This morning I looked out the back windows to see deer drifting silently as ghosts through the trees. A young buck, muscles rippling under his tawny coat, a velvet-faced doe and their two tiny fawns sampled the dogwood’s tender leaves, then dipped their heads to see if anything was left of the hostas I planted a few years ago.
It breaks my heart.
I hope there’s special place in hell for the developers whose rampant, ugly building has decimated the wide swathes of woodland where the deer normally roam. Add to that a summer drought that has shriveled what’s left of the shoots and leaves they normally eat, and it’s clear that hunger has driven them to our garden in daylight.
B left by the front door so as not to disturb them and I watched until they disappeared wraith-like into the underbrush.
Of course I haven’t always been as generous. In fact, last month I was furious.
We returned from Maine to find the tomato vines yellowed and dying, trampled underfoot by something large and heavy. Yesterday I wrapped the remaining Black Russian tomatoes in cheesecloth to protect them from squirrels who pick them green, take a few bites and toss them on the ground. I’ve given up entirely on lettuce—who wants to grow a lunch buffet for thieving rabbits?
Luckily none of these marauders seem to enjoy strongly flavored herbs. So at the moment my four-square garden is bursting with basils, French tarragon, four different kinds of thyme and lemon verbena. The best mint in the world—an intensely cooling peppermint with square, purple stems—escaped from its pot years ago and extends snake-like runners amongst the dahlias and chiles.
Good thing too, since mojitos and minty salads are summer favorites around here. This year I rashly added pots of orange and chocolate mint, and Kentucky Colonel spearmint.
Elsewhere there are drifts of lemon balm, lavender and sprawling rosemary bushes, the first plants to go in the ground when we moved here. Onion-flavored chives and garlic chives line the driveway, along with flat leaf Italian parsley, dill and coriander. In pots on the tropical deck are kaffir limes, which I grow for the leaves, fruity pineapple sage, lemon grass and a delicate curry plant which smells like burning brakes.
No wonder the deer leave them alone.
Trust me, I am getting to the point.
At Rabelais a few weeks ago I found two cookbooks that re-ignited my suppressed desire for a convivial herb garden. (More about this particular folly later.) For 17 years Jerry Traunfeld was executive chef at The Herbfarm, located about 30 miles from Seattle. During that time he not only won a James Beard award for Best American Chef Northwest and Hawaii, but also published two cookbooks that blew away any timid notions of how one might use herbs in the kitchen.
His Herb Tempura (in The Herbfarm Cookbook) is a revelation: 36 leaves or sprigs of—get ready!—mint, sage, perilla, lemon balm, lovage, French tarragon, flat-leaf parsley, fennel, dill, plus blossoms of nasturtium, fennel, sweet cicely or daylily buds, dipped in batter and quickly fried, then served on “a torn square of handmade paper…”
The Herbal Kitchen, Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor offers up other tasty conceits such as Spicy Verbena Meatballs with ginger, mint and jalapeno—said meatballs are impaled with lemon verbena stems—and Lavender Rubbed Duck Breast with Apricots and Sweet Onions.
Sometimes the simpler the recipe the better.
Leafing through The Herbfarm Cookbook I stopped when I came to Traunfeld’s Honey Infused with Lavender. Now, is there anything more delicious than honey? I’m addicted. (A friend once nearly fainted as I stirred nearly a quarter cup of honey into my tea.) Its subtle sweetness, perfumed by whatever blossomy nectar the bees have imbibed, has a depth of flavor, a sultry sun-struck resonance that no sugar could hope to match. Spicy honeyed Moroccan tomato jam, honey-basted spareribs, cold lemongrass tea sweetened with honey….I love them all.
But could I make the lavender honey? My own lavender blossoms have come and gone, so as Traunfeld directed, I infused mild honey, warmed until it was liquid, with a tablespoonful of dried culinary lavender. Even with repeated steepings, I’m sorry to say that the small tightly furled lavender buds would not give up even a hint of their fragrance.
But that set me to thinking. What about all the other pungent herbs, now at their peak in the summer garden? Freshly picked early in the morning, their volatile oils would be intense, just right for flavoring bees’ liquid gold.
Yesterday I made three infused honeys that are absolutely fabulous: anise-scented Thai basil, using both the pointy leaves and the lavender pink flowers in burgundy bracts; a warmly aromatic thyme medley, mostly lemon, but also orange balsam, silver and French thymes; and the most pungent of all, piney rosemary.
Whatever herbs you use, start with a very mild honey that will not compete with your herbs. Something light to medium in color and flavor. Warm it until it liquefies, than stir in the fresh herbs and set aside overnight. In the morning warm the honey again and strain it into a jar.
Here are some ways to use these herb-flavored honeys:
1. Thai basil honey is magical with ripe berries, blueberries and black berries, especially, but also with nectarines and peaches. So combine them in bowl, adding raspberries and strawberries if you like, add a spoonful or two of honey, toss very gently and serve in about 5 minutes.
2. Warm fried chicken drizzled with thyme honey is addictive.
3. Both the Thai basil and the thyme honeys are luscious with tangy chevre. Go one step further and sprinkle the chevre with very thin slivers of fresh jalapeno, seeds removed. Or for a simple dessert, serve chevre with the honey drizzled berry salad mentioned above.
4. Rosemary honey, the strongest of the three, stands up nicely to grilled meats. Marinate chicken, pork or lamb in citrus juice and garlic for a couple of hours and grill over hardwood coals. When almost done, baste with rosemary honey, warmed until it is liquid, and return to the grill away from the coals so that the sugar doesn’t burn. Cook for 5 or 10 minutes more, then serve.
5. All the honeys are good in tea, black or green, hot or cold. Or try combining flavors with fresh herbal teas made from mint and lemon verbena.
That will get you started, I hope. Me? I’m off to the garden to pick lime leaves and tarragon. More honey is on the way.
Honey Infused with Thai Basil, Thyme or Rosemary
(adapted from Jerry Traunfeld in The Herbfarm Cookbook)
Makes about 1 cup of flavored honey
1 cup mild honey
¼ cup Thai basil blossoms and leaves, stripped from the stems
¼ cup mixed thyme leaves, stripped from the stems (any combination will work, but I like to use mostly lemon with some orange, French and silver-leaved thymes)
6 tender rosemary tips, each about 4 inches long
1. Quickly rinse off the herbs and dry them thoroughly.
2. In a small pot, warm the honey over medium heat until it reaches 150 degrees. At this point the honey will be quite liquid and may bubble very slightly around the edges. Remove at once from the burner.
3. Stir in the herbs of your choice, cover and let them steep for 24 hours.
(Rosemary will flavor the honey by the time it cools down so you can use it right away if you like.)
4. Warm the honey again just until it liquefies. Strain it into a clean, wide mouthed jar, let cool and cover with a top.