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Best of Summer Roundup, Part 2: Herb Gardens

Posted May 14 2009 5:01pm
This installment of Best of the Summer also doubles as my entry for Iron Cupcake Earth, a creative cupcake competition that features a new ingredient every month for participants to bake with. In honor of the end of summer here in the States, the ingredient selected was one of summer's fragrant stars, basil.



I love basil of all kinds, but my favorite is probably Thai. It's got a hint of anise and a sweet little bit of spice. During the cold months I have to really stratagize to get it though since I only know two places to buy it, both inconvenient and neither organic. That's one of the primary reasons to worship my small herb garden--organic Thai basil on demand. A step out the back door, a snip of the garden shears and I've got the freshest Thai basil possible.



We had a frost warning last week and I've had to remember the summer-lost art of wearing socks and hoodies, the days are noticeably shorter and my faithful herb garden which has been supplying me with four kinds of basil, three kinds of thyme and mint, two kinds of sage, parsley, lemon verbena and balm, tarragon, rosemary and oregano is starting to go to seed. I had been thinking I would use the final crop of Thai basil for another batch of ice cream, but this challenge gave my last little bit of summer convenience and freshness a good goodbye in cupcake form.



The cupcake is primarily flavored with unsweetened soymilk in which a cup of fragrant Thai basil, chopped lemongrass and star anise were steeped to infuse it deeply with these intoxicating flavors. Another element of flavor comes from the use of jaggery, an unrefined sugar that can come from sugarcane or date or coconut palms. It is used through South and Southeast Asian and is often used in Thai cooking where a tiny bit of jaggery can accentuate the fire of a curry like nothing else.



The jaggery produced with cane sugar is often a dark brown sugar color and is hard to the touch. There are also Central/South American sugars called panela that come in similar hard disc or dome shapes. In the States health food store often carry products called rapadura, which is the same kind of sugar but in a ground form. All forms of the sugar are considered to be, as far as sweeteners go, healthier than their refined counterparts because they are unprocessed and retain a great deal of the mineral content of the plant is is made from. The coconut palm jaggery I like to use looks a little different from some other preparations and sometimes, depending on the weather, separates as you can see in the picture above. Whisking the syrup back into the harder sugar mass takes a little work, like when oil separates from natural peanut butter, but is easily done with a fork and patience and is well worth the effort for these cupcakes (p.s. I've posted the recipe here ) and all other applications.



Saying goodbye to my crop of Thai basil for the cupcakes made me a little sad, thinking about all the other things I take advantage of the summer months to make with fresh herbs from right outside my door. While it's not difficult to find rosemary in the store, the stuff that is available is really a different animal from what I grow, which has softer, longer leaves and a more intense flavor and scent. Not having access to it really does change the character of our "house bread," this wonderfully crusty rosemary olive oil bread made in a large cast iron pot. Which is not to say I don't make it year round, it's just not the same without my garden's rosemary.



Nor is this easy answer to bread in the heat of summer--a quick flat bread that doesn't require the oven to stay on for long. It too is full of fresh garden rosemary which goes wonderfully with fried heirloom garlic and course Celtic sea salt.



Of course, there are any number of dishes I could show you which are made better by the addition of fresh herbs from the garden, additions that I greatly appreciate being able to pick in just the quantity I need them, something impossible when you have to actually buy them at the market. So maybe it's a foolish impulse, given the real culinary work that my herb garden does to improve flavor, but really my favorite thing about it may be the access it gives me to fresh picked, impulsive garnishes that make simple things eaten at home with or without company truly special. A little bit of chocolate and orange mint on this fruit plate which also contained local melon, ground cherries and nectarines (as well as some distinctly not local figs) made this little fruit plate one of the most memorable things I've eaten this summer. It's a tiny thing, but its addition is transformative.



Garnishes should never be extraneous or irrelevant to the dish though. A garnish for garnish's sake is often silly. The mint with with fruit above added a new component to a simple plate, accenting the flavors of the fruit as well adding color. Garnishes can also hint at what's going on in the dish and in doing so they marry the dual power of herbs: beauty and function in flavor, like in this fresh herbes de provence panna cotta garnished with tarragon, lavender and basil. Paired with a lemon thyme cake and sauteed stone fruit in creme de cassis, the herbs work beautifully in a dessert framework.



Same story with this panna cotta where a lemon verbena infusion provides lots of flavor in the soft custard and serves as a fragrant garnish. A swirl of mango coulis, a pistachio tulie and some hulled strawberries set the whole thing off.



Of course, a more standard savory application of fresh herbs is also always welcome. Compound butters mixed with herbs from the garden make a gorgeous spread on any bread or muffin, like this corn muffin made with corn from my CSA as well as freshly ground organic cornmeal, courtesy of my dad who recently restocked me in a 10-pound bag kind of way. That's love and it shows in the final results. I think that's why I love my herb garden too, the herbs become ingredients that I am really connected to and that kind of investment and care always translates into the food. It's hard to love an herb that you just pluck out of a plastic box.



And speaking of pluck--one more highlight of summer and the garden would have to be the flowers. I am not an especially skilled gardener, but I love having flowers surrounding me so I grow things I can count on, like this coreopsis. They're lovely in the yard and nice to cut for flowers on the table, and because they're organic, I can use them at home as garnishes like on this lemon raspberry cupcake.



My fall asters are also nice and dependable, as are the flame-colored spikes that creep up next to the hostas and which for the life of me I can never remember the name of. Asters are so pretty and so fleeting once they're picked so having ready access to them is great for decoration, just pluck right before they're need to, say, decorate a bourbon brown sugar cake with whipped espresso ganache, chocolate shavings and white chocolate wrapper with pretty dark chocolate accents for a 1920s themed murder mystery dinner party.

Soon the asters and mums will be all that's left out there, but until that time I'm keeping my garden shears at the ready.
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