Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lemon Balm - Herb-of-the-Week

Having christened Wednesday Herb-of-the-Week day, I feature a blog on a special herb each Wednesday and detail it uses, growing habit and include recipes using the herb, and they are not only for food.

This week’s herb is: Lemon Balm
I could not go any farther into the herb-of-the week program without introducing you to a lemon herb.  I will admit a lemon herb bias.  I adore anything in the herb kingdom that is lemon scents, lemon flavored or citrus in taste.  I am on the hunt every spring for lemon herbs that are newly introduced.  For this entry I am going to share Lemon Balm.  It is an easy to grow herb with such a variety of uses that anyone can add it to their herb or vegetable garden.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is native to the Mediterranean and has a history going back at least 2000 years.  In the doctrine of signatures the heart shape of the herb led to its use as a treatment for heart ailments.  It is however, known to be good for lifting depression, calming anxiety, relieving insomnia, and helping to relieve nervous tension..  It is considered one of the good herbs for lowering blood pressure and can help with allergic reactions to the skin because of its antihistamine action.  Being gentle and light it can be given to children and its anti nausea applications make it a good herb to take when feeling under the weather.  As a cooking herb, it is valued for its lemon flavor.
Lemon Balm is a dependable perennial up through zone 3.  The plant will grow 2 feet high, bearing small white non-descript flowers in mid- to late summer.  The square and branching stems support broadly ovate or heart-shaped leaves with scalloped edges.  The whole plant smells delightfully lemony, with the scent being best when the tiny flowers begin to open.
It dies back completely when winter arrives and comes back when the soil begins to warm.  Its sunny yellow green leaves are usually the first you see emerging in the spring.  It is in the mint family and can grow prolifically.  It tolerates just about any soil conditions and can grow in sun or shade.  The seed will spread this plant easily around your garden, so best to harvest it strongly and often to keep it from producing flowers.
There are several varieties of Lemon Balm available.  Of special note is Golden Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis ‘Aurea’) which does not flower and has an attractive chartreuse color that contrasts well with other shades of green.  There is also a lime-scented version known as  Lime Balm (Melissa officinalis ‘Lime’).
Light and fresh, lemon balm adds a splash of citrus and mint undertones to both savory and sweet dishes.  Use the young tops for cooking and teas because the large, older leaves tend to have a soapy, musty flavor.  It is best used fresh, but can be dried quickly and stored carefully for use in teas and herb blends; on drying it will lose some of the nuance of its flavor.
You can chop it into fruit salad, add it to lemonade, you can even put the leaves in ice water and use them for finger bowls.  The lemon fragrance is perfect as an added green to salads and the medicinal properties of relaxation are great in an herbal tea.  It can be used in cooking wherever a taste of lemon is desired, which means it is perfect on fish, great with chicken and adds a splash of flavor to vegetables and rice.  The only thing to remember is like oregano, you should add the fresh or dried lemon balm toward the end of cooking, as cooking lemon balm too long will dissipate its flavor.
Problems with Lemon Balm
About its only growing problems (besides its desire to spread seed) is that in the damp months of fall, like September it can get powdery mildew due to thick leafy stems and lack of air circulation.  To cure this just cut the effected foliage and discard.  It will grow back just fine.

Lemon Herb Butter
½ cup (one stick) of butter or margarine
1 Tbls. finely chopped lemon balm
1 Tbls. finely chopped Lemon thyme
1 tsp. Chipped lemon verbena (remove leaf center rib)
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
Combine all ingredients and refrigerate overnight.  Delicious on breads, vegetables and as a baste on fish or poultry.  I have even used this as a butter served with steak (like Bobby Flay!)

Lemon Balm Dip

4 Tbls. dried dill
4 Tbls. dried lemon balm
2 tsp. granulated lemon peel
1 tsp. ground lemon pepper
Mix all ingredients together.  Use 1 Tbls. of this blend with 1 cup sour Cream and 1 cup mayonnaise to create a dip.

Lemon-Berry Chardonnay Cordial

3/4 cup sugar
1/4cup chopped fresh lemon balm
3 cups fresh or frozen blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, or blackberries
3 cups chardonnay

In a blender or food processor, process sugar and lemon balm until leaves are finely chopped and mixed into the sugar.  Wash and drain the berries and place in a quart jar.  Sprinkle with herbed sugar.  Add wine to jar and cover.  Refrigerate at least 1 month or until mixture is slightly thick and sweet.
To use:  1. For an aperitif, strain and pour into glasses.  Garnish with fresh sprigs
 2. For a summer beverage: Strain and pour ¼ cup into a tall, ice-filled glass.  Fill the glass with soda water or sparkling water.
 3. For dessert sauce: spoon over baked meringues, fresh fruit or ice cream.

Trouble sleeping?
Let the aroma of Lemon balm give you restful sleep by making an herb pillow.  Blend 2 Tablespoons each of lavender, hops, lemon balm and rosemary.  Place the blend in a cloth bag or tie into the corners of your pillow case to add with restful sleep.

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