D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     August 2005

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Lemony Lifts

Herbs with a hint of lemon add zest to everything from pestos to popcorn.

Not only is it the season for lemonade but also for lemon-scented and -flavored herbs. There are several varieties that we can grow in our area, either in containers or in the garden. These plants have been used both for their medicinal and culinary qualities and have been mentioned in herbals for more than 2,000 years.

Among them are:

Lemon balm—A member of the mint family. Not a very pretty plant, a perennial that grows about two to three feet high. Smooth lemon flavor, great for teas and salads. The Roman philosopher, Pliny, thought lemon balm was the best thing since laurel crowns and the vomitorium. He said it was a most effective digestive aid. But then he said that of almost every herb he recorded—he was constantly complaining about an upset stomach and was finally named "Pliny the Whiney" by his colleagues and banned from Nero's orgies because he was such a downer.

Lemon basil—Makes the best pesto. Tall, willowy stems and smaller bright leaves. An annual that does well in containers. Perfect for fish, salads and vegetables.

Lemon-scented geraniums—This plant is not only beautiful but delicious. The variegated leaves are used in baking, jellies and beverages. They are best when container grown.

Lemon grass—A staple in Asian cuisine. Used to flavor rice and vegetables. A nice addition to soup stocks and poultry.

Lemon mint—A rather invasive perennial that is best used in desserts and beverages. Also greatly in iced and hot teas.

Lemon thyme—A wonderful blend of warm thyme and citrus that has two varieties. variegated and green, both perennial and low growing. Does well in containers.

Lemon verbena—One of my favorites and perhaps the most fragrant. Lemon verbena, Aloysia triphylla is a native of Argentina and Chile. It is a deciduous, woody shrub that can grow to 15 feet outdoors in warmer climates and five feet in a container or in cooler climates. The flowers are tiny and pale lavender in color. Leaves are bright green, with saw-toothed edges and about two to four inches long. Lemon verbena can also be trained into topiary.

Lemon verbena is best propagated from cuttings. Starter plants are readily available at most local nurseries and farmers' markets. The plant is a fast grower and likes regular watering and full sun. If it becomes stressed, it will often shed its leaves. It is a heavy feeder and should be fertilized regularly. Outdoors in the garden, a fish emulsion works best; a container plant should receive a mild liquid fertilizer every two weeks. In our area, it is best to bring a smaller plant indoors for the winter as they may not survive in the garden if the temperatures at night stay below 30 degrees for an extended period of time. Cut the plant back halfway midsummer and then again before first frost to keep a healthy shrubby appearance and to ensure you have a continuous supply of fresh leaves.

Leaves can be dried and used in teas and recipes. One of the most popular and delicious uses for lemon verbena is to add finely minced fresh leaves to cooked rice right before you serve it. Also, add a few whole fresh leaves to your iced or warm teas. Be sure and remove the leaves before serving. Dried leaves can be crumbled into your batter for zucchini or banana bread.

Since the plant is so aromatic, having a bouquet of fresh stems will fill your home with a wonderful fresh lemon fragrance. You can also toss the stems and leaves into your bath water. It is said that a sprig hung on your bed post will induce sweet dreams.

There are so many wonderful recipes where you can use your lemon-scented herbs:

Herb butters—Mix three tablespoons of freshly minced lemon thyme or basil to one stick of softened butter or margarine. Place in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 30 days. Use on pasta, rice or vegetables. It is especially delicious on warm bread.

Herb-infused oils—Warm one cup of your favorite oil and add in a half-cup chopped lemon grass, lemon balm or verbena along with a teaspoon of coriander seed or dried ginger. Let it stand at room temperature for about an hour. Strain out the herbs and place oil in a glass jar. Cap tightly and store in the fridge for up to two weeks. Use in stir fry, salad dressings or as a rub for meat and poultry.

Herbed salts—Layer sea salt in a glass jar with leaves of any of the lemon-scented herbs and end with a layer of salt; loosely cap with a non-metal lid. Place in a warm, dry area away from direct sunlight for two to four weeks. Remove the dried leaves and crumble a few back into the salt mixture. This is amazing on popcorn!

Herb-infused vinegars—Start with a pint of white-wine vinegar, add a quarter-cup fresh leaves of your favorite lemon herbs, a sprig of lovage or small stalk of celery and one teaspoon whole peppercorns. Cap with a non-metal lid and allow to marinate for at least a week. Use as a salad dressing or marinade. It makes a great gift in a decorative bottle.

Try the following recipe with freshly picked green beans:

  • Green Beans with Lemon Thyme and Cashews
  • 1 pound fresh green beans, ends and strings removed
  • 1/2 cup salted cashew halves or pieces
  • 2 tablespoons fresh minced lemon thyme leaves
  • 1 tablespoon butter or margarine

Parboil beans in salted water for five minutes. Drain and set aside.

Melt butter in saute pan and add lemon thyme and beans. Simmer until tender. Toss in cashews and serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Alice Pauser is the owner of The Kitchen Gardener in Silver City.

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