Happy Accident

Happy Accident

Two weeks ago I bought a bunch of mint at the farmers’ market. At least, that’s what I thought. I used it in some of my standard recipes, like this dead-simple herb marinade, but the results surprised me. The flavor was just a bit off, and I couldn’t put my finger on why.

The following Saturday, I got my answer. At the farmers’ market again, I picked up another bunch of mint and added it to my already-bursting bag. When it came time to tally up my purchases, I rattled off the list of items I’d grabbed: “…lettuce, scallions, bunches of basil, parsley, mint…”

The guy behind the table interrupted me: “No mint today. Must be lemon balm.”

I pulled the bunch out of my bag and inhaled deeply. Oh. That’s so…lemony. That would explain the unexpected flavor, wouldn’t it?

On the left: lemon balm. On the right: mint. See, I’m not crazy!

I bought it anyway, figuring that at least this time I’d know what I was in for. When I got home I googled “lemon balm recipes” and found not much—loads of recipes for teas and lemonade enhancements, but not very many that actually use the herb. I did see a handful of pesto recipes and I loves me some pesto, so my first time (intentionally) cooking with lemon balm was a no-brainer.

My darling husband isn’t generally a fan of pesto—he finds the basil overwhelming. As a result, over the years I’ve been forced to play with herbs and nuts, to find combinations he’ll actually eat. (There are five variations in the “Un-Recipes” chapter of my cookbook!) This one is so fresh and light-tasting, it brought a big ol’ smile to his face. Adding a bit of lemon juice to the mix really upped that flavor, while the herb itself is reminiscent of both the citrus fruit and—surprise—mint, an herbal cousin.

So far I’ve used this on pasta, naturally, and also on a grilled-vegetable sandwich and a summer vegetable gratin (recipe for that to come). And I used the remaining lemon balm to make a pretty fantabulous vinaigrette, so good I want to eat it with a spoon (recipe for that to come, too).

Have you ever used lemon balm? I’d love to hear more ideas for it!

Lemon Balm Pesto
Makes 3/4 cup

2 cups lemon balm leaves
1/2 cup basil leaves
2 small cloves garlic, smashed
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted and cooled
salt & pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan

  1. Put all the solids into a food processor, and sprinkle with salt & pepper. Add lemon juice and start the machine.
  2. With machine running, drizzle olive oil through the feed tube until mixture is thick and relatively smooth. Stir in cheese by hand.
  3. Refrigerate, in an air-tight container with a thin layer of olive oil on top, for up to 2 weeks.

MAKE BABY FOOD: It’s a puree! Unless there are nut allergies in your family, this is fine for early eaters. Harry LOVED pesto as a baby—it was my secret weapon to get him to try foods he otherwise disdained.