By Jim Long
Creative chefs are always on the lookout for unique and unusual herbs and plants to complement and flavor their dishes. Here are a few gastronomic darlings that have recently moved to the forefront. Consider adding them to your herb garden or purchasing them locally and experimenting with some exciting, cutting-edge flavor sensations.
Ron Zimmerman, co-owner of the award-winning The Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville, Washington, says his chefs have been using the herb anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). With a mild anise or licorice flavor, it combines well with fruit and tea. The flowers can be used fresh or dried, and offer the best flavor when made into a strong tea or decoction to be used in sauces, syrups and ice creams. It also works well as a colorful addition to salads and seafood or poultry dishes. Anise hyssop is an easy-to-grow herb—enjoying average garden soil with all-day sunlight. It grows about 24 inches tall with delightful tufts of purple flowers.
Also garnering deserved second glances is black garlic. Long used in Korean cuisine, the herb hasn’t quite saturated mainstream cooking, but it will. To make black garlic, bulbs undergo a special fermentation and heat process that produces melanoidin (the substance responsible for the change in color), although the exact centuries-old method is a closely held secret kept by those who produce the delicacy. What makes this herbal ingredient so appealing is its molasses-like richness, understated savory garlic flavor and hints of balsamic vinegar and tamarind that combine surprisingly well with everything from Tex-Mex flavors to Italian dishes—even chocolate ice cream!
Even though most might not think of elderberry (Sambucus sp.) as an herb, it was recently designated the official 2013 Herb of the Year by the International Herb Association for its outstanding health benefits and culinary uses. The shrub-like plants are easy to grow, and they produce edible berries and flowers that are only eaten when cooked. Dana Boyle, a member of Slow Food Atlanta, says Atlanta chefs are featuring elderberries in dishes such as pulled pork with elderberry barbecue sauce and in elderberry-infused butters and syrups. The cooked berries have a flavor reminiscent of blueberries, while the flowers—often used in fritters or to make wine—have a delightfully floral rose flavor. While native elderberries grow throughout Texas, cultivated varieties actually produce better and larger berries in our area. Elderberries can be grown in any average garden soil in full sun or even partial shade. They require some moisture in the summer months but no more than other garden crops. The plants grow four to six feet tall and begin blooming in early summer and continue until fall. It’s common to see clusters of flowers along with green and already-ripe berries on the plant at the same time, although the primary crop of berries comes in late summer.
Referred to as “culinary fairy dust” by many in the food industry, fennel pollen has exploded in popularity in this country over the last few years—in fact, in the book Cook Like a Rock Star, author and chef Anne Burrell even calls it her “super-secret flavor weapon.” Fennel pollen can be very expensive to purchase, but it’s easy to harvest on your own if you have access to fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) plants. As the umbels, or flower clusters, on the plant begin to open and bloom in spring and summer, collect the pollen by shaking the flowers upside down over a paper bag. Use the pollen fresh or dried in a myriad of ways, from egg dishes to roasted meats to salads. The flavor is mildly anise-like, complexly rounded and sweet, but since it’s also delicate, avoid overpowering it with strong ingredients such as garlic or black pepper. Fennel plants are perennial—dying down in the fall and resurrecting in the spring—and grow well in Austin, provided they receive plenty of sunlight.
Zimmerman’s chefs also use the herb lovage (Levisticum officinale), which tastes vaguely of celery, but milder. The young leaves are used fresh in dishes like tuna salad, cooked in shellfish dishes or infused in oils. The roots as well as the stalks and leaves are used as both a flavoring and a vegetable, and in the UK, a lovage brandy is a favorite winter beverage. In New Orleans, some bars serve a bloody mary featuring a hollow lovage stem instead of a straw. The plant is perennial and the flavor is best during the first year of growth. During the second year, the plant sends up flower shoots and the flavor diminishes greatly. Lovage will grow in any average garden soil in a sunny location and is quite hardy in the Austin area, where it will reach three to four feet in height. It may even reseed itself, although it’s not an aggressive plant.
Tucker Taylor, head gardener at The French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, California, calls oyster leaf (Mertensia maritima) the hottest item for his chefs this year. Native to the shores of Scotland, the plant is coveted for its pleasantly briny oyster-like flavor, and is used to add depth and richness to vegetarian and seafood dishes alike. It requires a cool greenhouse and moist conditions similar to its native seashore setting, and it is harvested, like most herbs, before flowering begins. Eaten raw, oyster leaf’s flavor is of salt and sea, but it shines best when used in sauces or vegetable dishes that benefit from a complex seafood flavor backdrop.
The root scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica), or black salsify, is cropping up on restaurant menus from Austin to the Pacific Northwest. About the size of a medium slender carrot, the root is valued for its faint oyster-parsnip flavor. Carol Ann Sayle, co-owner of Austin’s Boggy Creek Farm, began to grow and experiment with scorzonera a few years ago. She now likes it peeled and cooked with spring onions and snow peas. Chef Chris Weber of The Herbfarm uses the root as a puree, served with a parsley-lovage sauce. Scorzonera is perennial and, if left in the ground, will continue to grow larger, but such growth doesn’t diminish its culinary quality. Plant it in late fall or very early spring for fall harvesting.
A rare and delightful herb that is currently gaining attention is sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), also known as Texas goldenrod. Native to the East Coast, yet found all the way down into the Southwest, the plant is seldom noticed in the wild because of its visual similarity to other less palatable goldenrods. The flowers and leaves of the plant are both used in cooking, but the sweet honey-anise-flavored flowers lend themselves best to custards, cookies, cakes and ice creams. The leaves go well with chicken or fish and are often used like a strongly flavored French tarragon. Both the leaves and the flowers are used to round out the sweet and savory balance in certain sauces. The plant is perennial, and the new leaves in the spring and the flowers in the fall have the best flavor. In Central Texas, plants do best in sandy soil and in sunny to partly sunny areas.
There’s a world of exciting herb and plant flavors to be discovered. Chefs experiment and you can, too. Grow your own, or look for new culinary challenges at the farmers markets.
GOAT CHEESE WITH FENNEL POLLEN
1/8 t. dried and ground lavender flowers
1 t. fresh (or ½ t. dried) fennel pollen
1 lb. bulk container goat cheese (such as CKC Farms
Baguette or crackers
Mix the lavender and fennel pollen together and coat the cheese log evenly. Wrap in plastic wrap and leave for 3 days, unrefrigerated, for the flavors to permeate the cheese. Serve with baguette or locally made crackers.
EASY CHOCOLATE AND BLACK GARLIC ICE CREAM
20–25 cloves black garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 T. coarsely chopped toasted almonds
½ gal. Dutch chocolate or mocha almond fudge ice cream,
Strawberries, to garnish
Whipped cream or crème fraîche, to garnish
Stir the chopped black garlic and almonds into the ice cream and mix well. Cover and place in the freezer for at least 3 hours. To serve, scoop the ice cream into dessert cups and top with fresh strawberries and a dollop of whipped cream or crème fraîche.
JIM'S ELDERBERRY CORDIAL
Use only elderberries, or mix in other berries such as blackberries or blueberries. On cold winter evenings, this is a perfect after-dinner cordial. In the summer, add a bit to lemonade or drizzle over ice cream.
1 qt. fresh elderberries, most of the stems removed
Zest of one lemon
1-in. piece cinnamon stick
2 allspice berries
2 c. sugar
1 qt. vodka
1 t. vegetable glycerin (optional; it produces a smoother cordial)
In a half-gallon glass container with a lid, combine the berries, lemon zest, cinnamon, allspice and sugar. Pour in the vodka, cover the container with plastic wrap and screw on the lid. Set aside in a cool, dark place for 2 months—gently shaking the jar once a week. Strain and discard the berries and spices. Add the vegetable glycerin (if using), stir and decant into a decorative storage bottle. The cordial is best when aged an additional 3 to 4 months before drinking.