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When I entertain, I set my table so that it looks as if it has sprung right out of the herb garden. The fragrance and beauty of herbs and flowers lend a festive touch to any special occasion. The table itself becomes a visual feast, and its varied aromas stimulate appetites for the meal to come.
The availability of bright flowers in spring and summer make it easy to set tables that burst with color, but winter and fall tables can be just as lovely when decorated with twigs, berries, and evergreen herbal leaves. Wander the garden with a pair of clippers to find your inspiration. Adapt some of the ideas presented here to your own plant material, china, and linens to create table settings that are yours alone. Your guests will feel welcome.
The most important and conspicuous part of a beautifully laid table is the centerpiece. Make it striking, unexpected, even edible! I occasionally place a small pair of scissors at each setting so that guests may snip bits of herbs from the centerpiece and sprinkle them into their soup, salad, or vegetables. You can’t get herbs much fresher than that. Such a centerpiece can be as simple as a few small pots of culinary herbs and edible flowers temporarily planted in a harvest basket or large soup tureen a day or so before the party.
You’ll need potting soil, a sturdy container, and enough herb plants to fill it. Choose herbs to complement your dinner: basil and oregano for pasta, savory for beans, cilantro for tacos, and so forth. If you don’t know whether a particular flower or herb is edible, don’t use it.
If the container is not watertight, line it with a large plastic bag cut to fit. Fill the container halfway with potting soil. Unpot your herbs and arrange them in the container, placing the tallest plants in the center and the trailing plants toward the edge. Add more potting soil to within an inch of the top. For a whimsical touch, tuck in a small birdhouse or nest for your guests to discover.
Water the centerpiece lightly (because there are no drainage holes) and place it in a sunny window or under fluorescent grow lights until you’re ready to set your table. Don’t set the container outdoors unless you want snails or other uninvited guests at your dinner party.
Or simply put 1/2 inch of pea gravel in the container. Arrange the pots on it (the water will drain out of the pots into the gravel). Conceal the top of the pots with a layer of sphagnum moss.
After the party, transplant the herbs to your garden or to containers with proper drainage and room to grow.
One of the easiest ways to bring the garden to your dinner table is with fresh edible leaves and flowers.
• Place leaves and flowers on the tablecloth around each place setting or arrange them around the edges of a large plate placed under a smaller dinner or luncheon plate.
• Even easier, strew herbs and flower petals across the tablecloth just before guests arrive. Choose colorful leaves and flowers that complement the china and linens (carry a plate and napkin out into the garden with you as you pick your material). Bay, hyssop, rosemary, rose petals, sage, scented pelargoniums, and thyme are all good choices as they lie flat and are slow to wilt.
• Sandwich an arrangement of flowers and herbal greenery between clear glass plates. I prefer using small bread, salad, or dessert plates for these arrangements; aside from holding food, they serve as accent pieces that contribute to the overall table design. You can assemble them several hours before the party but keep them out of direct sunlight to prevent condensation.
• A pretty posy of herbs tucked into a folded napkin is a tiny, fragrant bouquet that guests can take home. Choose a few herbs such as sage, thyme, and rosemary along with a few flowers, strip off the lower leaves, and snip the ends with scissors. Place the stem ends in the kind of vial used by florists to keep corsages fresh (available at floral supply stores). Tuck the vial into the napkin with the leaves and flowers spilling out the top. If vials are unavailable, fasten each bunch of stems with a rubber band and keep the lower ends in water until party time, then wrap the stems in a piece of plastic wrap. Add a small ribbon to each posy before tucking it into the napkin.
• Pretty up traditional paper place cards (available at stationery stores) with pressed dried herb sprigs attached with white glue. Or write each guest’s name on a fresh or dried bay leaf with a black, gold, or silver marking pen, then place it on the dinner plate, tuck it into the napkin, or prop it against a wineglass. I’ve sometimes planted 3-inch terra-cotta pots with small herbs and written guests’ names on the pots or on plant labels inserted into the soil.
• Garnish each dish generously with fresh herbs. They add both color and flavor to hors d’oeuvre platters, dinner plates, and buffet serving dishes.
• A nasturtium or rose geranium leaf makes a perfect serving plate for an herbal butter ball or pat, and it’s easy to pick up at a buffet table.
• Embed rose petals, mint leaves, violets, borage blossoms, and other edible flowers in ice cubes. Just place one flower or petal in each compartment of an ice tray and fill with distilled water (for clear ice), then freeze.
• If you’ve got freezer space, you can make a flowered ice bowl to hold a bottle of champagne or individual bottles of wine coolers, cold hors d’oeuvres such as a pile of shrimp on shaved ice, or a simple fresh salad. Fill a large plastic or metal bowl halfway with distilled water and a little crushed ice. Add fresh leaves and flowers such as rosemary, thyme, mint, roses, and sage blossoms. Float a smaller plastic bowl in the water and fill it with enough uncooked beans or coins to submerge it to three-quarters of its depth. Freeze the two bowls for 24 hours. Dunk them quickly in warm water to release them from the ice bowl. Set the ice bowl in a deep saucer to catch the drips as it melts.
• Tie sprigs of rosemary onto the stems of wineglasses with narrow ribbon or raffia.
• Decorate straws with herbs for use as stir sticks for cold beverages such as juice or Bloody Marys. Remove the foliage from the lower half of 2-inch sprigs of parsley, thyme, and/or rosemary and pack them into one end of a straw. You can make these stir sticks hours ahead and refrigerate them until needed.
Theresa Loe, author of The Herbal Home Companion (Kensington Press, 1996), is a gardener, teacher, and crafter in El Segundo, California.
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