By Joyce Driemeyer
With the extreme popularity of the April herb sales, it appears herbs have never been more “in.” Now what to do with some of those thriving plants this summer? Interest in healthful cooking is teaching us to substitute flavorful herbs for heavily salted or fat-saturated seasonings.
Satisfying chilled drinks with a green or black tea base can be handy to have on hand and will reduce the need for sodas and soft drinks.To make a pitcher full, bring water almost to boil in a stainless pot, pour water over tea leaves or bag(s) in a ceramic pot containing chopped or crushed leaves of any of the herbs mentioned below. Allow to steep or infuse not more than 5 minutes – longer steeping can cause bitterness. If you would like stronger flavor, increase the amount of herb used. Strain and pour into pitcher or cup to serve.
My favorite is green tea, which some consider almost tasteless. I use lemon verbena leaves, often dried (they dry very well, retaining poignancy almost indefinitely). Two leaves to a cup of tea will work. While discussing lemon flavor, there is lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), an ancient herb used for 2000 years, was originally grown for bees, hence the name Melissa, Greek for “bee.” The leaves are good for iced drinks and in iced tea; they have a calming effect. Use 1 tsp./cup, steep for 10 minutes or more. Another source of lemon flavoring is lemon grass (Cympogon citrates), much used in Thai cooking. It contains citral and can be a substitute for lemon peel. To flavor a drink, cut several stems in 1-inch pieces, add to ½ cup water, ½ cup sugar, and bring to a boil to dissolve sugar. Allow to cool, strain and use the syrup to flavor iced drinks or punch.
You have heard of chamomile tea. Matricaria recutita (German chamomile) will aid in digestion and other things. It has a calming effect. Use 1 tsp. of dried flower heads/cup boiling water. Steep 3-5 minutes. It will help you sleep.
In the mint family, peppermint is what is contained in crème de menthe, and is used to flavor cordials and liquers. It is not much used in cooking. Spearmint (Mentha spicata), however, is the mint of choice. It is often combined with other herbs, also for flavoring.
The leaves of bergamot (Monarda didyma), also known as Oswego tea, are used to make a relaxing and soporific beverage. Flowers can be used in salads.
Salad burnet (Sanquisorba minor) is another herb the fresh leaves of which can be used for a tea. It was at one time used to flavor claret. Fresh leaves taste of cucumber and are used in salads or to flavor vinegar.
Finally, of the sages, the fresh leaves of pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) with its fruity scent and flavor is good in a drink or added to a fruit salad.
Experiment, and use your herbs for new dimensions of flavor.
Joyce Driemeyer says she’s semi-retired after more than 25 years as a professional landscape designer. She is a Master Gardener, and volunteers, lectures and conducts classes at Missouri Botanical Garden, and has actively served in both the St Louis Herb Society and The Herb Society of America.