One of Charles Dickens Favorites
Borage is an ancient herb. It is mentioned in early Greek and Roman writings. Borage was attributed to have the ability to bring comfort and cheer. It is also mentioned in these old texts to “exhilarate and make the mind glad” and when the leaves are added to wine to “drive away all sadness, dullness and melancholy”. Even Charles Dickens is reputed to have been particularly fond of borage punch- a rather potent concoction of sherry, brandy, apple cider, lemon, sugar, and borage flowers. It was usually steeped in wine or brandy and given to travelers before a long journey, or to soldiers before battle. Pliny called borage “Euphrosinium” because it “maketh a man merry and joyfull.”
Borage is native to the Mediterranean region from Spain to Turkey, but is now naturalized to many parts of the world. The bright blue, star-shaped flowers (which bloom most of the summer) make borage one of the prettiest herb plants, though the dark green leaves are plain. Borage may be used in many ways both sweet and savory, which makes it a very versatile herb. Borage flowers and leaves are the traditional decoration for gin-based summer cocktails, and may be set in ice cubes to garnish other drinks. The flowers and young leaves may be used to garnish salads. dips, and cucumber soups. Candied borage flowers make attractive cake decorations. Chopped leaves can be added to soups and stews during the last few minutes of cooking. The leaves can be cooked with cabbage leaves (two parts cabbage, one part borage.) But, Borage does not dry well for culinary use. Adventurous chefs will add blanched leaves to salads as a substitute for spinach. Chinese chefs use the leaves much as others use grape leaves: stuffed and rolled. Germans add the leaves to stews and court bullions. And in England, the gin based drink, Pimm’s No.1, has borage as one of its more important ingredients.
To use the fresh flowers, first remove the thorny back side. Be careful when picking the flowers: bees (along with other beneficial insects) attach themselves to the hanging blossoms and often are hidden from view when they are gathering nectar. Rinse the flowers gently and pat them dry. They hold up well when refrigerated between two pieces of damp toweling. I love to use borage flowers in the kitchen; the shocking blue color creates whimsical and eye-catching garnishes, as well as a fanciful way to add cucumber taste to a dish. They are a tantalizing garnish on canapés, smoked salmon in particular. They are also tasty on grilled onions sprinkled with balsamic vinegar; the color combination is dramatic. Try tossing them in a salad of baby greens and edible flowers. When using borage flowers in a salad, be sure to add them at the last minute — as the dressing will cause them to wilt, and any vinegar will discolor the blossoms. Another colorful and tasty combination is shrimp and avocado, with a lemon vinaigrette and borage flowers.
Some of the most vividly colored food combinations come after a stroll in the garden: bright red tomato soup garnished with thin slices of lemon, cucumber and borage or herbed gazpacho with borage flowers. A salad of sliced fresh mozzarella and tomatoes takes on a patriotic appearance with the addition of the azure tones of borage (good for either the 4th of July or Flag Day or Memorial Day or Labor Day). Press the flowers into a rectangular piece of soft goat cheese to represent the stars on the U.S. flag. The red stripes can be made from pineapple sage blossoms. Another way to use borage is to freeze the blossoms in ice cubes — a simple and festive way to cool down summer beverages. Or simply sprinkle them in fresh. The Romans were the first to use borage in this way, usually sprinkling them into a goblet of wine. It was believed to drive away sadness.