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Lemon herbs bring out a flavor punch

Kate Lawson
The Detroit News

That overused adage about life giving you lemons? Oh, how it limits the culinary choices. Lemonade is fine, but when I’ve got a handful of lemony herbs the delicious possibilities are endless (and even enhance that lemonade).

Herbs are one of nature’s little surprise packages that contain a lot of flavor and growing herbs is one of the easiest delights of summer. Every year I plant up pots of them in varying degrees of texture and taste and they look prettier than a pot of geraniums (plus, you can eat them).

I’m particularly fond of any lemon-scented herb: lemon grass, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemon thyme and lemon basil. Each one has a special place in my cooking and baking repertoire.

Consider lemon balm for example, which runs rampant in my garden. The bees love it, but the bright green leaves add a mild citrus tang to green salads and light summer dishes. Stir some leaves into a glass of iced tea — or that lemonade for a refreshing drink or add leaves to stewed or poached fruit to prevent tartness.

With lemon grass, the name says it all: It looks like a clump of wide-leaved green grass and smells mildly of lemons. It, too, is easy to grow and makes a lovely container herb. A few leaves per cup brews a mildly citrus tea, but it’s the stalks that are revered by Thai and Vietnamese cooks. Throughout the season, gather the leaves as needed. The swollen leaf base is used much like a bay leaf, which is discarded before serving. I have used it in hummus made with edamame (sweet soybeans), along with parsley to make a pretty hummus for summer entertaining.

Lemon verbena is another herb that rules my garden. It grows lush and large and fills the air with it’s wonderful lemony scent every summer. I nip a leaf or two for tea and sometimes for that nice summer cocktail, a few leaves crushed into a vodka tonic with lime is the ideal refresher. I also like to add the leaves to homemade oils and vinegars and fresh fruit desserts such as strawberry shortcake.

The fruity fragrance of lemon thyme is not the only appeal of this herb. Their little leaves flecked along the edges with cream sprawls through the garden in sunny spots, adding texture and eye appeal. I sprinkle the leaves over soup, or stir into cottage cheese, along with minced chives, toss with boiled potatoes or enhance that cream cheese smeared on a bagel. Try adding minced leaves along with minced fresh parsley to make an herb butter (2 tablespoons herbs to 1/2 cup sweet softened butter) that’s delightful pushed under the skin of grilled chicken or atop grilled fish. I also use in salad dressings.

Basil is one herb that has so many scents it’s hard to imagine an herb garden without any one of them. From cinnamon basil to spicy Thai, the large-leaved Genovese used in pesto or the smaller-leaved globe basil, each one has a special gift for the kitchen. But lemon basil, for me is the queen of then all. Lemon basil is a hybrid between basil and African basil. Lemon basil is known for its distinct lemon aroma that is especially pungent once it is minced or cooked.

It is mild enough to flavor grilled fish or shrimp and can be substituted for basil if you are looking for a fresh twist of flavor. Lemon basil should be used fresh and added during the last moments of cooking. Over-cooking basil is not recommended, as heat quickly dissipates the flavor.

It is often used in Asian cooking for curries, stews and stir frys, but I rely on it heavily to add flavor to roasted vegetables after cooking and when sprinkled atop fresh cooked green beans, it makes the best snack for serving with cocktails (eat with your fingers, please).

Now matter how you grow herbs, either in containers or existing beds, you will have a daily enjoyment all season long. And once you begin using fresh herbs in your favorite recipes, you’ll never go back to dried herbs again. Indeed, wonderful cuisine can be very simply prepared, but add a few fresh herbs and you have created a masterpiece. Plus, not only do herbs impart flavor, aroma and texture to cooking, but they are also beneficial to our diet, some have medicinal and even household uses. Try fresh herbs and you will be hooked for life.

Kate Lawson is the retired Detroit News food writer.

katecook@comcast.net

Lemon Verbena and Raspberry Fool

A light and lively summer dessert. Recipe adapted from “Jekka’s Herb Cookbook” by Jekka McVicar.

10 lemon verbena leaves, plus 4 more, finely chopped to garnish

2 tablespoons vodka

1 pound raspberries

1/2 cup superfine sugar

2/3 cup whipping cream

Place the lemon verbena leaves in a small bowl and add the vodka. Use a wooden spoon to crush the leaves and leave to soak overnight.

The next day, crush the raspberries with a fork, then add the sugar, a spoonful at a time. Strain the vodka and add to the raspberries. Whip the cream until it forms soft, but not stiff, peaks, then fold in raspberries. Serve in glass dishes, each garnished with 1 finely chopped lemon verbena leaf. Serves 4.

Per serving: 307 calories; 15 g fat (9 g saturated fat; 44 percent calories from fat); 39 g carbohydrates; 3 g sugar; 54 mg cholesterol; 16 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 7 g fiber.

Lemon Balm Bread

This moist, quick bread tastes best the day after it’s made. Lemon balm is a lovely addition to the batter and glaze. Recipe adapted from tasteofhome.com.

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup finely chopped lemon balm leaves

2 eggs

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

11/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup chopped walnuts, optional

1 tablespoon grated lemon peel

Glaze

1/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons finely chopped lemon balm leaves

In a large bowl, cream the butter, sugar and lemon balm. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt; add to creamed mixture alternately with milk. Stir in walnuts, if desired, and lemon peel. Pour into a greased 8-inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

In a small bowl, whisk the sugar, water and lemon juice; stir in lemon balm. Spoon over warm bread while still in the pan. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Yield: 1 loaf. Serves 12.

Per serving: 244 calories; 10 g fat (5 g saturated fat; 37 percent calories from fat); 35 g carbohydrates; 23 g sugar; 52 mg cholesterol; 172 mg sodium; 3 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Edamame Lemon Grass Hummus

Recipe adapted from bhg.com

2 green onions

1 10 ounce package frozen shelled sweet soybeans (edamame)

1/2 cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley sprigs

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped fresh lemongrass

1 tablespoon canola oil

2 cloves garlic, quartered

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)

Assorted vegetable dippers (such as radishes, red sweet pepper strips, Belgian endive leaves, and/or jicama sticks)

Thinly slice green onions, keeping green tops separate from white bottoms; set aside. Cook edamame according to package directions, except omit salt; drain. Rinse with cold water; drain again. Reserve a few edamame for garnish.

In a food processor, combine white parts of green onions, the remaining cooked edamame, parsley, the water, lemon juice, lemongrass, oil, garlic, ginger, and salt, Cover and process until nearly smooth. Stir in green onion tops.

Transfer mixture to a serving bowl. Garnish with the reserved edamame and, if desired, crushed red pepper. Serve with vegetable dippers. Serves 8.

Per serving: 59 calories; 3 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 46 percent calories from fat); 4 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 223 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Lemon Basil Grilled Chicken

Recipe adapted from allrecipes.com

6 (4 ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of excess fat

1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup loosely packed fresh lemon basil leaves

Lightly pound chicken to an even 3/4-inch thickness. Pat chicken dry using paper towels and place in a large resealable plastic bag.

Combine lemon peel, lemon juice, garlic, salt, oil and basil in a blender or food processor. Pulse for 30 seconds or until well blended.

Pour the marinade over the chicken, seal the bag and turn to coat chicken thoroughly. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes to overnight.

Preheat grill to medium-high heat or about 400 degrees.

Remove chicken from marinade and discard marinade.

Grill for 4 to 6 minutes per side or until cooked through.

Transfer to serving plate and garnish with additional lemon basil, if desired. Serves 6.

Per serving: 185 calories; 8 g fat (1.5 g saturated fat; 39 percent calories from fat); 1 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 72 mg cholesterol; 160 mg sodium; 27 g protein; 0 g fiber.

Lemon Thyme and Cheese Tomatoes

Served with grilled meats or fish or a fresh green salad. Recipe adapted from “Jekka’s Herb Cookbook” by Jekka McVicar.

6 large, firm, ripe tomatoes

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon lemon thyme leaves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely sliced

1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon sharp cheddar, freshly grated

2 tablespoons bread crumbs

2/3 cup olive oil, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash, dry and halve the tomatoes and gently scoop out the flesh and seeds with teaspoon. Leave in enough flesh to hold the shape of the tomato. Reserve flesh, put tomato halves in ovenproof dish, cut side up and season with salt and pepper.

Add the thyme, parsley and garlic to the tomato flesh, along with cheeses and bread crumbs and 4 tablespoons olive oil. Spoon mixture into tomato halves, drizzle remaining oil on top and bake for 25 minutes until tomatoes golden. Serves 6.

Per serving: 267 calories; 25 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 84 percent calories from fat); 10 g carbohydrates; 5 g sugar; 2 mg cholesterol; 103 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Storing and preserving herbs

Drying or freezing herbs: The best time to dry herbs is just before they bloom. This is when they are at the peak of their flavor. Place the chopped leaves on a plate (or whole, if using thyme) and set aside in a cool, dry place for several days. Then store them in a resealable container.

To store: Treat these herbs like a bouquet of fresh flowers. Cut off bottom leaves and place in water. Do not refrigerate or the leaves will turn brown.

Source: realsimple.com