Every week, crowds of farmers market regulars gather at the herb stand of ABC Rhubarb Farm to bury their noses in the fresh lemon verbena, rosemary, oregano and thyme. Spend a few minutes watching customers at Lily Balthazar's herb stand and you might think you're watching a remake of "Like Water for Chocolate." Strangers laugh as they paw at bunches of mint. A young woman in a rock tee shirt inhales the fragrance of citrus from a cluster of lemon verbena and, without a hint of embarrassment, moans. Customers nearby glance sideways to see what's going on. "That's the thing about lemon verbena," Lily says, "It's magical. It really transports people somewhere."
It's true that ABC Rhubarb Farm doesn't have a name that evokes images of an herb farm. But that's because in 1985, after thirty years of growing hearty vegetables and rhubarb in Fillmore, the owner (and Lily's father) Martin Baltazar decided to change directions for his crop when a prominent chef promised he would find a dedicated following if he grew culinary herbs for restaurants.
Lily instructs customers to buy the one dollar bunches of rue--an herb that works as a natural fruit fly repellent--to protect their ripest farmers market finds. The grassy tops of lemongrass can be added to hot water for aromatic teas or used as an herbal twine to add delicate citrus flavors to steamed fish. She suggests using lavender to scent sugar (submerge several branches into a bowl of sugar and wait a day or two) or add fresh mint to salads. She also recommends submerging mint in cream overnight for a naturally flavored creamer for coffee.
Rather than waste remaining stems and leaves, Lily has plenty of suggestions: branches of rosemary can be used to skewer meat for the grill or used for an herbal tonic for the hair; leftover basil stems or thyme can be added to soup stock or used for a fresh vinaigrette; extra lemon verbena can be steeped in hot water for a soothing tea, for facial steaming or for a simple foot bath (just add clean bath salts). "That's the beauty of it; you can essentially do anything with [herbs]," says Lily. "It's not rocket science."
Herbal Recipes from Lily Baltazar, ABC Rhubarb Farm
Lemon Verbena Tea
1. Add lemon verbena to a pot of cold water. Simmer on low. Remove from heat as soon as it starts to get close to boiling. Strain and serve. Chill for iced tea.
Lemongrass Scented Fish
1. Tie individual pieces of halibut with the grassy tops of lemongrass, one long piece will work. Sprinkle fish with thin lemon slices and olive oil. Wrap fish in parchment paper and bake. Cooking time will vary based on size of fish. Ask your fishmonger for cooking times.
Rosemary Hair Tonic
1. Boil leftover branches with water and let cool. After shampooing, rinse hair. Before stepping out of the shower, apply the rosemary water to hair for an invigorating hair rinse. Your hair will be shiny and fragrant.
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Rosemary, Lavender, Mint infused Milk (or Cream)
1. Use one bunch of herbs to one quart of milk or one pint of cream. Submerge herbs in the milk or cream and refrigerate overnight. The flavors will become stronger the longer you infuse the milk. Use as a naturally flavored creamer for coffee or tea.
Lily Baltazar and the staff of ABC Rhubarb sell herbs at Hollywood,
Irvine, Pasadena, Manhattan Beach, Long Beach Marina and Torrance, and other local farmers markets.