A couple of weeks back, we made our annual pilgrimage to Pike’s, our local gardening center, for some colorful annuals to brighten up our patio, a wide assortment of herbs for warm-weather cooking and several vegetable and fruit plants for the kids’ garden. This springtime ritual is always an adventure. If we’d let them, the kids would spend hours and thousands of dollars filling our carts with everything edible. That sounds great, but their enthusiasm and lack of understanding of just how difficult it is for their mother–me–to successfully grow anything always leads to disappointment. One of many tough life lessons.
The kids’ latest obsession? Citrus trees. For the past couple of years, they have been begging us to buy lemon and orange trees. To be quite honest, I don’t know how anyone living in North Georgia can successfully grow citrus–we’re still occasionally battling below average temperatures. Hello Mother Nature, it’s May! On top of that, we don’t have the room to grow anything of that magnitude. We already have two Santa Rosa Plum trees and one Bell of Georgia Peach tree lining the driveway of our suburban neighborhood and I struggle to keep those babies alive and bug-free. After a long debate (and physical struggle), I finally persuaded my heartbroken children to remove the citrus trees (and the blueberry bush–how/when did that get in there) from the cart and slowly diverted their attention back to the will-thrive-even-if-you-neglect-me plant aisle. They reluctantly settled on the usual: cucumbers, jalapeño peppers and tomatoes. They also pleaded for and were granted permission to buy this huge pot of mixed baby lettuce (which I could have eaten on the spot) and a couple of beautiful Amethyst eggplants (if they grow it they will eat it–trust me). For my herb garden, I selected rosemary, basil, cilantro and lemon balm. This is my first experience with lemon balm. And let me say, I’m already hooked.
What I’ve recently learned about lemon balm is that it’s a perennial herb from the mint family. Aside from the plant’s attractive foliage, it has a broad range of medicinal purposes–from calming queazy stomachs and rattled nerves to serving as an effective aromatherapy treatment for Alzheimer’s patients. The plant itself is also a natural mosquito repellant (reason enough for every New Orleanian to have this plant in their patio garden). While I appreciate all that, I’m more excited about lemon balm’s lovely scent and the fresh, tangy punch it adds to vegetable dishes, salads and sauces. The first recipe I created with it in mind was the creamy spinach stuffing for these mushrooms. The lemon balm pairs up nicely with the fresh spinach and brightens the mixture with just the right hit of citrus. I challenge you to find it in your area. Home Depot and Walmart are good places to start your search.
Another thing I’ve learned about lemon balm is that it lends plenty of personality to cocktails–light, summery cocktails. That’s a very important attribute for an ingredient commanding so much attention on Finger Food Friday. During my lemon balm “studies,” I stumbled upon several cocktail and food blogs highlighting Happy Hour showstoppers that center on this citrusy herb. One in particular, One Martini, had me longing for five o’clock. Jessica Torres, One Martini’s Chief Cocktail Creator (cool title huh?), has crafted an awesomely inviting beverage called The Lemon Effect Cocktail. As the name suggests, this drink is all about the lemon and lemon balm leaves serve double duty as an herbaceous base and a nose-tickling garnish. There it is below. Don’t you wish you could reach in and grab the glass? That may be possible someday, but until then you’ll need to hop on over to One Martini for the recipe and make it yourself.
Until next time …
Creamy Spinach Stuffed Mushrooms
2 8-ounce packages baby bella mushrooms
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup chopped onions
2 cups packed spinach
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/4 chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons chopped fresh lemon balm (or 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest)
Pinch of ground nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Clean mushrooms with damp paper towels. Carefully separate stems from caps. Chop stems; set aside. Place mushroom caps, stem side up, on a large baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt butter. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add chopped mushroom stems and cook until tender, about 4-5 minutes. Add spinach and cook until wilted. Transfer spinach mixture to a blender. Add cream cheese, parsley, lemon balm, nutmeg and cayenne pepper. Process until smooth. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Fill each mushroom cap with spinach mixture and bake, uncovered, until mushrooms are tender and filing is light golden brown, about 12-15 minutes. Serve warm. Makes 8-10 appetizer servings.