Friday, July 20, 2007

SWEET CICELY: This licorice-tasting herb can be used in many recipes and was once used in furniture polish.

In the garden, sweet cicely is one of the first herbs to appear in spring. The beautiful, fern-shaped leaves are followed in early summer by small heads of tiny white flowers, on a plant that can reach five feet in height. This perennial herb prefers cool, moist, shady soil, and performs well during cold winters. Like parsley, the seeds take a while to germinate, so you may want to get them started with a batch of windowsill seeds in February or March, or you can try sowing them where the plants are to be grown outdoors in the fall.

Perhaps the best way to grow and propagate this herb, however, is by root division. Divide the plants in late fall when the leaves have died back (to avoid excess damage to the root) and plant out the divisions during the fall so they have all winter to establish themselves. Once established, the herb self-seeds freely and can overtake a garden bed if not watched, but this may not be much of a problem if you harvest the flavorful seeds for use in the kitchen.

The whole plant is edible and has strong overtones of licorice. Sweet cicely's seeds can be used both when green and when ripe. Use the green seeds to add sweetness and spice to fruit salads and other treats, like ice cream or pie. The ripe, dry seeds can be added to almost any fruit dish, as they help reduce the acidity of tart fruits. Try replacing more common spices, like nutmeg or cinnamon, with sweet cicely and see what happens!

The leaves are best when used fresh, and add snap to anything from soups to omelettes. They're also an excellent addition to the classic bouquet garni. The root is delicious as well and, when peeled and grated, adds a unique touch to green salads, try pairing it with a little grated celeriac.

This sweet herb has great potential as an herbal sugar substitute (much like stevia, but not as sweet). It can be used to cut the amount of sugar needed in some recipes in half. Use about a tablespoon of the dried or fresh herb, then add sugar to taste (about 50 percent of what the recipe calls for). It also makes a perfect sweetener for herb tea.

Sweet cicely has been popular for ages in Europe. The highly scented leaves are a lovely addition to potpourri; the flowers are preferred by bees for a flavorful, extra-sweet honey; and the oily seeds can be ground and mixed with beeswax to make a fragrant furniture polish (a popular practice in medieval times).

Medicinally, the whole plant (especially the root) has been used by folk herbalists as an overall health tonic for people of all ages. Sweet cicely is reputed to be a good digestive aid. Antiseptic ointments and decoctions have been made from the root for treating small external wounds like bites and scrapes. There is a version of sweet cicely that is native to North America, Osmorhiza longistylis; its culinary uses are similar, yet its medicinal uses are unknown.

If you're a true herb nut who's always on the lookout for another interesting plant to add to your collection, sweet cicely will make a perfect addition to your herb garden. It will thrive in that shady corner where nothing but low-growing, sweet woodruff seems to do well. You'll be welcomed by a ferny flavorful herb that tolerates harsh winters, what more could you ask for?

Carrot Soup with Sweet Cicely

A pale golden bisque, perfect for a light luncheon or as an elegant opening to a feast.

4 teaspoons butter or margarine
1/3 cup shredded cicely root
2 cups shredded carrots
1-1/2 cups chopped onion
1 medium potato, scrubbed and shredded
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
White pepper to taste
3 cups 2% milk
Orange zest and cicely sprigs for garnish

1. In a large nonstick pot, melt butter and add cicely root, carrots, onion, zest, and potato. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are somewhat limp, about 10 minutes. Add water and salt, bring to a boil, cover, and cook another 15 minutes.

2. Stir in pepper and milk. Puree, in batches if necessary, using a food processor or blender. Adjust seasonings and return to pot to reheat, if necessary. Garnish with orange zest and cicely sprigs.

Makes about 8 cups.

L/O PER CUP: 106 CAL (31% from fat), 4g PROT, 4g FAT, 14g CARB, 326mg SOD, 12mg CHOL, 2g FIBER.

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