The Lemony Herbs of Summer

By Lucinda Hutson
Photography by John Pozdro

My younger brother and I drove an old blue Volkswagen from Amsterdam to Spain in 1972—staying in hostels and eating on a student budget. Arriving in Nice, on the French Riviera, I was ready to splurge. As we sat outside a crowded café on the promenade, basking in Mediterranean sea breezes and sunshine, I eagerly awaited the famous salade Niçoise I'd heard so much about.

Imagine my disappointment when the cantankerous waiter plopped the plate in front of me: canned tuna, a few slices of hard-boiled eggs, tomato wedges, black Niçoise olives, cubed potatoes and green beans in an uninspired, oily vinaigrette. Fortunately, the glass of pretty pink wine lifted my spirits. (To this day, I love dry rosé wines popular in the south of France, especially with seafood and light summer fare.)

Since then, I've created my own versions of the salad—tweaking the classic recipe to suit my fancy. Though I usually include the traditional salad ingredients, I season and prepare the components individually, and I take advantage of the fresh, lemony herbs that abound during our summer season. Instead of canned tuna, I rub fresh fillets with lots of garlic, pepper and fragrant lemon thyme before grilling. A handful of lemon-scented herbs perfumes the green beans as they steam, and minced shallots and freshly chopped lemon balm add pizzazz to the new potatoes. Tangy Dijon vinaigrette—with a heady combination of lemony herbs—makes this a refreshing and healthy one-dish meal.

Sometimes I vary the recipe, substituting salmon or ahi steaks, or including other summer selections fresh from the garden like cucumbers, heirloom, yellow pear or cherry tomatoes, red peppers, or thin slices of unpeeled zucchini along with aromatic leaves of basil, oregano and marjoram. Deviled eggs à la Dijonnaise (click here for the recipe) make a tasty replacement for hard-boiled eggs.

Composing this one-dish meal on a plate is part of the fun! Let the palettes of Cézanne or Matisse—artists seduced by the colors and flavors of France's Côte d'Azur—inspire your artistic expression. Arrange items individually in colorful clusters instead of tossing them together, then drizzle with zesty vinaigrette and sprinkle with capers, sprigs of lemony herbs and some strips of salty anchovies. Don't forget the chilled rosé and a basket of warm, crusty baguette slices with butter.


Several herbs mimic the scent of fresh lemons when their leaves are rubbed or chopped. Their lemony essence flavors many dishes from salads and vegetables, to marinades, pestos and sauces, to cheese spreads and dips, pasta and potatoes. Rub minced herbs on fish before grilling, stuff under the skin of chicken or sprinkle on tomato and mozzarella sandwiches. Use tender lemony herb sprigs in fruit cups, sorbets and desserts from flan to pound cake or lemon curd. Garnish and flavor hot or iced tea.

Lemony herbs are not commonly sold in fresh-cut bunches, so grow your own! They love full sun and thrive in loose, well-draining soil. Many are readily available as nursery transplants. To see them in a garden habitat, visit the Lemon/Lime bed in the herb garden I designed at The Natural Gardener.

LEMON THYME: Thymus citriodorus

Small, dark green or variegated golden and green lemon-scented leaves grow in a low, spreading mound and look attractive hanging over a wall or a large pot. Lemon thyme holds up to cooking better than other lemony herbs. Add a handful to asparagus, artichokes, green beans or potatoes as they cook.

LEMON VERBENA: Aloysia citriodora

Give this shrub-like herb some room in the garden. Its lance-shaped leaves are incredibly aromatic for flavoring and garnishing desserts and cold drinks. Add a long stem to iced tea or champagne. Fragrant lemon verbena soap is always in my outdoor shower, and I put some leaves under my pillow.

LEMON BALM: Melissa officinalis

Resembles mint, but grows in a mound and does not spread quite as invasively. Dries well for tea. Cut back flower heads as they bloom to get a second growth.

LEMON BASIL: Ocimum x citriodorum

Lovely in pesto with almonds or sprinkled on juicy tomatoes! Look for varieties like Sweet Dani or Mrs. Burns. Basil has a tendency to go to seed easily, so keep the seed heads pinched back.