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In love with lovage

(article, Deborah Madison)

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Just a month ago, the peculiar red shoots of lovage were just poking out of the ground. Now, in May, the plant is already a few feet high, and I’m thrilled. 

I’m always thrilled about lovage, and I’ve been growing it, talking about it, and cooking with it for — could it be so? —  more than three decades. Lately, lovage is starting to come into view for more people, but for most, when I say the word, what comes back is, “Lovage? What’s that?” 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Lovage looks like a gigantic version of Italian parsley."]

It’s a legitimate question, for lovage hasn’t been held in the same high esteem as it was in the time of Charlemagne, which was quite a while back, after all. During the Middle Ages, the herb was included in both kitchen gardens and physic gardens, where it was grown for its healing properties. As is often the case with herbs, it’s the root that’s used for curative properties, but what interests me are the leaves and the hollow, ridged stems.

So what we’ve got in lovage is a big perennial plant in the same family where dill, celery, parsley, carrots, cumin, and other umbellifers meet. The leaves tend to make a lot of people think that they’re looking at some gigantic version of Italian parsley, or maybe parsley crossed with celery. Actually, a blend of parsley and celery leaf almost describes the flavor of lovage — it’s not quite one, not quite the other, but reminiscent of both. In truth, the flavor is more wild and bright than either, but like both, it has a cutting, clean flavor that enlivens other foods like eggs, cucumbers, and potatoes. It is especially good with blander foods like rice, cream soups, and, again, potatoes. 

[%image lovage float=left width=250 caption="Lovage can grow as tall as a person."] 

Early in its season, the dark green leaves of lovage are smooth, tender, and new. With time, they’ll start to look more leathery and ragged, as they sustain more heat and wind — not that I don’t use them even in that state. But now their tender newness makes them just the thing to tear into a salad or layer with cucumbers in a sandwich, two of my favorite uses for this aromatic leaf. The hollow stems are delicious in a glass of tomato juice or a Bloody Mary. I’ve never done it, but apparently you can blanch the stems, then dress them in a vinaigrette. 

Like its relative angelica, you can also probably candy the stems of lovage for use in winter baking. The seeds, which drop out of the umbels in late summer, can be ground or chopped and used as a seasoning, but it’s the new leaves that are most potent, surprising, and refreshing.

Under favorable conditions — that is, good soil, sun, and water — lovage can get as tall as a person. I always say one plant will feed a small city block, but personally, I have four. I just like to look at them as well as use them. They’re a handsome garden plant and thrive even in the high desert of the Southwest. 

Growing right next to my main lovage plant are tarragon, chervil, chives, and sorrel, also new and green and ready to eat. I put all of them into salads and soups, often together. For example, last night I started out making a potato-sorrel soup, then threw in some lovage and a few chard leaves and served it garnished with chives, tarragon, and a spoonful of cream off the top of the yogurt. 

True, the sorrel gave it a gloomy army-green color, but one taste, and I was back in the garden. In the mouth, it was an utterly vibrant spring soup. Just imagine all these leaves in a salad for an even more sparkly version.

If you have a garden and have never planted lovage, I encourage you to buy a plant at your nursery and get started. It’s one you can have a lot of fun with and will enjoy sharing. And while you’re at it, you might as well install a few sorrel plants and some tarragon. Chives, too. Chervil you’ll do from seed.

Alan Chadwick, the English gardener who introduced the French Biodynamic Intensive Method of gardening to the U.S., was passionate about cooking, not just growing food. When he described a dish, he began with the plant in the garden — its precise condition and age —  and then went on to give exacting instructions about the cooking of it. He once suggested this sandwich for a Scottish breakfast:

bq. Spread grainy dark bread with sweet butter. Or use white bread if you prefer. Cover with chopped lovage or whole, tender lovage leaves. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and, if you like, add sliced cucumbers. Season all with freshly ground pepper. Eat as an open-face sandwich or top with a second slice of bread.

And if an herb sandwich seems a bit earthy for breakfast, try it for lunch.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

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