Celebrate Scented Geraniums, Herb of the Year 2006!
by Susan Belsinger
Most of these varied and wonderfully textured perennial herbs are grown as houseplants since they are tender. If cultivated in pots, they can easily be moved in and out of doors as the weather permits. They like full sun, but will tolerate some shade, and they need a well-drained growing medium. Without pruning, some plants can grow quite large, reaching three-to-four-feet in height and width. They have a tendency to get leggy, so pruning is recommended.
Scented geraniums bloom sporadically throughout the year depending on the variety, climate, and growing conditions. The different varieties have quite an assortment of flower colors in hues of white, yellow, pink, salmon, lavender, and red. To use the small blooms, pinch them from the stems just before using, rinse gently and pat dry.
All flowers from this large family of perennial herbs can be eaten, however, generally only the scented ones are palatable. The flowers taste vaguely reminiscent of each variety; lemon geraniums have a citrusy flavor, rose geraniums taste perfumey and rose-like, while nutmeg and ginger taste of those spices. Generally the blooms have mild, pleasing scents and sometimes taste slightly sour.
Although the leaves, and flowers, of scented geraniums have delightful aroma, they don’t always taste good. In fact, I find that all scented geranium leaves have an underlying perfume-like musky smell, peculiar only to the Pelargoniums. You know how tomatoes have that inimitable odor to their leaves, and marigolds have one of their own too? Well I describe it as musky Pelargonium perfume, and some of the scenteds have a hint of it and some of them are very strong with it. For instance, the Attar-of-Roses is so rosy and ‘Prince Rupert’ is so lemony, that we hardly notice the other odor, while ‘Pretty Polly’ has such assertive overtones of this Pelargonium perfume, I have no desire to eat it. So, in order to use these fragrant herbs in the kitchen, first you need to use your nose, and really pay attention. Next, you need to use them judiciously, so as not to overwhelm.
Leaves can be eaten, however they can be very tough, stringy, and chewy, so it is best to remove the tough center vein, before chopping the leaf. Most recipes using leaves either chop them finely, sometimes with sugar, or infuse them and remove them after cooking. After having experimented with them, I find that I like to use scented geranium sugar the most, and I often incorporate it into a recipe, by pulsing the leaves in the food processor with sugar for a fast herbal sugar. I also make scented geranium syrups. I like the lemon and orange geraniums best in the kitchen, and then the rose; probably my particular favorite is ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’.
Scented geranium flowers and small leaves can be candied. They are used in all sorts of baked goods from teacakes and breads to cookies and cakes. Their sweet perfume adds flavor to jellies, sauces, custards, ice creams, and fruit salads. Use fresh leaves for a lovely-textured garnish for desserts, beverages, and salads.
Scented sugars are easily made the same way that the Europeans have been making vanilla sugar for years. Placing a vanilla bean, or a handful of herb leaves or flowers, in a pint jar of sugar transforms the sugar into a pleasing, fragrant addition to cakes, cookies, custards, whipping cream, and all sorts of sweets. I like to use this in baked fruit desserts–crumbles, crisps, or cobblers-it lends a subtle interesting flavor. If you do a lot of baking, make this in larger quantities; you will find that you use it often. Sgs I like best for sugar are rose, lemon, nutmeg, orange, peppermint, and my current favorite is ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’.
About 2 cups sugar
1 handful of herb leaves &/or flowers
To prepare scented sugar, use a clean pint jar with a tight-fitting lid. Fill the jar about one-quarter full with sugar, place a few herb leaves &/or flowers in the sugar. Cover with sugar so that the jar is half full, add a few more herbs and add sugar until the jar is three-quarters full, add a few more leaves, cover with sugar to fill the jar, leaving about 1/2 inch headspace. Shake the jar and place on a shelf in a cool, dark place.
The sugar will be ready to use in two to three weeks and will become more flavorful with age. As the sugar is consumed, add more plain sugar to take its place and it will take on the fragrance in the jar. Since herbs contain moisture, the sugar will absorb some of it and perhaps cake together, or even harden. If this happens, just use firm pressure to crumble it with your hands, or the back of a wooden spoon.
Excerpted from not just desserts–sweet herbal recipes by Susan Belsinger, © 2005.
Poached Pears ala ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’
Well, I must admit that this recipe converted me to actually really enjoy eating scented geraniums. These just-barely caramelized pears are sublime on their own. ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’scented geranium gives the perfect herbal nuance to this dish, but any of the rose or lemon geraniums would work. Serve them warm or at room temperature. They can be adorned with whipped cream or even vanilla ice cream if desired. Choose pears that are firm and nearly ripe-about two days from eating out of hand-Bartlett, Bosc, or D’anjou will do.
4 pears serve 4 or 8 depending on whether you want to serve half a pear or a whole one
4 firm, ripe pears
8 scented geranium leaves
8 tablespoons scented geranium sugar
1/4 cup water
Remove the zest from the lemon in large strips. Cut the lemon in half and reserve one-half. Peel the pears, halve them lengthwise and remove their cores. Place them in a large non-reactive sauté pan so that they will all fit in one layer. As you peel each pear, place the halves in the pan, cut-side-down, and squeeze a little lemon juice over each pear half (use the juice of half a lemon total). When all of the pears are in the pan, scatter the lemon zest strips over the pears, place the leaves in the pan, and sprinkle the sugar overall.
Cover the sauté pan and place over medium heat. Cook, covered for about 7 or 8 minutes; the liquid in the pan will be bubbling furiously. Remove lid and carefully turn the pears over with a spatula so that the round side is down. Once turned, carefully add the water, shake the pan, and cover. Cook for 7 or 8 minutes more. Turn the pears over once again so the rounded side is up; they may have a few golden brown spots. Test for doneness with the tip of a knife-the pears should be tender-but not mushy.
Remove the pears immediately to a serving platter and scrape all of the lovely caramel, (there won’t be much) lemon-zest strips and wilted geranium leaves from the pan over the pears. If you prefer, remove the wilted leaves and garnish with fresh ones. I rather like the ones with the syrup all over them. Serve immediately, slightly warm, or at room temperature.
Couscous with Dried Fruit and Rose Geranium
This simple and very quick-to-prepare dish is as flavorful as it is colorful. If you don’t prefer curry-then leave it out. You can substitute currants or dried cranberries for the sun-dried cherries; I find pistachios and pine nuts equally delicious. Oftentimes, I combine couscous (I use whole-wheat, but you can use regular) with other grains-you could add a cup or so of cooked basmati rice, quinoa, or wild rice to this recipe to make it even more wholesome. If you do, you might increase the seasoning just a bit.
Serves 8 to 10
11/2 cups couscous
About 1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2/3 cup sun-dried cherries, chopped coarse if large
2/3 cup dried apricots, slivered
2 1/2 cups just-boiling water or vegetable stock
About 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
12 rose geranium leaves, minced (about 3 to 4 tablespoons)
1/3 cup lightly toasted pistachios or pine nuts
Geranium leaves for garnish
Place the couscous in a heat-proof bowl. Sprinkle the salt, pepper, curry powder, turmeric, and cinnamon over the couscous, add the dried fruit, and toss to mix. Add the water or stock, olive oil, garlic, and chopped geranium leaves, stir to combine, and cover the bowl with a tight-fitting lid.
Let stand for about 10 minutes, remove lid and use a large fork to fluff the couscous. If you are adding cooked rice or quinoa, toss it in now, and taste for seasoning. You may want to adjust salt and pepper, a pinch more cinnamon, olive oil, or a squeeze of lemon juice. Sprinkle the toasted nuts over the couscous just before serving, so that they keep their crunch. Garnish with some whole, beautiful rose geranium leaves and/or flowers. Serve hot, or allow to cool to room temperature.