Savor Herbal Flavor in Summer Syrups
At this time of year, my garden and I both nearly burst with excitement. Many of my burgeoning herbs look downright giddy, and I find myself running through delicious herbal recipes, crafts and remedies in my head all day long. What with the spearmint spilling out onto the walkway, the basil begging to be trimmed and the rose scented geranium threatening to take over the entire northeast corner, it would be a shame to let all this abundance go to waste. But even someone who loves herbs as much as I do can have trouble keeping up with the prolific early summer bounty. Luckily, there are many delicious ways to preserve the garden’s flavors. One of the handiest and tastiest ways I know of is to make a batch of herbal sugar syrups to sweeten delicious desserts, add zip to sauces and flavor cold beverages in the hot summer days to come.
Flavored syrups are popular sweeteners for cold beverages, such as iced tea and lemonade, because the dissolved sugar doesn’t leave clumps at the bottom of the glass, providing consistent sweet flavor from the first sip to the last. Add a few fresh herbs and you easily can flavor your drink with the sweet essence of your garden. Chefs and home cooks love syrups because they can be used to sweeten dessert sauces and icings without creating a grainy texture. Or, use them straight from the bottle as a glaze to spread on cake, drizzle over fresh fruit or brush onto pastries.
You can use any sweet herb, such as lavender, lemon balm, lemon verbena, mint, pineapple sage or scented geranium. Many herbs normally used in savory dishes, such as basil, rosemary, sage and thyme, make wonderful syrups as well, adding unusual flavor to sweet foods. Even flower blossoms, such as roses and violets, make lovely syrup.
Herbal syrups will last up to six months in the refrigerator before they begin to lose flavor. But you probably will find the bottle empty long before your six months are up. There are just too many delicious ways to use them! Try pouring mint syrup over fruit salad or rich chocolate cake. Drizzle rose petal or pineapple sage syrup over vanilla ice cream. Add a splash of lavender or rosemary syrup to lemonade or use lemon verbena syrup to create a citrus martini. Just about any syrup is delicious poured over pound cake.
For a more complex flavor, you can add whole spices in small quantities. Try one star anise, a cinnamon stick, vanilla bean or a few whole allspice or cloves. If you are unsure of which spices and herbs go together, hold a small amount of the herb/spice combination tightly in your hand until you feel it warm up. Open your hand and do a sniff test. If they smell good together, they probably will taste great as well.
You can use our master syrup recipe to make a fruit syrup by replacing the water with freshly squeezed citrus or bottled fruit juice. Orange, lemon, apple and white grape juice work especially well. Fruit syrup has all the same wonderful uses as regular syrup, plus a few more. Pour it as a topping over pancakes, waffles or French toast, use it as a base for sorbet or mix it with sparkling water for a refreshing beverage. The hardest part is deciding which herbs to combine with each fruit juice. You will find that just about any combination works well. For starters, try pineapple sage with apple juice, lavender with white grape juice or rosemary with orange juice. Fruit syrup lasts about two months in the refrigerator.
In syrups, the ratio of sugar to liquid (water or juice) determines the thickness of the syrup. A 1:1 ratio produces a thin syrup, while a 2:1 ratio (two parts sugar to one part liquid) is thick. Most people prefer the thicker syrup because it is more concentrated and good for pouring, but you may adjust the master recipe to your liking. A small amount of lemon juice is included here to cut the sweetness and boost the herb flavor.
When measuring herbs, use the leaves whole and gently pack them down into the measuring cup. If using lavender blossoms or other edible flowers, add them whole to the measuring cup until you have one cup. Fresh rose petals are one exception: Before measuring, snip or pinch off the bitter white spot at the bottom of each rose petal where it attached to the bud, then add the individual petals to the measuring cup. Be sure that any roses, herbs or flowers you use are completely chemical-free. Finished syrups may be tinted with food coloring if you wish, but use discretion.
1 cup water
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup fresh herb leaves or flowers
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Whole spices, such as vanilla bean or cinnamon stick (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil and stir until sugar is completely dissolved, about 1 minute. Turn off heat, cover and set aside for 20 minutes. Strain into glass bottles or jars. Cap and refrigerate for up to six months.
Fruit Syrup: Use the recipe above, but substitute fruit juice for water. Refrigerate up to two months.
Theresa Loe’s annual calendar, The New Herbal Calendar (Tidemark Press) is illustrated by Peggy Turchette, who also illustrated this column. For more information on her work, visit www.HerbCom panion.com and click on “Contributors.”
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