By Martha Zink for The Island Connection
Under a blue and cloudless sky, in the beautiful herb garden of the Cassique Club, Chef de Cuisine Michael O’Shaughnessy talked to the Kiawah Island Garden Club about cooking with those herbs and the many edible flowers. He told us that there are two basic kinds of herbs: soft such as parsley, chives, cilantro and basil and hard such as bay leaf, rosemary, thyme and lemon grass. The soft herbs are put into cooking towards the end whereas the hard herbs are pureed or chopped and put in early to develop their flavors. Lemon grass needs to be mashed or bruised to release its flavor.
The chef plucked and passed around many unusual herbs as well, such as borage, which in summer develops big, purple flowers which are light and “cucumbery” and salad burnet which tastes like melon.
Lace lavender is used in sorbets and drinks, as is chocolate mint (which like all mints is invasive). Charleston cilantro (Asian in origin) is either liked or disliked by diners: scientists have actually discovered that some people have a gene which results in cilantro tasting like soap to them.
The Club buys its herb plants from Sea Island Savory, formerly Pete’s, on Johns Island. Because deer love many of the herbs they need to be replanted. Some, like Mexican tarragon, which does better in our climate than French tarragon, will die overwinter so need to be cut and dried.
Chef O’Shaughnessy develops his food pairing through trial and error, smelling and tasting leaves and flowers, trying many combinations in dishes until he has a successful dish. There are Spanish olive trees at Cassique which fruit every other year.
Once harvested the olives are soaked in salt water, which is changed every few weeks until within a few months the olives are cured and ready to eat. Baby garlic and ramps are pickled in early spring.
If herbs go to flower the leaves wilt, so they are cut every day. If an herb plant is not doing well, the gardeners let it flower and the seeds drop, which will grow back every year. There are many wonderful herb flowers used in cooking such as chive flowers, nasturtiums, the beautiful big white flowers of garlic chives and the purple borage flowers. They are wonderful in salads, on fish and meat dishes. Flowers in the nightshade family, such as tomatoes and peppers, are not safe to eat, but most other flowers from edible plants are. Some plants like green fennel and especially bronze fennel, which never forms a bulb but produces beautiful yellow flowers and seeds, are useful, the fennel seed is used in sausage, too.
After the informative talk, Chef O’Shaughnessey went back to his kitchen where he finished preparing an incredibly delicious lunch using many salad greens, colorful radishes and baby carrots and tomatoes, the herbs and colorful flowers from the garden. On top of the salad was tender herbed chicken and a honey thyme vinaigrette, for which he gave us the recipe.
The meal was topped off by a dessert of chocolate-thyme cookie and papaya-mint sorbet. The members of the garden club enthusiastically applauded the chef and his creativity. Many wanted to hurry home and plant their own herb garden.
On April 4, the Kiawah Island Garden Club will spend the morning at Church Creek Nursery followed by a lunch at Osprey Clubhouse. Details will be emailed and all are welcome.