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As more consumers head to farmer's markets or join community-supported agriculture organizations to supply their produce needs, many find themselves confounded as to what to do with the bounty on offer.
This is particularly true for those who belong to a community supported agriculture (CSA) scheme. In the typical CSA arrangement, a farm ships a weekly box of fresh produce to subscribers. Most of the produce that shows up in the box is familiar, but sometimes it's a mystery. (What are you supposed to do with lemon balm?) Even familiar produce can leave patrons scratching their heads. (How are we actually supposed to eat parsley?)
With a little effort, it shouldn't be hard to put even the most obscure herbs and vegetables to good use. (Often a CSA will include a helpful newsletter or information sheet in the box that gives cooking suggestions or recipes.) We ought to embrace these unfamiliar herbs and vegetables. Trying them out also gives gardeners a way to discover what's worth planting in their own gardens.
Early in the season, herbs are prominent on farmers' tables at the market and in CSA boxes. Here is some background on some of the more obscure examples you may run across.
Lemon Balm is an invasive weed distinguished by an aroma reminiscent of Lemon Pledge -- sounds appetizing, huh? Don't let that deter you: The herb does taste like its name and actually has a great flavor.
If you're growing it in the garden, it needs to be contained. Planting seeds or divisions in pots instead of the garden will help, but if it escapes, look out. Nothing could be easier to grow.
It's offered at farmer's markets and CSAs and can be used many ways in the kitchen. It makes a lovely tea; it pairs well with chicken and fish; and it can be used to make great lemon herb butter.
Cilantro is grown in the spring for its uniquely flavored green foliage, but later in the year, when it flowers, the seeds are used for coriander. The leaves are probably best known as a salsa ingredient, but cilantro can be much more.
It's an herb that doesn't dry well, so is best used fresh from the farm. It can be used to make herb and cheese spreads, with potatoes, and in salads. Try a pesto using cilantro, garlic, toasted and crushed almonds, some olive oil and hot pepper.
Chives are certainly well known, but they deserve a better fate than being relegated to the tops of baked potatoes. They are especially good early in the season when they have just sprouted. Chives can add a lot to dips and work well with feta and blue cheeses. They are never the centerpiece of the meal, but they make for a great sideshow to give the star some help. Add a handful to mashed potatoes along with roasted garlic.
Mustard greens aren't technically an herb, but they add a wonderful peppery flavor to dishes. They are really good for you, high in vitamins A, C and K and more. The greens are plentiful on farms at the start of the season. They're another easy crop for gardeners to grow, too.
When the greens are young, they add a punch to a salad. They are great sauteed with some walnuts, garlic and lemon juice. Try them with tomatoes, some goat cheese, pine nuts, olive oil and campanelle pasta, all tossed together with a little salt and pepper. Cut the stem out of the leaves for the tenderest greens. A classic way to prepare them is to cook them for hours in soups and stews, and to pair them with fatty meats such as pork or ham.
Curly leaf and flat leaf parsley may be the most underutilized herb there is -- left on the side of the plate, just to add some green for presentation. This is a shame, and totally unjust! This member of the carrot family is more than one trick pony.
A biennial, parsley sends up foliage the first season and then often overwinters to produce seed the next season. It's simple to grow from seed or transplants, and it should be harvested the first year and early into the next. Once it goes to flower, the leaves are no longer tasty.
Cooks must be careful with parsley; it can easily overwhelm a dish. Less is definitely more when using this herb in the kitchen. Finely chopped leaves are the perfect ingredient for meatballs -- without parsley, it's not really a meatball, is it? It's also one of the main ingredients for tabouleh, a staple of eastern Mediterranean cooking. Combine chopped leaves with lemon juice, olive oil, bulgur wheat, mint leaves and chopped scallions for a refreshing starter.
There are many wonders being produced on family farms all over the country. Stretch a little and try something unique, it's always fun to experiment.
Easy Creamy Parsley Sauce Recipe
This sauce is best served with meat.
1 tablespoon butter
3 cloves minced garlic
1 tablespoon flour
Salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the garlic and let it cook over a low heat for just a few minutes.
Add the flour and seasonings, and mix well.
Slowly add the milk while stirring, until the consistency is creamy.
Remove from heat and add parsley.
Simple Grilled Shrimp with Lemon Balm and Artichoke Salad Recipe
1 (12-ounce) jar of artichoke hearts
8-10 sun dried tomatoes
1 pound uncooked peeled shrimp
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 large head romaine lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup Caesar salad dressing
1/2 cup chopped lemon balm leaves, rinsed and pat dried
Fresh ground pepper to taste
Roughly chop the artichokes and sun dried tomatoes. Brush the shrimp with olive oil and grill about five minutes. Combine the cooked shrimp with the remaining ingredients in a large salad bowl and toss.
Available at Amazon.com:
The Leafy Herbs of Spring and What to Do With Them
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