Each year, right about now, when the thawing odors start emanating from the backyard, I long for a whiff of fresh, green grass. Great literature asks, where are the snows of yesteryear? But I’m done with snow. I want something green.
I blame that yearning for an obsessive weekend of cooking with rosemary.
A colleague brought four foot-long branches of fresh rosemary to work last week for a project. When the rosemary was no longer needed, it sat in a jar by a window in the office. Calling to me, I’d like to think. In any case, it ended up on my desk.
As I drove home, the car filled with musky perfume. The spiky stalks worked like a magic wand, pulling me in, putting me under a culinary spell.
I thought about the bowl of apples on my kitchen table, and as soon as I arrived at the house, I scanned the cookbook shelf for a recipe that might contain both ingredients. Sure enough, I found an apple and rosemary tart recipe, but I resented the time involved in rolling out the dough. I was inspired, but not that inspired.
Instead, I cored, peeled and sliced the apples into a bowl and tossed them with lemon juice, chopped rosemary and a little sugar. I placed all this in a thickly buttered cazuela, or clay casserole dish, added two generous splashes of Grand Marnier to the bottom and slivered almonds to the top, covered it with foil and put it in a hot oven. A half-hour later, I blanketed the apples in shavings of cheddar cheese and returned the dish, uncovered, to the oven for another 10 minutes.
The apples were sweet and tender, enhanced by the saltiness of the cheese and the earthiness of the herbs. It was filled with the promise of late-summer delights.
The next day, with the rosemary creating a small forest in my refrigerator, I decided to use it for dinner. This time, I patted Norwegian salmon filets with butter and pressed chopped rosemary onto the top with tiny jewels of fleur de sel. Served with parsley-lemon potatoes and lightly steamed organic butter greens, the salmon was strong enough to keep its own surfy flavor yet polite enough to accept the turfiness of the rosemary.
By the end of the weekend, I felt fortified in trying something more daring. So I made rosemary sugar by putting several sprigs of the herb in a large jelly jar and filling it to the top with granulated sugar. Kitchen goddess Nigella Lawson likes to do this will vanilla bean, but she recommends rosemary, too. After about a week, the sugar is infused with the aromatic herb and can be used in vinaigrettes or soups.
Or, as Nigella suggests, cakes. Rosemary cake? You bet. I made four of loaves of it. Hardy and rich, the cakes reminded me of holiday breads from pumpkin puree. Except the rosemary cakes have a nearly oxymoronic quality because the palate associates the herb with savory sensations, and here it is all dressed up like a dessert. Ah, mischief in the kitchen! Of course, the confusion lasts only a second with rosemary cake because it instantly melts, in the way cakes filled with butter and eggs should.
I quickly wrapped one of the cakes and sent it to my father in Delaware for his 79th birthday.
Rosemary, I decided, is one of the gifts of the earth. I know that from my own kitchen garden each year. But by March, I often feel so removed from fresh herbs and vegetables that I forget how entertaining and versatile they can be. Soon, that enticing grassy aroma will rise from my garden again, and each evening in the cool summer sun, I’ll clip blades of rosemary for salads and drink garnishes, vegetable sauces and ice cream toppings, meat rubs and herbed oils.
Rosemary Loaf Bread
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons soft, unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/3 cup self-rising cake flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2-3 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
4 tablespoons milk
Butter a loaf pan and line with parchment paper. In a bowl, cream butter until very soft. Add sugar and beat until smooth. Add eggs one at a time, alternating with flour. Mix in vanilla. Thin batter with milk until dropping consistency. Use spatula to guide into pan. Cook at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Let cool on rack.
(Adapted from “How to Be a Domestic Goddess” by Nigella Lawson).