Turn the pages of almost any cooking magazine and you’re likely to come across an ingredient that sounds both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time: lemon verbena. Granted, it might not be in every issue of every magazine, but it has gone from an uncommon ingredient to one that even very mainstream magazines (versus smaller circulation specialty mags) don’t hesitate to include. Lemon verbena is a leafy herb with a strong lemon-y flavor. In spite of the fact that it isn’t on most people’s “must-have kitchen herbs” list, it has been a popular plant to have in the garden for centuries. It originated in South America and was brought back to Europe, where it served as both a decorative and functional plant, thanks to its strong and fresh lemon scent. It flowers, but the flowers tend to be small, rather than showy.
Perhaps the most common use for the plant is as an herbal tea drink. Lemon alone can be very refreshing, and it combines well with a variety of other flavors, too. Elise has featured a Lemon Verbena Mint Herbal Tea before. The leaves can be dried – and will be, if you buy a prepackaged tea that features them – but they can be used when fresh, as well.
As far as cooking goes, lemon verbena is most often used in sweet dishes. As with most herbs, you want to get all the flavor possible out of the plant without introducing the leaves themselves into your finished product. There are two easy ways to do this. One is to make a flavored sugar, letting the natural juices/oils of the herb infuse the sugar with their flavor and scent (much as I’ve done with vanilla sugar before). The sugar can then be added to any recipe. The second way to use the herb is by infusing it into a liquid. This is done by steeping the leaves in boiling or near boiling liquid, much the same way as you might make tea, then straining them out before using the liquid in another recipe. Dessert First used this technique in a verbena flavored ice cream and a parfait, both of which sound like delicious recipes if you want to get a feel for what the results of working with this herb might be like.