Monday, June 28, 2010

Borage: blue summer

If you asked me to name my favorite herb, I'd probably be practical and say basil, or one of the many others that are great in the garden and have many kitchen uses. But honestly, the one I like growing the best? Borage.

(This whole post is probably an excuse to show off that photo, because how often do I produce one that good? But borage is the supermodel of the veggie patch, along with chili peppers: hard to make them look bad.)

Borage says summer to me, the blue flowers bringing bees to the garden and exciting a lot of human admiration as well. It's easy to grow (although I tried the white-flowered cultivar this year and managed to get one seedling, which is now dying in a pot on my deck). Start seedlings inside in April, or direct seed in the garden in May; try succession seeding since apring-seeded plants sometimes poop out in September. Borage will self-seed modestly but fairly reliably; half the current dozen or so plants in the demo garden are volunteers (including the one in the photo).

Both the flowers and the young leaves (the older ones get too hairy) are edible, lending a cucumber-like flavor to salads and soups. The flowers are also a traditional ingredient and/or garnish in alcoholic drinks such as Pimm's Cup. I've used borage in preparing claret cup, a refreshing nineteenth-century beverage perfect for a summer evening. Many recipes exist, but I used the one from the delightful cookbook of historical recipes Lobscouse and Spotted Dog by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas, a companion to the Aubrey/Maturin seafaring novels by Patrick O'Brian. (Jack and Stephen drink claret cup with Raffles in Java.)

Zest of 1/2 lemon
3 teaspoons sugar
Boiling water
1 pint claret (Bordeaux red wine)
1/4 cup brandy
1 cup soda water
1 sprig fresh borage, lightly crushed
Nutmeg (whole or ground)

Steep the lemon zest and sugar for a few minutes with enough boiling water to cover. Add the claret, brandy, soda water and borage, with a sprinkling or grating of nutmeg. Ten minutes later, add ice, stir, strain, and serve.

If you don't have borage, a piece of cucumber peel will do, but try to have borage. By the way, it is supposed to lend you courage; I suspect that's just because they rhyme, but I don't see how taken in small quantities it could make you less courageous. It should be equally good to flavor lightly fruity non-alcoholic drinks. Or just to grow so you can have blue stars in your garden all summer.

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