No doubt about it. The rather bland looking lemon verbena, Aloysia triphylla, is not going to be stage center in those herb gardens where esthetics play a strong role, but the wise cook will most assuredly find a place for this homely child; it can work wonders as a flavor enhancer in dishes from desserts to entrees - even in iced drinks. Referred to as "a member of a select group of olfactory ambushers" by a well-known herbalist, one need only smell the scented leaf to understand its culinary value. And yet this exotic herb is seldom seen in recipe books.
Considered a "tender" herb in the Northeast, it does not winter well, so best to make use of it during the summer months. Its lanky and scraggly bush-like appearance might not make one pause to admire its beauty when planning an herb garden, but touch its leaves and scent euphoria sets in. Its exotic lemony bouquet promises a new taste experience for the imaginative cook. After all, without scent there can be no taste. Be discreet, however, the intense flavor of the leaf is much too strong to be tossed in a salad or sprinkled over a dish for color - as one might with parsley or dill. It is the aroma released by the lemon verbena leaves that gives the subtle taste so admired by imaginative cooks.
The herb is inspiring. Use it in place of more commonly recommended herbs in chicken, fish, or lamb marinades. No need to chop the leaves to bring out flavor. Left whole they are sufficiently aromatic. Whole branches can be used as seasoning in the cavity of a chicken or as a bed for roast lamb. The leaves also work their magic in cold drinks such as lemonade, iced tea, a cold fresh fruit punch or even a fruit cup. Let the leaves set in a light vinaigrette before dressing a salad or add to a fresh tomato sauce before serving. Lemon verbena added to a light butter sauce makes a piece of simply poached fish an exotic meal. And a simple butter cake served with fresh strawberries and a sauce (see recipe below) of lemon verbena leaves, fresh lemon juice, sugar, butter, and flour rewards the cook with an exceptional summer desert.
As a final reminder, the herb can be overpowering. It is always safest to experiment starting with too little rather than chance an overwhelming flavor.
Lemon Verbena Sauce to serve with fresh fruit or cake:
1 Cup sugar
1 Tablespoon flour
¾ Cup boiling water
¼ Cup fresh lemon juice
20 lemon verbena leaves
2 Tablespoons butter
Combine sugar and flour in a small saucepan, off the heat. Stir in the boiling water and cook several minutes over moderate heat. Add the lemon juice and lemon verbena leaves and bring to a boil. When the sauce has thickened, remove the leaves with a fork.. Add the butter and stir until it is melted. Remove the sauce from the heat and cool to room temperature or chill for serving.
Yield: Approximately one cup Source: Kitchen Gardener, February/March 2000