopped Lemon Balm leaves and 2 leaves Lemongrass which have been snipped up with scissors. Pulse-blend until the herbs are fairly well pulverized. Add that to: The cake mix and eggs, beating well and pour into two oiled, floured round 9 inch cake pans. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool.

With cake slicer or large knife, slice each cake in half horizontally, making 4 small layers.

Filling: 1 large package instant vanilla pudding 1 large (8 oz.) package cream cheese, softened to room temp. 3 cups milk

In food processor, pulse blend filling ingredients, then stir in by hand, one small carton Cool Whip. Fold together well and refrigerate for several hours. Spread about 1/2 inch layer between the first and second layers of cake. Place the second cake on that, and cover the next layer with the filling. Put a layer of fresh blueberries over that, add the third layer, repeat with filling and berries, then place the fourth layer on top. Cover it with filling and dot liberally with fresh blueberries. Photos of this cake are on my website, just click on "Garden Visit" and you will see photos. If you want more recipes using herbs, go to my Recipe Blog. Happy gardening!

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