With author's help, herbs make easy trip from garden to table

June 23, 1993|By Peter D. Franklin | Peter D. Franklin,Universal Press Syndicate

Perhaps you have noticed, as Maggie Oster has, that the produce sections of supermarkets are carrying more and more fresh herbs as well as edible flower petals.

That's all to the good, a welcome trend that one can only hope continues. But it's an expensive alternative to growing your own herbs and flowers -- and far less satisfying, too.

Once you plant the seed and the crop comes in, though, you have to know what to do with the harvest.

That's where "Recipes From an American Herb Garden," by Maggie Oster (Macmillan, $30), comes in. Modest in size but not in price, it is the best cookbook of its kind this season, following in the acclaimed footsteps of "The Gourmet Garden," by Geraldene Holt (Bulfinch, 1990), "The Complete Book of Herbs," by Lesley Bremness (Viking Studio, 1988), and the magnificent "Cooking From the Garden," by Rosalind Creasy (Sierra Club, 1988).

Ms. Oster, it is said, "has grown hundreds of different herbs organically in locations as diverse as Seattle, Manhattan, upstate New York, the Midwest and the South." Just as important, however, is that she is a cook and a writer who knows how to clearly convey her message.

In her introduction, she notes the increase in the availability of herbs in markets as well as those for the garden. "Simultaneously," she writes, "Americans have become sophisticated eaters, enjoying a diversity of readily obtainable foods" and have displayed "a heightened awareness of and concern for healthful food."

What Ms. Oster provides us here are some 100 recipes and descriptions of 51 herbs and guidelines on how to grow them. The book also includes eight pages of selected mail-order sources of herb seeds and plants and a list of some other books to read, both of which appear to have been added as an afterthought.

No real need to look elsewhere, though; there's plenty to enjoy in "American Herb Garden," such as green tomato soup with garlic, ginger, cumin and coriander; chicken thighs glazed with orange-thyme-cumin sauce; refrigerator muffins with herbs; and baked apple slices with lavender cream. These are a few of my favorite recipes.

There are the to-be-expected recipes from appetizers to desserts, but Ms. Oster also explores sauces, dressings and condiments. And she includes some beverages, such as a mint julip, fruit punch with herbs, an old-fashioned fruit juice shrub (origins unknown) and mulled wine with spices and rosemary.

Do not expect everything to come out of the earth or the oven as perfectly as depicted in this color-filled volume, but as she says, "Experiment, and enjoy!"

"Bourbon and mint are natural partners, at least in Kentucky in May," writes Ms. Oster, who has a home in the Bluegrass state. However, she suggests some alternative combinations, such as another whiskey, a wine, brandy or orange, lemon or lime juice. Also, honey can be substituted for the maple syrup and other herbs can be used, such as basil, chives, ginger, oregano and parsley. Use your imagination to suit your taste.


Carrots glazed with mint, maple and bourbon

Makes 4 servings

1 pound carrots, trimmed as desired

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons bourbon

2 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine

1 tablespoon pure maple syrup

1/4 cup minced fresh mint leaves

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Combine the carrots, water and bourbon in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are tender when pierced, about 5 minutes depending upon size. Add the butter, maple syrup and mint and stir. Continue to cook, uncovered, until the liquid has evaporated and the carrots are glazed, about 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

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