A Cook's Garden

Lovage: A big plant with an even bigger flavor

Lovage's leaves taste like celery, but stronger.
Lovage's leaves taste like celery, but stronger. (Istockphoto)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 22, 2010

When the herb garden starts to wake up in spring, the bright green shoots of lovage are among the first signs of life. Lovage is a hardy perennial, able to take care of itself. Nothing bothers it, except for larvae of the beautiful swallowtail butterflies, which might nibble a few leaves but do little harm. In early to midsummer, bees flock to the greenish-yellow flowers -- rounded umbels a bit like those of dill, but less dainty. In fact, "dainty" is a word you would never apply to lovage. Imagine a celery the size of a Christmas tree.

My lovage plant stands about seven feet tall, which is why I have only one of them. To my husband, this is one lovage plant too many. "You only need one leaf to flavor a dish," he complains. The taste of the foliage is, admittedly, unsubtle -- much like celery's, but stronger. Nonetheless, it has its place in the kitchen. Early in the season, before bloom, it's a bit milder and you can toss a handful of the leaves into a green salad. They are also good in soups, stews, sauces and other cooked dishes, used the way you would celery. Even the hollow stems can be cooked, though I prefer the freshness of the leaves.

Joshua McFadden, one of my favorite young chefs, tells me, "I love to tear lovage up and throw it into a crab salad, or a potato salad. It adds a nice surprise with a burst of flavor." He also makes a compound butter with it, to melt on lobster or fish. (I tried that with salmon recently and loved it.) His fiancee, Lydia Reissmueller, a mixologist who creates inspired cocktails from the garden, makes a simple syrup with lovage for a "celery soda," or a lovage-infused Prosecco.

Lovage is not one of the Mediterranean herbs, happiest in dry, lean earth. It loves the rich, organic, moisture-retentive soil of my garden. About now, the leaves are starting to yellow as the plant puts all its effort into making seeds. Gardeners who treasured the leaves above all would have cut it back at this point to encourage ones to grow. But by doing so they'd miss the chance to harvest the seeds. These, too, have a celery taste and aroma, and since lovage leaves do not dry very well, the seeds are an excellent medium for keeping the flavor year-round. When the tiny fruits start to open, cut bunches of the seed stalks and hang them upside down in a paper bag to collect the seeds. Dried and ground, they can be tossed into anything as a seasoning, and are a traditional addition to baked goods such as muffins, biscuits, cakes and breads.

I also like the way lovage stands tall, as a vertical accent in the garden. Like the sunflowers I allow to bloom and wither in full view, it is a plant in decline, but with a clear statement of purpose, as goldfinches fatten themselves on the seeds. Herb gardens can be a little precious, with all those sweet, small-leaved mounds, an aesthetic to which this plant offers a resounding "No."

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."

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