Rosemary, the Mistress of Herbs

On a perfectly sunny winter afternoon there I was riding my bicycle, engrossed in impure thoughts and going downhill at great speed. Suddenly around the corner, fate, in the person of Father Marchand who was also riding his bicycle on the footpath, materialized, and avoiding the good Father narrowly, I ended up in the thick rosemary hedges.

Thus started my true confession and a nod to rosemary, my other true love.

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Rosemary protects us: both in Spain and Italy, it has been considered a safeguard from witches and “evil influences” generally. The Sicilians believed that young fairies, taking the form of snakes, hung around the branches, possibly to ward off unrequited love…
Native to the Mediterranean region (and Portugal), rosemary grows freely in much of southern Europe and is cultivated throughout the world, especially in the Mediterranean. It is a strongly aromatic evergreen shrub, growing to seven feet in height producing narrow, dark green, pine-like leaves and tiny, pinkish-purple, orchid-like flowers along its stems.

Rosemary is one of a small genus that has four species of Mediterranean evergreens. The Algerian varieties are markedly different from others and are described in some herbals as being a different species.

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Romans were well acquainted with the shrub, which had a reputation for strengthening the memory. On this account it became the emblem of fidelity for lovers. It was abundantly cultivated in kitchen gardens and came to represent the dominant influence of the house mistress “where Rosemary flourished, the woman ruled.”

Rosemary was introduced to the Alps in the middle ages and became part of many folk customs. People burned rosemary and inhaled the smoke to ward off sickness. Like Thyme, broken sprigs of rosemary were used for baptisms, funerals and marriages. It has been used for centuries to preserve fish and meat, flavor food, scent cosmetics, soaps, and shampoos. I can personally attest of its healing properties because I used to get stung by bees on a regular basis. Crush a few leaves and rub them on the spot, the pain disappears.

As a kid I remember seeing linen spread over rosemary bushes to dry so that the sun would extract its moth-repellent aroma. My own great grandmother would never go to bed without sticking a sprig of it under her pillow (presumably to ameliorate her sleep) and to this day I carry a little sprig into my carry bag or in my pocket as a testament to my Provencal childhood: old habits never die. We grow quite a bit here (the cats leave it alone) and it finds its way into quite a few dishes and gets used as brushes for oiling a piece of fish or a bird waiting to be roasted.

Yesterday, I posted a pix of Thyme honey, and this rosemary one here is made by the same company.

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Let me start by giving you this knock-out recipe for a rosemary crust, easily made, costs little and can be used for the whole fish (preferable), cutlets or filleted. Make sure the fish is well cleaned and firm, with or without the head or tail. Personally I’d bake the whole fish, the cats in your house will thank you for it! All you need for an average fish, say a sea-bream or a (red) snapper weighing roughly 3 to 4 pounds is the following: 1 kilogram (or 2 pounds) of rock salt (coarse sea-salt), 1 kilo of plain flour (the cheapest kind), 4 egg whites, 4 or 5 sprigs of fresh rosemary (dried ok) and a pint of cold water. I’ve seen people making their crust brushing it with egg yolks as well but I’d go for the simplistic method.

To make the crust, simply combine the salt and flour in a large bowl and stir well. Add the egg whites (slightly beaten), the rosemary leaves and enough of the water to make a soft dough. Cover the dough and leave to rest for a few minutes. Then knead it to make a smooth ball. Roll out on a lightly flour-dusted surface to around 1/4 inch thick. Place the fish bang on the middle and fold, sealing the fish completely. Move it to a buttered baking dish.

Preheat the oven to 180c and bake your fish for 30 minutes. Remove from the dish carefully, break open the crust and retrieve your fish. Serve with boiled new potatoes and a tomato salad sprinkled with walnuts. The aroma coming out of the fish should knock you out. And you will impress your guests…or your partner, or both.

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One of the childhood smells I remember fondly is the one coming out of my great grandmother’s rosemary bread. I was allowed to knead the dough and sometimes she added bits of olives or tiny chunks of Italian salami, but the best one was with freshly grated Pecorino cheese in it. She would make half a dozen loaves in one go and I’d get half one for my school lunch (stuffed with sardines in olive oil, no less) and we’d sit at the kitchen table eating one between us, grinning like donkeys, and talking about edibles.

For a large loaf you will need the following: 1 pound of self-raising flour, 2 teaspoons of dried yeast, 2 tablespoons of fine salt, 4 tablespoons of freshly chopped rosemary, 1/4 pint of whole milk, 1/4 pint of cold water, 4 tablespoons of olive oil.

in a large bowl, combine the flour with the dried yeast. Add the oil and start kneading lightly while adding the milk, the salt and the rosemary. Then add the water slowly, and keep kneading for a few minutes until the dough no longer sticks to your fingers. Cover the dough with a cloth and let stand for 90 minutes. When ready, work the dough for another 2 minutes and let it rest for a further 20 minutes. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 230c (thermostat 7-8).

Place the dough in the shape you like on a baking tray and cook for 30 minutes. Half way through it’s not a bad idea to brush the top of the bread with some egg yolk if you like a golden look.

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I’m sure most of you carnivores have baked a leg of lamb. This recipe calls for quite a few sprigs of rosemary, garlic and rock salt. There is a Provencal version we do by adding a few anchovy fillets in the flesh, right next to the garlic slivers. It adds character to this dish, and when you serve it with a “Gratin Dauphinois”, it’s heaven on a stick.

This is a grand dinner, for at least 6 persons. Make sure you serve this with a full bodied red, a Hermitage, Cornas or Gigondas and you will not regret it. You will need a leg of lamb weighing roughly 6 or 7 pounds, 12 garlic cloves, peeled and slivered, 6 to 8 sprigs of rosemary, 12 anchovy fillets (you don’t have to if you don’t want to…but let me tell you that it adds un certain je ne sais quoi to this meat joint), a little sea-salt and pepper to taste. And a tablespoon of olive oil to rub the leg with.

First preheat your oven to 220c. Make incisions all around the leg and insert garlic, a little bit of anchovy and some rosemary. Then rub the leg with olive oil, sea-salt and cracked black pepper. The cooking time depends on how pink or well done you like it. Rule of the thumb is 20 minutes per kilo (2 pounds) for pink and 30 for a point. Place the leg on a large baking dish and roast it. Make sure you turn the leg over a couple of times to ensure that it is cooked evenly. Let the meat stand at least 10 minutes before carving.

This is my version of a Gratin Dauphinois, laced with rosemary:

1 kg (2lb) potatoes (waxy potatoes such as russet), 4 cloves garlic, 2 ounces butter, 1/2 pint whole milk, 1/2 pint full cream, 6 ounces Gruyère cheese, salt & pepper to taste, a few chopped rosemary leaves and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg..

Peel and cut the potatoes in half inch slices (try to make them all the same size, it will help), mash the garlic cloves and place the potato slices in a large pot. Boil the milk and add it to the potatoes, cook slowly for 20 minutes. In another baking dish, arrange the partly cooked potato slices, add the crushed garlic, the rosemary, the salt & pepper. Cover with the cream and the leftover cooked milk, add the Gruyère cheese and the nutmeg on top, and bake for 20 minutes or until golden (usually, it’s best to bake your gratin 20 or 30 minutes before the lamb is ready. If you want to enrich this dish, add a little butter on top of the Gruyère or, as my great grandmother did, add 2 tablespoons of old fashioned grain mustard. There are so many variations of the Gratin Dauphinois, it’s hard to keep up with all of them!

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And as an added bonus, here is a great link for the various health benefits of Rosemary Oil.

An inexpensive way of using your (excess) fresh rosemary is to make your own rosemary salt. It’s easy enough, just buy a pound of coarse sea-salt, mix a few leaves of chopped rosemary and stir. This will keep for weeks if not months in a little grinder.

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Another way to use your rosemary is to stick a few sprigs into a bottle of olive oil, add a few peppercorns and you’re done. I also make a good rosemary butter this way: in a blender put 6 garlic cloves, a pinch of sea-salt, a pinch of cracked black pepper, half a pound of butter (at room temperature), a dash of red wine or balsamic vinegar and press the button. When done, use a sheet of greased paper, put the rosemary butter in a line and roll into a tube. Refrigerate or freeze. Great on steaks, vegetables etc….and in sandwiches. Like I said, rosemary is versatile!

This entry was posted in Food, Health, Memoirs, Recipes and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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