by Sandra Bowens
Some herbs are more straightforward than others. Basil is basil, every herb lover knows it. Rosemary is rosemary, there is no other name for it. Lemon balm is another matter.
Lemon balm is also known as sweet melissa or sweet balm or just plain balm. But it is not to be confused with bee balm, even though bees love it. Lemon balm is often mistaken for lemon verbena although they look nothing alike. It does look like mint because it is in that family.
Sweet melissa is easy to explain as a natural extension of the Latin name Melissa officinalis although bee balm would make sense, too, since the Greek translation of melissa is bees. The variations on balm may point to the herb's calming applications. Sweet balm has been used throughout the ages as a salve for burns and bites as well as for lifting spirits or as a
Lemon balm is indigenous to Southern Europe but is now cultivated worldwide. The seeds germinate slowly and should not be covered when planting but it can be propagated through division. It is any easy plant to grow in well-drained soil under partial shade. Over fertilizing will cause large but less flavorful leaves. A new and interesting cultivar to try would be lime balm.
If you enjoy the liquors Benedictine and Chartreuse you may find the taste familiar as lemon balm is an ingredient in both. The major use of this highly-scented herb is for tea. It may be used fresh or dried just don't steep the leaves too long or it becomes bitter and may cause headaches. Combining it with other lemon herbs further enhances the flavor of lemon balm tea.
For cooking, lemon balm is a pleasant accent for fish or chicken, fruits and vegetables, or salads and beverages. Use it to flavor oils or with other herbs in compound butters. Lemon balm compliments basil, chives, parsley, mint and dill. It is best used fresh rather than dried and the flavor will be brighter if added near the end the cooking process. Lemon thyme or lemon verbena are acceptable substitutes although they will not offer as strong a lemon taste.
Lemon balm is said to signify sympathy, pleasantry and longevity. On a romantic note, it is fun to ponder the fact that it was symbolically used to transmit messages to lovers. Maybe next time you want to send a love note you should tuck it into a little pot of lemon balm.
Snow Peas with Almonds and Lemon Balm
2 Tablespoons sliced almonds
4 ounces fresh snow peas
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh lemon balm leaves
1/8 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1/8 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 Tablespoon olive oil
Toast the almonds by placing them in a small dry skillet over medium-high heat. Shake or stir, watching carefully, until they are golden brown. Remove from heat; transfer to a small bowl.
String the snow peas, if desired, and slice crosswise into 1/2-inch lengths. After the almonds have cooled, mix in the lemon balm, black pepper and salt, crushing the nuts slightly as you mix.
Heat the olive oil in the same small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the snow pea pieces; stir fry for 4-5 minutes. Reserve 1 Tablespoon of the almond-balm mixture and stir the rest of it into the snow peas. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the reserved mixture.
Makes 2 side dish servings.
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