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Folks from the East coast are fond of telling those of us from the West coast that we have no seasons. And who can blame them! I, myself, am guilty of enjoying the prolonged summers; hating to see the profusion of brightly colored flowers end. No more fresh tender herbs such as basil, cilantro and borage. Gone are all the striking and tasty blossoms from the herbs that were used to season and garnish. Our thoughts and tastes turn to more robust herbs that give the rich depth to the hardy dishes of winter. However, there is one herb that seems to bridge the gap between the summer herbs and those of winter -- Salad Burnet.
To look at this plant with its lacy, saw toothed edged leaves, unfurling from tight fans at the ends of their stems, one would think that this is a plant that is delicate, barely surviving the slightest chill. To the contrary: Salad Burnet is so hardy that in most mild winter areas it will continue to thrive all year long. Even in the most severe weather areas it is one of the first plants to come back in the spring. Even the taste of the leaves -- tangy, fresh, with a hint of cucumber -- reminds me of summertime.
Salad Burnet-- its name tells you what it is most often used for. The tender, young leaves have the best flavor, they tend to get bitter as they mature. Plucked whole and sprinkled on salads they add a refreshing spice. In summer the plant produces tiny red blossoms on green flower globes and these can be used for garnish, although only for looks, not taste, since they are flavorless. Try chopping the leaves and sprinkling them over fresh steamed veggies to add some zip. Salad Burnet also adds interest when used in vinegars, cheese spreads, in sauces for fish, salad dressings, and in combination with other herbs in casseroles and creamy soups. It blends well with tarragon and rosemary. In the summertime try adding whole leaves to iced drinks and punches for a decorative look and cooling taste.
Although not many modern recipes in this country call for its use, Salad Burnet is listed as an ingredient in some French and Italian recipes, and is often available in markets there in bunches with other herbs and salad greens. Salad burnet also was very popular in Elizabethan England. At that time it was not uncommon to be served a goblet of wine with leaves of Salad Burnet floating in it, "[to] make the hart merry and glad, as also being put in wine, to which it yeeldeth a certaine grace in the drinking".
Sharing the same properties, but to a lesser degree, as the medicinal herb Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis), Salad Burnet has been used for over 2000 years. The Latin scientific name, Poterium sanguisorba or Sanguisorba minor, translates as "drink up blood" referring to its astringent qualities. It has been used to prevent hemorrhages and internal bleeding. Knowing this, soldiers of old would drink tea made from the herb before going into battle in hopes that any wounds they received would be less severe. It was also used as an anti-Plague tonic -- one of 21 herbs combined and dissolved in wine.
When the Pilgrims came to this country they brought with them Salad Burnet from its native Europe. Frances Bacon was quite fond of the plant for its decorative value as well as when planted on garden pathways "to perfume the air most delightfully, being trodden on and crushed". Even Thomas Jefferson knew the value of Salad Burnet as excellent fodder for livestock, having once ordered 8 bushels of seed -- enough for 16 acres of plants!
You don't need a Jeffersonian amount of land to plant Salad Burnet. In fact, it is a wonderful container plant, with its leaves draping gracefully from a low, central mound. Whether in the ground or in a container, make sure the plant gets partial to full sun. The soil can be poor, and it even does well in limey soil. It is important that it gets moderate water and good drainage to avoid rotting the roots. Salad Burnet is a hardy plant that self seeds if the flowers are not cut back, growing to a height of up to 20" and as wide across. Cutting back the blossoms will produce plenty of tender new leaves. Because it grows so easily and is so lacy and attractive, it makes a pleasant edging plant. I have mine planted along the pathway to the house. When I see its delicate, rosettes of leaves, I smile and think of summer.
Onion, Corn and Potato Soup with Salad Burnet Puree
This is a rich and comforting soup,with the Burnet puree adding a refreshing accent.
3 tbls butter
3 large yellow onion, chopped
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/4 tsp. mace
1 1/2-3/4 cups milk
3 medium russet potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 tsp. minced garlic
kernels from 2 ears of yellow corn
salt and pepper
1/3 cup Salad Burnet leaves
Sprigs of Salad Burnet for garnish
Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a soup pot. Slowly saut» the onion until golden. Add the chicken stock, mace and milk and potatoes. Raise the heat until the mixture simmers, cover and cook until the potatoes are soft. Add the garlic. Puree the soup until smooth. In another pan, saut» the corn kernels in the remaining tablespoon of butter. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt. In a separate container combine the Salad Burnet and 1/3 cup of the pureed soup. Puree this mixture until blended but there are still some flecks of green visible. Add the corn to the pot of soup and heat through. Adjust salt and pepper, and add more milk if the soup is too thick. Ladle the soup into individual bowls, and using a spoon, decorate each portion with the pureed green mixture: swirls, hearts, lettering -- whatever is fun. Garnish with sprigs of whole leaf Salad Burnet.
Linda Gilbert is a Bay Area freelance journalist, a cooking class instructor, and co-owner of a Sonoma catering company, Broadway Catering and Events.