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Fresh herbs play starring roles

By Andrea Yeager

Get ready, folks. Gardens are coming in, and that means fresh is best for the spring and summer.

Unlike years past, our herbs are doing great, even the cilantro, which my daughter and I both have had trouble growing. This is the first year that Elyssa has tried lavender, and she is pleased with the results.

I say "we grow," but she really grows. I enjoy the fruits of her labor, just like I used to enjoy her dad's beautiful flowers.

I made lavender tea bread into bite-size muffins with the plant's leaves, and they were a big hit; even picky children liked them. They are a light, slightly sweet muffin.

A word of caution: Be stingy with the use of lavender or else the baked goods or a dish will taste soapy. Of course, lavender does make for a relaxing bath, too.

For the lavender tea bread, I used 48 mini-muffin tins instead of making a loaf of bread. Kids and grown-ups, for that matter, like just a bite of something sweet after a meal.

The batter recipe I use comes from www.epicurous.com. That recipe makes a lavender glaze, but I prefer a lemon glaze for the muffins. The lemon glaze recipe is mine.

LAVENDER TEA BREAD

Lavender cake:

3/4 cup milk

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh lavender

6 tablespoons butter, softened

1 cup white sugar

2 eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1- 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

Lemon glaze:

1/2 cup milk

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 cup confectioner's sugar

For cake: Preheat

the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour 48 mini-muffin tins or 1 (9-by-5-inch) loaf pan. Combine the milk and lavender in a small saucepan over medium heat. Heat to a simmer, then remove from heat, and allow to cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the egg until the mixture is light and fluffy. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt; stir into the cream mixture alternately with the milk and lavender until just blended.

Pour into the prepared pans or pan. Bake 50 minutes in the preheated oven or until a wooden pick inserted into the crown of the loaf comes out clean. Cool the pan on a wire rack. For mini-muffins: Bake 15-20 minutes until done.

Lemon glaze: Mix milk and lemon juice. Whisk in sifted confectioner's sugar until smooth. Pour over loaf cake or mini-muffins. Sprinkle lemon zest on top of cake or muffins.

I did an Italian cooking class recently at my church using Elyssa's fresh herbs and homegrown tomatoes. One woman, who said that she never liked pesto, loved my pesto recipe. She said it was so fresh. Yes, it was; Elyssa picked the basil about an hour before the class.

Fresh herbs definitely make a difference in recipes. Here's the pesto recipe. I cheated and served it on crostini that I purchased at Rouse's in Gulfport, but crostini is easy to make. I just didn't take the time.

PESTO SAUCE

Time: 5 minutes

2 cups fresh basil leaves

2 cloves garlic

1/4 cup pine nuts

2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

Combine basil, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor or blender and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil and process until well blended and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

If using immediately, add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth. Transfer pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese.

If freezing, transfer to an airtight container and drizzle remaining oil over the top. Freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw and stir in cheese.

To serve as appetizer: Spoon on crostini with half a cherry tomato and shaved Parmesan cheese. Or as a dip for boiled shrimp.

For entrée: Toss with pasta and add halved cherry tomatoes and shaved Parmesan. Or serve with pasta and top with a grilled or baked chicken breast. Also good served over chicken breast, grilled or baked fish and even over grilled shrimp shish kebabs.

Note: Can use fresh spinach, kale or parsley along with the basil leaves.

Our garden didn't have enough tomatoes for me to use in the class, but Mr. Bond, who sells fresh produce at his home on Klondyke Road in Long Beach, did. His tomatoes were plump and ready for sauces or any dish. I used them in ratatouille, which makes use of garden veggies.

"I think this would be great with chicken," said Rachal Davis of Woolmarket.

RATATOUILLE

1/4 cup oil (corn and olive mixed)

2 bell peppers, chopped

1 cup thinly sliced onion

1 clove garlic, finely minced

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon basil

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1/2 bay leaf

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 medium eggplant, peeled and chopped

1/2 pound fresh mushrooms

3 medium zucchini, chopped

1 cup tomato paste

4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

Heat oil in medium-size saucepan to very hot. Add chopped bell pepper, onion and garlic and sauté 2 to 3 minutes.

Add oregano, salt, cayenne, basil, thyme and bay leaf.

Add white wine and chopped eggplant. Mix well.

Add mushrooms, zucchini, tomato paste and tomatoes. Stir thoroughly and cook over medium-low heat until vegetables are tender crisp. Stir often. Use additional paste to color or thicken to taste. Serve hot. Can be served cold over lettuce.

Readers, let me know what your garden favorites are.

No egg listed

Gayle Lesch of Bradenton, Fla., read a story about Blackberry Bars in the May 11 Bradenton Herald. "In the directions, it says to add egg, but under the ingredients, there is no egg listed," Lesch said. "So is there 1 egg or more? Or no eggs needed in this recipe?"

There is 1 egg in this recipe. Here is the correct recipe with the egg.

BLACKBERRY BARS

1- 1/2 cups sugar, divided

1 teaspoon baking powder

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cubed

4 teaspoons cornstarch

1- 1/2 cups fresh blackberries (can use frozen, thawed)

Whipped cream and mint for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together 1 cup sugar, baking powder, four, salt and lemon zest. Using a pastry blender, incorporate cubed butter and egg until crumbly.

In another bowl, combine lemon juice, cornstarch and remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Gently toss in blackberries.

Put half of crust mixture into pan. Top with blackberry mixture, then crumble remaking crust mixture on top. Bake until top is golden brown, 35-40 minutes.

Let cool completely, then refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving. Cut into small bars and garnish with whipped cream and mint, if desired.

-- From "Picnics, Potlucks, & Porch Parties"

Where can I buy?

"Do you know where I can buy jicama locally?" Kathryn Premeaux asked. "I tried Rouses, Wal-Mart, Winn-Dixie and the Mexican market in Biloxi near Gate 7. So far, no luck. Please help if you can."

A vendor at Biloxi's Farmers' Market sells a variety of Mexican produce. I have seen jicamas there. Also I would check Lee's Supermarket in Biloxi. They have a good selection of Asian and Hispanic foods, including produce.

Readers do you have any ideas? If so, please let me know.

Andrea Yeager can be reached at ayeager51@cableone.net or Cook's Exchange, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535-4567.

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