My mother is obsessed with trying to make a gardener out of me. Ignoring my frequent protests - along the lines of 'BUT I KILL EVERYTHING I TOUCH' - she is adopting sneakier and sneakier strategies to turn me into some kind of green-fingered guru. These include: randomly depositing packets of seeds on my desk when she comes to visit; turning up with unrequested surprise armfuls of courgette and tomato plants; constantly steering any conversation round to the potential of my 'lovely little garden'; asking me just to 'come outside and have a look at these plants', a request that then somehow ends with me and my soil-stained fingernails helping to establish said plants in my greenhouse.
Now I have to admit that I do fancy the idea of myself as some kind of Nigel Slater type - a keen cook with a fabulously fertile garden brimming with the raw materials for my culinary exploits. His Tender cookbooks are some of the best in my collection, and I like to live vicariously as I leaf through them, imagining that I too have the wherewithal to train a gooseberry bush up the fence and have oodles of my favourite fruit in the back garden, ripe for the picking come July, or I too am pretending to moan about a gigantic glut of courgettes but am secretly thrilled at my own gardening prowess, or I too can just casually wander through my herb garden, brushing the leaves of chervil, marjoram and lemon verbena with my fingertips and inhaling their fragrant aromas as I pass.
Much as I do love the idea of myself as a gardener, I will always be a cook first and foremost. Nothing illustrates this fact better than this recipe.
You see, there are quite a few weeds in my garden. The poor thing has been pretty unloved for a couple of years and left to run a little bit wild. In particular, there are bright green clusters of leafy weeds sprouting from a small gap between the paving and the garage walls.
A gardener would remove them. Weedkiller, brute force, elbow grease with a blunt knife, whatever - they'd have those unsightly weeds gone in no time.
So what do I do? Obviously, I use them to make ice cream.
Because this is not just any weed. No, it's deliciously scented lemon balm, a herb that looks a bit like mint but with slightly fuzzy leaves and an incredible sharp citrus aroma with a hint of minty freshness about it. It has the same citrus astringency as lemon thyme but is sharper somehow, almost limey. I discovered it when I noticed this aroma floating in the air as I brushed past the plant walking through the garden. I'd never heard of lemon balm before, but its smell was too intoxicating not to think about bringing it into the kitchen.
So this is about as close to the Nigel Slater fantasy as I get. I took some scissors outside, chopped some weeds and made them into dessert. You couldn't make this up. I think I now get why my new friends in York think I'm a bit weird.
Still, it made logical sense to me. Take a thick, rich mixture of milk and double cream, and infuse it with those sharp lemony leaves. Beat egg yolks and sugar until pale, thick and frothy, then transform the lemony dairy into a luscious scented custard, before churning it in the ice cream machine. I've made lemon thyme ice cream before, and it was amazing, so this wasn't too far a step from that. Except for the fact it was made with weeds growing in the garden, of course.
The flavour of the resulting ice cream didn't quite pack the heady citrus punch I'd expected. I think lemon balm has a stronger smell than it does flavour, or maybe it doesn't take well to heat. However, the ice cream is nonetheless delicious - it has a very subtle, herbal tang to it and a moreish flavour you can't quite place. It is sweet and creamy but with a refreshing hint of minty lemon. I think it would be very good served alongside some fresh strawberries, raspberries or cherries, or - as I plan to do later in the week - in scoops to adorn a strawberry and rhubarb crumble pie.
Maybe one day soon my gardening skills will have advanced to the point where I can intentionally grow herbs to make my own ice cream. In the meantime, I'll stick to making dessert out of weeds. Sorry, mum.
Lemon balm ice cream (makes approx 500ml):
- 250ml whole milk
- 250ml double cream
- A pinch of salt
- 40g lemon balm leaves, rinsed and dried
- 4 egg yolks
- 110g caster sugar
Put the milk, cream and salt in a saucepan. Roughly tear the lemon balm leaves and add to the pan. Bring to just below the boil, then turn off the heat and let the mixture infuse for an hour or two.
Using an electric whisk, beat the egg yolks with the sugar in a bowl until thick, pale and creamy. Strain the milk/cream mixture to remove the lemon balm leaves, and add to the eggs and sugar. Whisk well, then return it all to the pan. Place over a low heat, stirring continuously, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon (this could take up to half an hour). When it has thickened, chill in the fridge overnight.
The next day, churn the mixture in an ice cream machine until set, then transfer to the freezer.