9.15.09 It's the Balm

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The first year in my house upstate, I discovered big patches of a leafy green plant that smelled deliciously lemony. It popped up as soon as the earth warmed and couldn't be deterred. Turns out it's lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), a perennial herb in the mint family that is native to the Mediterranean. Mine grows into big bushes that have little white flowers by summer's end. These are full of nectar and attract the bees, and thus the genus name Melissa, which means "honey bee" in Greek.Lemon balm has long been used as a medicinal herb because of its antibacterial, antiviral and sedative properties. It is said to be effective against the herpes virus. A poultice made from the leaves can be applied to any sores or lesions. You can also rub the crushed leaves on your skin as a mosquito repellant. It is exceptionally high in antioxidants and also exhibits antithyrotropic activity, making it useful in treating hyperthyroidism. Amazing, no? Try simply steeping the leaves in hot water for a soothing tea. Or make this panna cotta, infused with a delicate lemony flavor.

Lemon Balm Panna Cotta

from The New York Times, serves 6
  • vegetable oil
  • — 2 cups gently packed lemon balm leaves
  • — 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • — 1/2 cup sugar
  • — pinch sea salt
  • — 1 1/4 ounce envelope unflavored gelatin
  • — 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • — 1 1/2 cups whole milk

Lightly oil six 8- or 12-ounce ramekins. Place lemon balm in a mixing bowl and sprinkle with lemon juice, sugar and salt. Stir to combine, and allow to sit for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, place 3 tablespoons cold water in a small bowl and sprinkle with gelatin; allow to soften for 10 minutes.

Add cream to lemon balm and stir, gently crushing leaves. In a medium saucepan, heat milk just until steaming, then add gelatin mixture and remove from heat. Stir until gelatin is dissolved, about 2 minutes.

Place a fine-mesh strainer over saucepan and pour in lemon balm mixture. Press hard on leaves to strain out all the liquid, then discard leaves. Stir liquid, then distribute evenly among ramekins. Place in refrigerator until chilled and solid, at least four hours. After 4 hours, ramekins may be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.

To serve, dip each ramekin in hot water and invert to release panna cotta onto a plate. Serve immediately.

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