Chefs prove that fruit and herbs are natural allies

June 13, 1993|By Richard Sax | Richard Sax,Contributing Writer/Los Angeles Times Syndicate

In restaurants across the country, fresh herbs are popping up in the most unexpected places. At the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, Chef Gary Danko infuses fresh basil and mint in a custard sauce, imparting both cool sweetness and brilliant jade-green color. Kathleen Daelemans, at Maui's Grand Hyatt Wailea, moistens an artful arrangement of blood oranges and strawberries with a light syrup perked up with fragrant rosemary needles. At his namesake restaurant in Chicago, Charlie Trotter adds an elusive touch of bay leaf to creme brulee.

The new culinary trend of partnering fruit with fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage, lemon thyme and basil may be a surprise to many, albeit a welcome one. Together, the fruits and herbs send the palate a subtle wake-up call, the herbs enhancing the sweetness of late summer's ripe fruits while interjecting their own soft piney, menthol or woodsy aromas.

Summer fruits offer a prime opportunity to ally desserts with fresh herbs. A sprig or two of lemon thyme or sage adds zest to wine syrup for a luscious compote of mixed summer fruits and berries. Cubes of chilled ripe honeydew and cantaloupe melon brighten when tossed with a few mint leaves (or, if you are lucky enough to have your own herb garden, the hard-to-find anise hyssop) and dabbed with lime juice.

If you preserve your own fruits, tuck a sprig of fresh thyme, rosemary or sage, or a single rose-geranium leaf, into each canning jar. Suspended in translucent syrup or jelly, herb leaves not only add flavor but also are a lovely visual accent.

Whatever the melding, subtlety is the key -- a little can tantalize, too much can bully.

"Fresh fruit should have no more than a wisp of any flavoring other than itself," maintains Elizabeth Schneider, exotic-fruit maven and author of "Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables" (HarperCollins). "I like herbs used to scent a syrup," she continues, "but you don't want a mouthful of leaves. They work especially well with berries, where herb-touched syrups underscore the fruit rather than blast it off the plate."

Such subtlety is evident at the Sea Grill in New York City, where chef Seppi Renggli serves an herb-topped tropical-fruit kebab as an accompaniment to a chicken or lobster salad. A skewer of grilled pineapple, kiwi, mango, blood orange and melon alternating with lemon thyme and tiny fresh sage leaves, the kebab typifies the chef's skill at combining unexpected ingredients -- not for the sake of self-conscious innovation but for the enhancement of each other.

Mr. Renggli, formerly of the Four Seasons in New York, says he is also keen on a compote of peaches tinged with lime leaves, lemongrass or basil stems. "The flavors are terrific together," he says with justifiable pride.

In Gary Danko's suave custard sauce, basil and mint unite in a sort of herbal alchemy. "Mint makes the basil sing," the San Francisco chef explains. "And it livens up the other flavors."

His inspiration? "Green Chartreuse liqueur, which is made with 140 mountain herbs. I flavor the custard with the liqueur, then fortify it with blanched fresh herbs."

Mr. Danko serves this sauce with chocolate mousse cake, but it also does wonderful things when drizzled over a cool bowl of whatever summer fruits are at their peak.

Of all herbal desserts, ice cream and sorbet are the most refreshing. Because cold temperatures mute flavors, the herbs come through gently, without overpowering. Inventive chefs are scenting homemade ice cream with honey and lavender or rose geranium -- a soothing summer treat, especially when topped with ripe berries.

I'll never forget the bracing pleasure of the rosemary sorbet that Mr. Renggli devised at the Four Seasons. Placed in a tall champagne flute and then crowned with a sugar-frosted rosemary sprig, this delectable creation went down icy and smooth -- a knockout that said it all about this old/new culinary concept.


This late-harvest wine syrup is a basic; you can use it for any combination of fresh fruits in season. Serve the compote with shortbread or buttery sugar cookies.

Summer fruit compote with lemon thyme-wine syrup

Makes 6 servings.

1 1/2 cups dessert wine, such as muscat, late-harvest riesling or Gewurztraminer (or substitute 3/4 cup each dry white wine and water, plus 1/2 cup sugar)

1/2 cup cold water

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

4 slices peeled fresh ginger root

1/2 cinnamon stick

1 to 2 small sprigs lemon thyme, plus more for garnish

3 ripe nectarines

3 ripe peaches

12 Italian prune-plums, rinsed, halved, stems and pits removed

1/2 pint fresh raspberries, picked over

1/2 pint fresh blackberries, picked over

1 lemon, thinly sliced

lemon juice

Place wine, water and sugar in non-aluminum saucepan and bring to simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Tie vanilla bean, ginger root, cinnamon stick and lemon thyme sprig in piece of cheesecloth and add to wine. Simmer, uncovered, about 10 minutes.

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