Lemon verbena is growing in popularity, seemingly by the minute. A few years ago, it was almost unheard of to the home cook, then it rapidly spread from the pages of upscale menus to Gourmet to Cooking Light and to Better Homes and Gardens. It is a perennial herb, native to Chile and Peru, that has an unusually strong lemon scent and flavor to it. The lemon scent comes from an essential oil known as citral, which is also found in lemon, lemongrass and other plants.
Verbena is not a popular herb in traditional European cookery, though it was commonly planted for ornamental reasons in European gardens after it was introduced in the 18th century. The plant grows best in temperate climates, with plenty of water and sunshine. It will produce beautiful, small flowers in the late summer and fall. Its aroma is strong and can perfume a garden easily.
As far as uses for verbena go, there are many options. Following in the footsteps of the gardeners who simply enjoy its scent rather than its flavor, many people use the dried leaves to perfume a room by making potpourri. The fresh leaves can be steeped in hot water to create an aromatic, herbal tea, which was believed to have health benefits (such as the regulation of the menstrual cycle) at many points in history. Other applications of the herb include anything that lemon might be used in, including fish and chicken dishes, salad dressings, baked goods and even to spice up rice. Lemon verbena is also a popular dessert ingredient, getting paired with vanilla, mint and many other flavors in ice creams, sorbets, custards, cookies and tarts. It flatters most fruit flavors, so it makes a refreshing addition to a fruit salad, as well.
If you do not have lemon verbena, it can be substituted with lemon zest. Verbena can also be used in place of lemongrass, zest or other citrusy flavors. For more ways to use up lemon verbena: