If there is one out-of-the-ordinary herb to look for this summer, it’s lemon verbena. Ever since I got my first sweet, citrusy taste of this spiky-leafed herb, I’ve been under its spell. Lemon verbena gets prime real estate in my garden because it’s harder to find at stores than basil or mint, yet just as versatile.
But don’t simply take it from me. A host of fans eagerly testifies to lemon verbena’s bewitching powers. Like Annie Somerville of Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. Her voice trails off dreamily when she mentions the herb. “I like to put a sprig in a glass of mineral water with a splash of lemonade! And those delicate flowers…”
Adds Bill Varney, owner of Fredericksburg Herb Farm in Fredericksburg, TX, where they add lemon verbena to cookies, cobblers and margaritas: “People are just blown away by the flavor. The neatest thing is that it actually tastes better than lemons—it doesn’t have that tartness, just the lemon flavor.”
Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) is a tender perennial native to Chile and Peru, with lance-shaped leaves and small white flowers. After it was introduced to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors in the 17th century, lemon verbena was used to scent perfumes and flavor drinks, especially hot in fusions.
Today, lemon verbena continues to be distilled for fragrances and dried for herbal teas. But chefs who have fallen in love with its flavor also put it into everything from spicy Asian dishes to scrumptious desserts. “Lemon verbena can take the place of lemongrass and is good in any dish flavored with ginger, chiles, garlic, cilantro and mint,” explains Jerry Traunfeld, owner-chef of The Herbfarm Restaurant in Woodinville, WA.“And if you’re a fan of lemon desserts, lemon verbena will be a star.”
Steeping lemon verbena in a hot liquid is the easiest way to extract the flavor. Just a few crushed leaves can impart a delicate overtone to savory broths and soups, while a handful added to hot milk or cream can infuse custards, ice creams and cheesecakes with a faintly floral, lemony flavor.
For dough-based desserts, pie fillings and fruit salads, Varney and Traunfeld grind the leaves into a paste with sugar (two parts leaves to one part sugar). Just add a tablespoon or two to your recipe.
Perhaps the best thing about lemon verbena is that it’s so easy to preserve. It dries beautifully in just a day or two. Simply place the leaves in a single layer in a basket until dry, then store in an airtight container for future use in sachets, teas and any recipe that calls for steeping the leaves.
As you cruise the herb section at the greenhouse or meander through the stands at a farmers’ market, look out for lemon verbena. A small bunch or a single seedling will reward you with a burst of flavor that will make you a fan for life.
LEMON VERBENA FLANS WITH RASPBERRY SAUCE
This simple flan is an easy but elegant way to showcase the delicate flavor of lemon verbena.
PER SERVING: 210 CAL; 7G PROT; 4G TOTAL FAT (1.5G SAT. FAT); 38G CARB; 110 MG CHOL; 95MG SOD; 1G FIBER; 35G SUGARS