Uncommon Herbs : What's That, Carol?

TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

Carole Saville starts slowly as she walks through her herb garden and names its inhabitants.

"These are just regular old garden chives," she says in her gentle Southern accent. "Here is the green perilla, over there is the red, and over there is the two-tone. This bushy thing is called curry leafplant. Here's hyssop; you know, the reason I grew it is because I love Richard Olney's writing so much, and in his very first book he was so poetic, the way he said to strew hyssop over a salad. I have pink and white and blue."

It's actually not a big garden--just a corner off the kitchen, not much more than 20 by 20 feet. But it's jam-packed with plants, and for Saville, every herb has a story, like an elementary school teacher looking at an old class portrait.

"This is Amsterdam fine-leaf cutting celery; it's good if you don't have lovage in the garden," she says, picking up speed. "And this is jasmine sambac 'Grand Duke of Tuscany'--it makes the best jasmine tea and has the prettiest flower.

"This is rampion, the plant Rapunzel sent her boy out to get. There are two of them, one is edible and the other is an invasive weed. Actually, I'm not sure which this is."

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And on it goes, through zaatar , costmary, dittany of Crete, scarlet pimpernel, three colors of sage, Polish pennyroyal, whirlybird nasturtium, Mexican sage and Mexican, Greek and Cuban oregano. There's a lot of thyme, a couple of lavenders and marjoram that came from the Golden Door spa. In season, violets volunteer.

Herbs are Saville's business--she is one of Southern California's few professional designer of culinary herb gardens--but when you walk her 1/3-acre back yard in the Hollywood Hills, it's clear that herbs are much more than a way to make a living. Once out of the confines of the formal garden, she really hits her stride. There are eight to 10 different lavenders spread on various levels of the hill, and she power-walks down the gravel path pointing them out.

But wait, over there is the medlar and it must be seen. She scrambles over rocks to get to it. "Isn't it just the most medieval-looking thing?" she asks. "It is the most interesting fruit. You have to let it ripen on the tree, and then it falls on the ground and 'blets.' That's the word. It gets soft is what it does, and it has the most wonderful flavor. It tastes like those little custard apples."

It's the history of the plants that appeals to Saville almost as much as growing them. "It's fascinating to me, to know that the rue growing in my garden is the same plant that was used in medieval times and even earlier," says Saville. "It's that continuous link that runs through history. You can look in a Culpepper's (an herbal encyclopedia from the mid-1600s), and all the herbs you can identify in those odd little drawings, you can grow them in your own garden today."

Saville first got interested in herbs when she and her husband Brent--a well-known restaurant designer--were living in an old farm house in New Jersey.

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"It had a barn that had burned down and only three sides were still standing," she says. "So what else can you do but plant a garden in it? I planted pineapple sage, thyme, hyssop and lovage. What an odd selection that was. It was horse country, of course, and it had been a horse barn, so the soil was incredible. But we thought we had quite the green thumbs because everything grew so well.

"Wherever I go now, I always have a little kitchen garden right outside my back door. This is our fifth home, and every one has had an herb garden, including an apartment in Marina del Rey. That was the famous balcony garden. We didn't outgrow the house, but the garden sure outgrew the balcony."

Her business is done mainly through association. She's done roughly 20 gardens so far, and most of her clients found out about her through word of mouth.

"When people come to parties or to dinner, we always start with a stroll through the garden, and I'm always saying 'Here, smell this,' or 'Taste this.' People just get fascinated, and it used to be that before long someone would ask: 'Why don't you do this for a business?' Finally, somebody asked me to do a garden--and I did. That led to someone else, and then someone else. Now I have my little cottage industry."

Saville's garden is a true Southern Californian. Here you'll find old European herbs like borage, lovage and lemon verbena. There is the Mexican hoja santa and what she calls her "epazote orchard," started after one plant self-sowed another dozen. And just around the corner is Vietnamese balm. Lemon grass grows like an ornamental in a big terracotta pot on the patio.

"With Latin American and Asian herbs, there is still so much to explore," she says. "That's enough to keep me going for the next five years, at least. Then the trick is learning to use it. You know, so many ethnic cookbooks are written for the American market--they make substitutions for anything you can't easily find. But a lot of times, those are the wrong ingredients. I like to ferret out those books that say, 'I know this will be hard to find, but rau ram is the only thing that works in this recipe.' "

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Saville's herb gardens definitely are not just for show. "I don't think there's a day that goes by that we don't eat something from the garden," she says. "Even if it's just a few of these frais du bois on our cereal in the morning."

That same spirit is something she admires in others. "My best garden is the one I did for (record company executive) Paula Batson," she says. "It's such a pleasure to design for someone who really enjoys her garden and really uses it as opposed to looking at it. Paula's a very instinctive cook, and I can put something really unusual into the garden, like hoja santa, and then when I talk to her later, she'll say: 'Oh, here's what I fixed with that and it was wonderful.' "

Just finding these herbs can be a bit of a trick. In addition to the usual sources--seed catalogues, gardener exchanges and nurseries--Saville haunts ethnic groceries, ever on the lookout for something new.

"That's where I got this rau ram, " she says, fingering a sprig of the pungent Southeast Asian herb. "I found it in a Thai market. When I got home, I just plopped it in a glass of water and it rooted. I planted it and it grew. That way you know you have the authentic thing."

Taking a break in the kitchen for a cold glass of pink lavender lemonade, she starts going through the cupboard, pulling out bottles of flavored oils and vinegars and tins of dried herbs. In rapid succession she opens and sniffs an oil made with curry leaves, a vinegar made from rice wine steeped with borage leaves and blossoms and dill, another made with salad burnet, one with nasturtium and bronze fennel, and one made from five lavenders and raspbery vinegar. That brings to mind the jar of lavender sugar she put up. "You have to smell it. Isn't it wonderful?" she asks. "It's a variation on putting vanilla in sugar to steep. I love it on brioche."

Then it's back out to the garden. Along one side wall is angelica. "Have you ever been to H. Roth in New York?" she asks. "They sell candied angelica there during the holidays. You pull the stalk"--and she does. "Not this one, it's rotten, but say it was good, you'd candy it and sugar it. That's what they make those red diamond decorations with."

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And then it's across the yard and behind a eugenia hedge to look at some mint. "I had read about nepetella --a special kind of mint that is used in Italy with wild mushrooms," she says. "So I started looking around for it and found three kinds. Well, a friend knows (cookbook author) Giuliano Bugialli, so the last time he was in town, my friend brought him here bragging that I grew nepetella. He inspected them and said 'No' to two of them, but then he saw this one and said: 'Aha! This is the real thing.' So, my nepetella has been blessed by Giuliano Bugialli."

PAULA BATSON'S CHILEAN SEA BASS WRAPPED IN HOJA SANTA

1/4 cup sake

1 teaspoon minced ginger root

Sesame oil

2 Chilean sea bass steaks, about 1/3 pound each

1/4 cup basil

1/4 cup holy basil (can substitute any other basil)

1/4 cup Vietnamese balm (can substitute mint)

1/4 cup cilantro

2 tablespoons chives

2 tablespoons green onions

1 (2-inch) piece ginger root

1 head roasted garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 leaves hoja santa

Combine sake, minced ginger and 1 teaspoon sesame oil and pour over fish. Marinate fish while preparing herbal paste.

In food processor make paste of basil, holy basil, Vietnamese balm, cilantro, 1 tablespoon chives, 1 tablespoon green onions, whole piece ginger root, roasted garlic, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, olive oil, sesame seeds, light soy sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Process until almost smooth.

Rub leaves of hoja santa with little sesame oil. Divide paste in half and spread over leaves. Wrap each fish steak in leaf. Steam 10 minutes. Makes 2 servings.

Note : To roast garlic, place whole garlic head in small pan in 350-degree oven. Roast until soft, about 20 minutes.

PINK LAVENDER LEMONADE

Water

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup dried jamaica (hibiscus flower)

1/4 cup fresh French lavender leaves, chopped

1 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed

Combine 2 1/2 cups water and sugar in medium saucepan. Bring to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add jamaica and simmer 5 minutes. Add lavender leaves. Cover saucepan and remove from heat. Allow mixture to cool with lid on.

Strain mixture into large pitcher. Add another 2 1/2 cups water and lemon juice. Stir well. Taste and adjust for sweetness, adding sugar or lemon juice little at time and stirring well.

Just before serving, add ice cubes. Pour into chilled glasses. Garnish with lavender flower. Makes about 6 cups.

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