Memory lane

The herb garden is one of my favorite places to work – not only because of all the wonderful scents I take in, but also because every herb has its own story. As I move from plant to plant weeding and trimming, I think of the people who gave them to me, or the circumstances how, when and where I acquired them.

The chocolate mint is the oldest plant in the group. It actually started the herb garden. A red Japanese maple had just died the winter before and we did not quite know what to do with that sunbaked weed-filled area above a stonewall. I planted a lonely mint because I did not know what else to do – I was just getting into gardening at the time. When the mint thrived (of course it did, all mints do!) I was thrilled. It was pretty the way it grew over the wall so I made it a project to turn the whole area into an herb garden.

Today the herb garden is filled with more than two dozen culinary and medicinal herbs. Of course, like with everything else in gardening, there were several failures. Basil, dill, borage and parsley fall victim to the rabbits in a single night, therefore I must grow them in the fenced-in vegetable garden. Our hilltop winters are too rough for rosemary and lavender so those are in containers on the patio and overwinter in the house.

This morning, I was out in the herb garden early to make room for some herbs I bought at the Pennsylvania Lavender Festival yesterday. I was never a big shopper; shoe-buying sprees, for example, are totally strange to me (with shoe size of 11, I don’t want to attract too much attention to my feet anyway) but I can get a bit out of control when it comes to kitchen tools and plants. Therefore I had asked my friend to put me on a leash and not let me buy more than five plants. I stuck to it and came home with two culinary sages, rue, St. John’s worth, and winter savory. If they make it through the winter, they will not only be beautiful additions to the herb garden, but also bring back memories of a great early summer outing.

Lemon Balm Granita

1 cup packed lemon balm leaves (about 1.5 ounces)

3 cups boiling water

Sugar to taste

Dash of lemon juice

1. Wash the lemon balm leaves. Rip them apart with your hands or chop coarsely and place in a heatproof bowl or teapot.

2. Add the boiling water and let steep 30 minutes. Squeeze the leaves to extract as much liquid as possible from the infusion. Sweeten to taste and stir to dissolve the sugar completely.

3. Fill an ice-cube tray and freeze. Refrigerate the rest of the infusion until chilled.

4. Put the ice-cubes and the infusion in a blender with a dash of lemon juice. Crush to a slush and serve immediately.

Makes 2 servings

Asparagus, again?!?

I grew up eating asparagus, white asparagus that is. In Germany white asparagus is the most prized and sought-after spring vegetable. My father grew it in the garden plot we had outside the city and where he spent every free minute after work. In May, during asparagus season, we ate lots of asparagus to the point where I would say, “Asparagus, again?” My mother warned me that one day, I would think back to my spoiled complaints, yearning for this delicacy. As so often in life, mom was right in the end.

Living in the United States, I do get cravings for creamy white asparagus soup once in a while but I have also begun to like green asparagus a lot. Now I am not even sure which one I like better, green or white.

The asparagus I picked up yesterday from a local farm is as different as can be from the uniform picture-perfect white asparagus of my childhood: some spears thin as a pencil, others thick as a celery stalk, some as long as my underarm, others short and stubby, some purple, some green. Somehow this asparagus feels more genuine and much closer to the earth than blanched white asparagus. This is more than a feeling. Green asparagus does have higher nutritional value than white, and unlike white asparagus, it usually does not require peeling.

I must admit that the thought of growing my own asparagus crossed my mind again. But then I remembered what I just read in Eleanor Perényi’s Green Thoughts (a collection of lovely short gardening essays that makes a great bedtime reading for exhausted gardeners). On asparagus she wrote, “Two companionable people who have assembled their materials can prepare an asparagus bed in a long springtime afternoon, and enjoy it for years without much additional effort.” This is not true! Asparagus, like everything else in the garden, needs constant effort. Having homegrown fresh herbs to put into asparagus dishes, and taking care of the garden that’s already there, is quite enough for me.

Asparagus Flan

I looked at different asparagus flan recipes and decided I was going to make one that uses all parts of the asparagus and has some texture. I also did not want to bother passing the asparagus puree through a fine sieve to remove stringy fibers, so I peeled the thickest stringy spears before cooking.

1 pound asparagus

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 large eggs

1/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons 2% milk

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

2-3 tablespoons snipped chives

1. Wash the asparagus thoroughly. Cut off the tips and set aside. Peel the spears that are thick and stringy. Cut the spears into 3-inch pieces.

2. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the lemon juice and cook the spears for 2 minutes, uncovered. Remove them quickly with a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl with cold water. Drain.

3. Cook the tips in the same water and drain. Cool in a bowl with cold water and drain again.

4. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

4. Puree the cooled asparagus chunks. Whisk eggs with milk. Add asparagus puree, salt, pepper, Parmesan and chives.

5. Spray bottom and sides of a 10-inch pie pan or cake pan with oil. Draw the outline of the bottom on wax paper and cut it out with scissors. Line the pan with it and spray the paper with oil.

6. Pour the egg-asparagus mix in the pan. Arrange the tips on top (if you do it in reverse order and put the tips into the pan first, they will float and move around).

7. Bring water to a boil. Place the filled pan in a larger ovenproof dish (I use the bottom part of my turkey roasting pan). Place in middle rack of the preheated oven and carefully pour boiling water into the outer dish to come halfway up the sides of the filled pan. Bake 50 to 60 minutes, until the flan is set but still slightly wobbly. Carefully remove from the water bath and let cool on a cake rack.

8. When cool, run a knife around the sides to loosen. Refrigerate. When ready to serve, cut into wedges right in the pan, or flip the flan over onto a large plate. Serve with a dollop of Sauce Tartare, or a good, preferably homemade mayonnaise.

Makes 6 servings

Late bloomer

The best I could do which chive blossoms in the past, was stick them in a vase. I am an admitted late bloomer when it comes to learning about edible flowers. This year I am at last discovering all the wonderful things you can do with them. I wish I had more chive blossoms right now.

The first bloom of the chives yielded just enough blossoms to make a tiny amount of chive vinegar. I absolutely do not like the taste, smell and especially aftertaste of raw onions. Letting a chopped shallot sit in vinaigrette for a mere hint of onion flavor, and strain it afterwards is my tolerance limit for raw onions. So I thought chive vinegar would be a good way to get the onion flavor without the onions.

Asparagus is one of the crops I do not grow in my garden because I can buy it super fresh from local farm stands. The asparagus was supposed to be for dinner tonight. Yet before I had even washed the dishes my husband and I had nibbled most of it for lunch before heading back to our offices.

No doubt, I will have to plant more chives for the blossoms alone, so I can make more of that vinegar.

Asparagus with Sauce Tartare

The formula for the vinegar is simple: Put freshly picked untreated chive blossoms, washed and drained, in a screw-top jar. Add apple cider vinegar, enough to immerse the blossoms. Cover and let sit at moderate room temperature, away from direct sunlight, for 5 to 7 days until the blossoms are completely discolored. Shake the jar once or twice a day. Strain and discard blossoms.

The Sauce Tartare is adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

1 pound green asparagus

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Sauce Tartare:

3 large hard-boiled eggs

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

¼ teaspoon salt, more to taste

2/3 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon chive vinegar

2 tablespoons capers, drained

3 tablespoons finely chopped chives

Freshly milled black pepper

1. Wash the asparagus and trim the ends.

2. Bring water to a boil in a large deep skillet. Add the lemon juice and cook the asparagus uncovered at low to medium heat until it can be pierced with a kitchen knife. Drain, rinse with cold water, and drain again. Set aside.

3. For the Sauce Tartare, separate the yolks from the eggs, leaving the whites as intact as possible. Finely chop the egg whites and set aside. Mash the yolks with the mustard and the salt until no lumps remain.

4. Gradually add the olive oil and whisk thoroughly by hand until you obtain a thick smooth emulsion. Add the vinegar and whisk until fully incorporated.

5. Finely chop the capers and add them to the sauce with the chives. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon some of the sauce over the asparagus, and sprinkle with chopped egg whites.

Makes 2 servings

Season finale for herbs

Come August, the days are over when I can just grab a pair of garden scissors and cut a bunch of picture-perfect flowers for a vase or a flower arrangement. Late-summer bloomers like zinnias are often covered with powdery mildew. Sunflowers, which bloom into October, don’t survive the voracity of the rabbits unless I protect every single stem with hardwire cloth. And, I am not too wild about dahlias, asters, and chrysanthemums.

Roaming around I found that a bunch of herbs is the best I can do right now: mint, sorrel, lavender, lemon verbena, lemon balm, dill, rosemary, sage, and parsley.

The herbs are still a lush green, their last big outburst of energy before shutting down for the winter, or dying. Having supplied my kitchen with wonderful flavors and scents for the last six months, they indeed deserved to be the centerpiece on the dining table on this gorgeous fall day.