May 4, 2013

Verbena & the Winning Orb

So much to celebrate on this first Saturday in May. First off, it's my niece Mirabelle's birthday—Happy Birthday Ms. Mirabelle! This completes her first full year on planet Earth. Secondly, a horse named "Orb" won the Kentucky Derby in the splattering mud, and thirdly, I discovered that lemon verbena has a way of clearing and reviving the tired mind.

This weekend I've been attending a writing conference that has been a wonderful if not overwhelming experience. My head feels like it's been jammed with words, ideas, new structures and architectural maps for stories, names of authors, books, blogs and magazines, more words and strategies and goals and elevator pitches and agent opinions and short versus long-form fiction or is it non-fiction or are you writing a novel or a memoir or what is your kindle-single or your twitter handle or audience or platform or editor's name or the name of the room with the drinks in it?

Needless to say, after a lot of mingling with other writers and listening and churning ideas through the thought factory of the mind, I wanted to let go, I wanted to shut down. I wanted to drink a stiff drink and watch horses run around a race track in the mud. I even wanted to ride a horse, not necessarily in a race, but maybe through a field of tall grasses with only the sound of hooves thudding against the ground and the whoosh of the grasses in the wind reverberating through the afternoon air. I wanted to lie on the floor and play with my baby niece and laugh and babble and forget this thing called 'language.' But since the horse-riding through a field of tall grasses wasn't an option, nor playing with my niece the birthday girl (who lives in Thailand) I was left with only one option: a stiff drink.

Since planting a few herbs on my porch, including sage and lemon verbena, I've been brainstorming how to begin using them in the kitchen. Today, with Kentucky and good ol' Orb on the mind, I decided to concoct a bourbon cocktail that is a riff on the mint julep. In place of mint I used lemon verbena, a refreshing herb that is available at most garden centers this time of year (not likely at the supermarket, unless you're lucky!) Look in the herb section among the rosemary and thyme plants—it doesn't require much water and will thrive in a container on your porch or even in a kitchen window.

The flavor of lemon verbena is foremost lemon, hence the name, but it also has a minty-piney flavor that goes well with a variety of liquors. The scent is uplifting and clarifying—it's wonderful made into a tea with honey, and it is known for being processed into an essential oil for perfumes. It is a hardy, perennial plant whose botanical origins reach back to Argentina, but whose leaves have been known to grace herbal liquors in both France and Italy. The Verbena family has many species, including one featured in William Faulkner's short story "An Odor of Verbena" (part of The Unvanquished 1938) that has this wonderful line about the plant being used as a boutonniere pinned to the lapel of the main character going into a duel:

 "...verbena was the only scent you could smell above the smell of horses and courage and so it was the only one that was worth wearing." (p. 451)

So at the very least if you don't have time to make this cocktail (below), I suggest you find a sprig of lemon verbena and pin it to your lapel. And if you have a horse, saddle up and ride it through a field of tall grass. And don't forget to wear a jaunty hat.

Lemon Verbena Julep

            1 tsp honey
            1 tsp warm water
            lots of crushed ice
            1 oz bourbon
            1/2 oz St. Germain
            1-2 sprigs of lemon verbena

            To make your own crushed ice:

Place whole ice cubes in a Zip-lock bag, wrap in a towel and then bang the towel with a rolling 
pin until small shards are produced.
            To make the cocktail:

In a julep cup (or whatever metal cup you can find; I used my camping mug) place your honey and whisk it with the warm water until the honey dissolves. Next take a few leaves from your verbena plant and crush them between your fingers and place them in the bottom of the cup. Top with tons of crushed ice and then pour in your bourbon and St. Germain and top with more crushed ice and the sprigs of lemon verbena. Enjoy with a straw, if you have one.

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