Heat wave refresher: A hot-weather standard gets a boost from the herb garden

Steve Peters / Photo

By Steve Peters
Rutland Bites

It’s shaping up to be a hot summer. When it gets to be this way, I get lazy in the kitchen. No one really wants to cook in the heat, do they? I find myself with less of an appetite as well, so it all works out. But I am always looking for something cold and refreshing to drink.

We don’t keep much in the way of beverages like juice, soda or other sweet drinks. Water is good, of course, yet it doesn’t feel refreshing or energizing in a way that motivates me to peel myself out of a chair and be productive as the sweat drips down my back. Have I mentioned that we don’t have air conditioning?

On the other hand, in our garden we do have a variety of herbs and plants that can be used to make teas and beverages. Mint is just one. There’s also chamomile, as you may recall from when I wrote about it last summer. This year, I’m trying to do more with the lemon balm that only continues to flourish despite the complete lack of attention I give it.

Lemon balm is a perennial herb that’s part of the mint family. As the name implies, the green leafy herb tastes just like lemon, despite looking nothing like a citrus fruit. Although we’ve grown it for a few years, it still surprises me how similar in taste it is to real lemons. All you need to do is run your hand through the plant to release its scent. If you’re thinking of growing some, locate it somewhere where, if you never get around to using it, people can at least brush by and enjoy the smell.

Lemon balm has a number of beneficial medicinal qualities. It’s believed to help reduce anxiety, improve sleep and promote a good mood. Of course, you’ll want to do your research before you start using lemon balm or any other herb for its beneficial qualities. I’m focused more on how to use it for its flavor.

If you’re wondering what the difference between lemon balm and lemon verbena is, when it comes to culinary usage, there isn’t much. You can use them interchangeably. Verbena is often used in sweet dishes, while balm is found more in savory. Verbena is also considered to have a stronger flavor, while balm has a zestier taste. I really don’t think it makes a difference, though.

Having only ever grown lemon balm, I use it wherever I want to impart a hint of lemon, regardless of what a recipe might specify. However, I wouldn’t necessarily expect either herb to be a perfect substitute for lemon juice or zest in quite the same way. Although they have a strong aroma, they’re much more subtle in flavor.

If you don’t have a plant of your own, I have seen it pop up more frequently in the herb section of produce departments. You can also check with local herb growers to see when or if they may have plants for sale. Or, if you have a friend with a plant, try taking a cutting to replant in a pot or in your yard.

Where better to put lemon balm to use than in what everyone could use on a hot summer day — a glass of lemonade? By steeping the leaves in hot water with lemon zest and juice, you get an excellent depth of lemon flavor that’s not too sour. And by sweetening it with a modest amount of maple syrup, this is much more of a pleasantly balanced beverage than any lemonade you can buy in stores.

Alright, so maybe another good use is to steep the leaves in cream to flavor a batch of homemade ice cream. But the chances of me getting a good ice cream photo in the heat are not likely. I could barely get the ice cream to freeze up when I made some last week.

With the lemonade, you have options. You could add in other herbs, such as mint, to get to the cup of leaves needed and make an even more unique beverage. You could use carbonated water instead of regular to make a fizzy lemonade. And you could add in a shot of gin to make a lemonade cocktail. As written, this isn’t a super-strong or sweet lemonade, if that’s what you’re used to drinking. Start here and adjust to your liking the next time you make it.

Lemon balm lemonade

  • several springs of lemon balm
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • 4 lemons
  • ice, for serving

Rinse off the lemon balm sprigs to remove any dirt or bugs that may be on them. Remove the leaves from the stems and add the leaves to a measuring cup. You will need a total of one cup of loosely packed leaves. Place the leaves in large sturdy jar with the maple syrup. Use the bottom of a wooden spoon to muddle the leaves. This helps release their oils and flavor.

Use a vegetable peeler to gently remove strips of zest from three of the lemons. Be careful not to remove the bitter white part known as the pith. Add the lemon zest pieces to the jar with the lemon balm. Juice the three lemons and add that to the jar as well.

Boil 2 cups of water, then add the water to the lemon mixture. Allow this to steep for 30 minutes. Afterwards, strain the liquid into a pitcher and discard the solids. Add 5 cups of cold water.

To serve, fill glasses with ice, pour in the lemonade, and garnish with a lemon slice and sprig of lemon balm.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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