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Lemon Verbena

Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page F06

Only a few weeks remain for lemon verbena. Though the tender perennial plant can survive the winter in our climate, especially if appropriately sheltered, it still will lose its leaves when the cold weather arrives.

HISTORY: Also known as Herb Louisa, limonetto or lemon beebrush, this herb was brought to Europe in the 17th century by Spanish explorers from South America. Its oil was used to flavor foods and to make perfume.

HOW TO USE IT: The leaves of lemon verbena pack a punch of flavor -- pure unadulterated lemon. Dried leaves make a great tea. According to "Aroma: The Magic of Essential Oils in Food and Fragrance," by Mandy Aftel and Donald Patterson (Artisan, 2004) lemon verbena is known for its ability to "calm tension, refresh and relax." Other sources say the tea can be sooooooo relaxing that it's best not to drink and drive.

Speaking of drinking: chop about one-half cup of lemon verbena leaves and steep them in four cups of vodka for an intensely flavored spirit garnished, of course, with a sprig of lemon verbena. Some imbibers add sugar to create a limoncello-like liqueur.

The leaves also can be used to make sorbet or granité (grah-nee-TAY), in combination with other herbs such as thyme, tarragon, mint or basil. Or steep them in the milk you use in your favorite cake recipe.

Throw a few bruised leaves in the water you use to steam green beans or peas. Since the fresh leaves are a bit rough in texture, it's best not to throw them raw into a cooked dish. Instead, melt butter over a low heat and add chopped leaves. Continue to heat at low temperature for about 10 minutes. Strain the butter through a fine sieve or cheesecloth and discard the leaves. Use the butter to flavor rice or drizzled over your favorite roast chicken.

Want to hold on to summer just a little bit longer? Add leaves, with caution, to iced tea or lemonade.

-- Jeanne McManus

© 2004 The Washington Post Company