Sunday, February 10, 2008

Grow Your Own – Verbena

I am not much of a gardener. In fact I have never been successful at keeping anything alive for more than a year, except for those hearty house plants genetically engineered to take abuses such as long periods of draught when we travel and constant blast of cold air from the A/C vent. I do try to keep a little herb garden though because I use fresh herbs in my cooking so much. My little herb garden sits under the slit of window that opens in my kitchen and usually consists of rosemary, basil, mint, parsley and whatever else I could find at the nursery. None of them ever live very long so I am constantly replacing them, which is probably a good thing because the longer they live, the more sickly they look. So what am I doing here entering the “Grow Your Own” monthly event? Firstly, just because I am not good at growing things doesn’t mean I don’t want to be better. By entering this event I was hoping to get inspired by other people's green thumbs. Secondly, the wonderful rule of the GYO event actually says, “You can use something that was gifted to you, but the giver must have personally grown or raised the item.” And there lies my solution.

Recently a friend of mine dropped off a bag of freshly picked verbena that her friend grew in the garden. Verbena, of all things! I was beyond excited. Next to lavender, verbena might be my second favorite herb, and it’s not easy to come by in Singapore. In fact, I have never seen it sold anywhere, potted or cut.

My first encounter with verbena was through a wonderful shampoo that Loccitane used to make. It has a very fresh lemony scent and makes your scalp feel all tingly and fresh. I fell in love instantly. (I still haven’t forgiven them for changing the formulation to include lemon, resulting in a significant drop in the tingling sensation.) But the first time I had verbena in food was when we were in Provence last summer. They were in everything from salads to soups to desserts. The most memorable was a wonderful verbena ice cream we had at an Alain Ducasse restaurant/country inn called La Bastide des Moustiers, so it was this ice cream that I set out to recreate. I used a recipe that I found on Epicurious and largely followed it. The result was nice, but I found the verbena flavor to be mild. If I ever get my hands on some more verbena (my friend says she’s planning to get a sprig from her friend and plant it herself) I’ll double up on the amount of verbena and try again.

Here’s the unaltered recipe. Feel free to increase the verbena quantity.

1 cup packed fresh lemon verbena sprigs
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar

Bring verbena, milk, cream, and 1/8 teaspoon salt to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, then remove from heat and let steep, covered, 30 minutes.

Whisk together eggs and sugar until combined, then whisk in verbena mixture. Return mixture to saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard thickens slightly and registers 175°F on an instant-read thermometer (do not let boil).

Immediately strain thourough a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing on and then discarding solids. Cool custard, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes, then chill, covered, until cold, at least 2 hours.

Freeze custard in ice cream maker, then transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, about 1 hour.

After making the ice cream, I still had a little bit of verbena left. So I used it in a soup, recipe also from Epicurious. This soup tasted similar to a fish soup that my Vietnamese friend used to make, but she puts tamarind in hers instead of the herb mix in this recipe. I have to admit the flavor of the verbena gets somewhat lost because of the chili and fish sauce, but the flavors do blend beautifully. The way to eat this soup, as my Vietnamese friend has shown me once, is to either pour soup and contents all onto a bowl of white rice, or to pick out the contents only, pile it on white rice and pour chili sauce over it. Try it both ways, and see which way you like better.

So if you happen to have a handful of verbena, not quite enough to make ice cream, then I suggest you give this a try. Or if you don’t have verbena, lemongrass can be used in its place.

1 pineapple (preferably labeled "extra sweet"; about 3 1/2 lb)
About 2 qt water
2 skinless boneless chicken breast halves (3/4 lb total)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
4 (1-inch) fresh red Thai chiles, minced, including seeds
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1/2 lb fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps thinly sliced
2 large tomatoes, chopped (2 cups)
1 cup fresh mung bean sprouts (2 oz)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh lemon verbena
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt

Cut peel from pineapple in a thin layer and discard, then trim outer layer of pineapple, cutting just deep enough to remove eyes but allowing pineapple to remain intact, and transfer trimmings to a blender. Quarter pineapple lengthwise and cut out core, then coarsely chop core and transfer to blender. Purée with 2 cups water until smooth. Pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a 2-quart glass measure, pressing hard on solids (discard solids), then add enough water to measure 8 cups pineapple broth.

Cut remaining pineapple into 1/2-inch pieces and put in a bowl.
Place chicken between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Gently pound chicken 1/4 inch thick with flat side of a meat pounder or with a rolling pin. Cut chicken across the grain into 1/4-inch-wide strips and transfer to a bowl, then chill, covered.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté chiles and 2 tablespoons garlic, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1/4 cup fish sauce and boil until sauce is reduced by half, about 2 minutes. (Fish sauce will be extremely pungent when first added but will have a mild flavor in soup.) Add pineapple broth and bring to a boil. Stir in pineapple pieces, mushrooms, tomatoes, bean sprouts, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and return to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes. While soup simmers, heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté remaining tablespoon garlic, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add remaining 2 tablespoons fish sauce and simmer until sauce is reduced by half, about 2 minutes.

Sprinkle chicken with remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper and add to garlic mixture, then sauté, stirring, until just cooked through, about 4 minutes.

Stir chicken into soup along with herbs and salt and simmer 1 minute.


Andrea said...

Your verbena ice sounds so refreshing, and that chicken soup looks wonderful. Thanks for sharing with Grow Your Own!

Lynnylu said...

This looks wonderful! Lemon verbena is one of my favorite lemon herbs along with lemon balm and lemongrass.