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Parsley, Sage, Rosemary or Thyme?
What can a mother say when asked which of her many children is her most favorite? Obviously she loves them all. Yet among them each has particular shining qualities, each is a star at some unique talent and each one has their moments. So when I was recently asked which among the hundreds of known herbs is my favorite, I found myself in a quandary. I am a chef who uses herbs to enhance and garnish the foods I cook, but I am also an avid gardener with over twenty varieties of herbs in my garden. Like a proud parent, each one is special to me, and each one becomes my favorite. One day it might be one of the common ones, such as parsley. The next day it might be one of the more exotic varieties: Mexican Marigold, a tarragon with dazzling little yellow flowers and a flavor that has a hint of cinnamon, purple Japanese Shizo or lemon verbena.
As I stroll through the garden touching the leaves, delighting in the aromas of each herb, the memories come flooding in -- tastes, smells and sounds of the seasons. What could be more comforting than the slightly musty aroma that sage adds to the Thanksgiving feast? My mouth waters at the thought of the rich, moist stuffing barely contained in the golden bird. I swoon at the brilliant contrast of colors when I place rich, glossy-green basil leaves on deep red tomatoes, still warm from the sun. Nothing says summer so boldly. I top them with a touch of extra virgin olive oil and coarse salt; the flavors are sweet, clean and pungent.
It is rewarding to be in the midst of cooking and be able to go and pick just the right herb from a plant that I have nurtured all summer. I pause in the garden for a moment, savoring the fresh picked herb, getting back to basics, feeling connected to the earth.
In addition to their value in the kitchen, most herbs have a beauty as a plant in their own right. I often use them in floral arrangements. The shapes and textures of their leaves make an interesting contrast to the flowers, their fragrance an extra bonus. Many herbs have beautiful and edible flowers: the brilliant, long-throated red flowers of pineapple sage, the bright pink star burst of garlic chives, the purple tuft of lavender with its downy sea green leaves.
Linda's Favorite Herb
But, if pressed, I must confess that rosemary is my present favorite; for its culinary properties, for being such a beautiful plant with a long and honored history and for all the vivid feelings and memories it evokes in me. There is a creeping variety, Corican Prostrate, that spills over the hill by our entrance way. Covered with intense blue flowers, it attracts bees which creates a buzzing welcome. And in the warm, late afternoon sunshine, the fragrance of it is intoxicating. The delicate new growth is easily accessible and I often pluck some to add to a marinade for grilling lamb, or to flavor polenta. Rosmarinus officialis, the noble rosemary that stands so erect, is the herb I use most often as the greenery in a floral bouquet. Its glossy, stiff needles provide a pleasing contrast to some of the more delicate flowers. Its pungent quality evokes memories of the Mediterranean: hillsides in Italy, fields in Provence. It conjures images of warmth, good food and good times.
Even the name Rosemary, which comes from the Latin, meaning "dew of the sea," hails back to its ancient origins. For centuries it has been a symbol of friendship and remembrance, hundreds of years ago it was dipped in gold, tied with a ribbon and given as a keepsake at weddings.
Knowing rosemary's symbolism, and given our love of gardening and cooking, my husband and I decided to incorporate it all into our wedding this past summer. Fresh sprigs of rosemary were attached to each invitation, and a quote about its meaning of friendship was written on the invitation. Each note carried with it a aromatic message. We also included branches of rosemary, along with other herbs, in my bouquet. We even found a lush herb garden in which to hold the ceremony. We stood underneath the dense grape arbor, looking out at everyone as they stood waist high in a sea of herbs. The sun was warm and bright, the bees buzzed, and the fragrance...it smelled so sweet. As the wind shifted, we were filled with the heady scent of rosemary. The wind shifted again and the tangy smell of lemon balm wafted by, then sage, then lavender. What an incredible kaleidoscope of scents! Each aroma sparked rich memories of cooking and gardening, of laughter and of good times shared around the table. Each herb became my favorite for that moment.
Lamb in a Black Muscat and Rosemary Marinade
1 cup Black Muscat Wine
2 Tablespoons Balsamic Vinegar
2 large cloves garlic, minced
4 two inch-long, fresh sprigs rosemary
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3-5 pounds lamb roast or chops
In a non-aluminum bowl large enough to hold both the marinade and the meat, combine the first six ingredients. Place the meat in the bowl, and marinate for one to three hours (one hour for chops, three for a roast). Turn the meat frequently to insure all surfaces are well marinated.
Reserve the marinade in a small saucepan.
Grill the meat on a bar-b-que. You can add the rosemary sprigs to the fire for extra flavor in the smoke.
While the meat is cooking, cook the marinade over high heat until it is reduced to 1/2 cup. Serve this reduction warm, over the finished meat.
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.