Updated: Aug 8
I love summer for many reasons and one is the variety of fresh herbs available. Surely most cooks are happy that so many fresh herbs show up on super-market shelves all year long. But the variety is limited and many are hot-house grown so they lack the full flavor of herbs grown out-of-doors in summer sun. No wonder my motto is: Make the most of summer herbs. Three favorites that I grow on my little deck garden are anise hyssop, lemon verbena and chocolate mint. They will grow in part shade. Chocolate mint prefers part shade while lemon verbena and anise hyssop thrive best in sun.
Many years ago, I obtained a single anise hyssop plant for the deck garden. It grew long stalks topped with a cylindrical spike of tiny purple flowers. I left it alone and the next year found anise hyssop growing in its container on the deck and in a number of places in the garden below. Since then, every year the seeds have done their work in many places around the grounds of my house, in shady as well as sunny areas. In short, this is a prolific perennial. I weed most of it, but let it grow in one spot near a pine tree. It’s virtues are many. The plant is native to North America. It can be used ornamentally, especially because it grows so abundantly. The flowers and leaves have a strong, utterly delightful licorice scent. Early in the season, when the leaves are tender, I use them in salads. Later, the leaves are too coarse but I may garnish a green or fruit salad with the pretty purple flowers. Whenever I use it in a meal for guests, I cut a few stalks so that people can have the pleasure of smelling it.
Another marvelously fragrant herb, so pleasing that each year I take a couple of the plants indoors to the sun room where it stays throughout winter. Its perfume is released by the slightest touch so as I pass by, I lightly brush the leaves to savor the scent - fresh, floral, sweetly lemony. In desserts, it provides the brightness and fragrance of lemon but seems lighter, purer, like a musical note without overtones. Especially for desserts, I prefer it to other lemon flavored plants such as lemon grass (my choice for savory preparations), lemon basil, etc. Native to Central and South America, in my partly shaded deck garden it is a modest annual plant but in the tropics it is perennial and can grow into a substantial bush.
Do you like to surprise your guests? Where did that chocolate flavor come from? There’s no brown color to give away chocolate’s presence. Finding chocolaty flavor in a cocktail or white whipped cream is a puzzle that only a few guests will get. In short, it’s fun. As is true for other mints, it, too, is a prolific perennial that must be kept in check or it will quickly take over. It prefers part shade.
Ways to Use
The best time to pick most herbs is just before flowering when the leaves are at their most tender and the flavorful oils peak in concentration. Always taste before using, as the same plant will be more or less flavorful depending on how far it is into the growing season, how much sun it receives, etc. Adjust quantities accordingly. All three herbs may be frozen just after picking and used as you would the fresh herb. All three retain most of their fresh flavor. The dried herbs have many uses.
Amount of herb per cup cream, milk, water or simple syrup
Anise hyssop: 3 tablespoons chopped leaves and, if available, flowers
Lemon verbena: 1/4 cup chopped leaves
Chocolate mint: 1/2 cup chopped leaves
Creamy stuff: My favorite preparations with all three of these herbs is in creamy desserts such as whipped cream, cream pies, ice cream, panna cotta, creme brûlée, etc. Prepare an infusion of liquid and herb. Pick an appropriate amount (see above) of herb, roughly chop, and then plunge into the liquid just as it reaches the boiling point. Cover tightly and allow to rest for 30 minutes. In a sieve, press the herbs until no more liquid is produced. You may use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to a week or freeze.
Cocktails: Intrigue your guests with these unusual flavors. Make a simple syrup with the herb and combine with your choice of other ingredients. Mix 3/4 cup water with 1 cup water. Bring to boil, add the herb, cover tightly and let rest for 30 minutes. You will find cocktail recipes for all three herbs on the Internet. Chocolate mojito, anyone?
Granitas: They’re great. I sometimes serve them as a dessert but more often as a palate freshener between courses. I’m especially fond of anise hyssop to cleanse the palate but lemon verbena works just as well. A chocolate mint granita for dessert sounds yummy, although I have yet to try it. To show off the herb flavor, make a simple syrup with the herb. Especially for dessert, you may want to mix the herb with fruit juices; for example, anise hyssop blends beautifully with fresh peach juice. If using fruit juices, you will need to add water to thin the mixture. Use any recipe for preparing the granita.
Tisanes (teas): Really refreshing when cold. Plunge the herb into boiling water, cover, remove from heat, and rest for 30 minutes. Press out all liquid in a sieve. Add sugar to taste. Refrigerate or freeze. In cold weather, I find hot anise hyssop tea pleasantly warming but do not care for lemon verbena or chocolate mint in hot tisanes.