Society's cookbook taps taste of wonderful garden-grown seasonings
Herbs may come and herbs may go, but mint stays. Over the years in my little city garden, I've grown English and French lavenders, Greek oregano, marjoram, tarragon, lovage, hyssop, cilantro, parsley, rosemary and several sages, basils and thymes. Some were destined to be one-season wonders; others died off on their own or were sacrificed for peonies.
The mints have stayed and thrived. My favorite is chocolate mint, a gift from the garden of a friend who rightly advised keeping it in a pot. I didn't, and now it has taken over the triangular patch under the wisteria. I probably couldn't get rid of it even if I wanted to.
But the truth is, I love my mints. Underground, they're pushy and aggressive, sending out runners, conquering new territory. Above ground, they couldn't be sweeter, and chocolate mint might be the sweetest of all, with its satiny leaves and upright (but not leggy) habit, minty fragrance in the mid-day sun and pretty little lavender flowers. It lasts for a couple of weeks as a cut flower, too, or as greens in a bigger bouquet. Children are utterly smitten with it. A plant that tastes like chocolate? What's not to love?
But beyond tabouli, teas and garnishes, I haven't used it much in the kitchen. So when I got my hands on the Herb Society of America's new book, "Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs," the first thing I did was look for recipes using chocolate mint. While there aren't any that call specifically for chocolate mint, it can be used in any recipe that has mint as an ingredient, and this book has 17 that do, from Mint Liqueur to Chicken with Lime and Spices to Chocolate Enchantment Brownies. It's easy to find recipes using specific herbs in a "by herb" index following the general one.
This hefty, handy, hardbound book is a fund-raising project of the Herb Society, which 25 years ago opened the National Herb Garden at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. The "Essential Guide" (Louisiana State University Press, $29.95) also serves as a guide to the garden, with 64 pages devoted to its design, history and plants. Income from the book will support educational programs and internships there.
Founded in 1933 by seven women, the Herb Society now has more than 2,300 members, including 45 in the Western Pennsylvania Unit, which maintains the herb gardens in Shadyside's Mellon Park and Old Economy Village in Ambridge.
The 349-page guide offers horticultural information on the 63 herbs grown in the National Herb Garden, followed by 231 recipes in which to use them, all contributed by society members. Nineteen came from three members of the Western Pennsylvania Unit: Eleanor Davis (who contributed a whopping 17 recipes and now lives in Arizona), Nancy Hanst (Red Pepper Relish) and Arlene Popko (Lemon Balm Cake).
Recipes range from appetizers to desserts and also include beverages, syrups, chutneys and sauces.
In some, such as Ms. Davis' Parsley Salad Dressing, the fresh herb is the star, and its flavor defines the dish. In most, though, the herb plays a supporting role, and a handful take the broad view, counting fresh ginger, arugula and ground spices as the herb. There are homey, quick-fix American dishes, such as Southwestern Corn, and more elaborate company fare, including Mai Wine and its ice ring filled with sweet woodruff, strawberries and violets.
"I asked for tried-and-true recipes" using fresh herbs, said Herb Society member Katherine K. Schlosser of Greensboro, N.C., the book's initiator and editor. "They could be old recipes that members had used for a long time, but there was something that set them apart and made them a little out of the ordinary. Or they could be recently created and good."
Ms. Schlosser's favorite is sofrito, even though it contains an herb she detests: cilantro. Although sofrito traditionally is cooked, this version -- with bell peppers, garlic, onions, basil, oregano, rosemary, cilantro and vinegar -- isn't.
"It just screams fresh herbs, strong and assertive," she said. "You can put it into soups, stews, salad dressings. It's a great recipe to make at the end of the season when you have tons of herbs."
The recipes do not provide nutritional information or prep time, and most do not give the number of servings they yield.
And because the "Essential Guide" has line drawings but no photographs, this isn't the only herb book you'll want on your shelf. But it's a worthy companion volume, one I plan to return to often for garden reference and kitchen inspiration.
First Published October 4, 2007 12:00 am