Sunday, August 10, 2008

Borago officinalis: "cordial flowers" for cheering the heart

What is borage?

Borage is an annual, bristly European herb having blue or purplish star-shaped flowers. It is a decorative with hairy leaves that may cause a skin rash. The leaves are cucumber-flavored and can be used in salads, alcoholic drinks, teas, soups and stews. They can be cooked like spinach, added to deserts, added to potpourris or candied for decoration on cakes.

The cucumber-flavored leaves are used fresh in salads, drinks, and soups, or cooked in stews. They are also sometimes brewed into a tea or prepared like spinach. The colorful blossoms can be added to summer drinks, deserts, and salads; candied for decoration on cakes; brewed to make a mild, spicy tea; or added to potpourris.

Borage, its History and its Use

Throughout history, the most common association with borage is courage, that is, to eat or drink borage in some form would impart a sense of confidence or bravery, even elation. One old wive's tale has borage smuggled into the drink of a prospective husband to give him the courage to propose! During war times, soldiers imbibed freely of spirits flavored with borage, but it's unclear whether it was the borage or the wine that gave them the courage to head into battle. Everyone from Discorides to Jethro Kloss, however, seem to agree that borage is, indeed, a feel-good herb that positively affects the adrenal gland.

There's some mystery about where the name came from, possibly an old Celtic word meaning "man of courage," or from the Latin word "borra," which translates to "hair of the beast," an apt reference to borage's fuzzy leaves. Some feel that the saying "cool as a cucumber" is derived from borage's most oft cited characteristics: courage under fire and a cucumber taste!

There also seems to be a good deal of documented agreement about the powers of borage, beyond myths and legend. The ancient Roman scholar, Pliny, records its effectiveness as an anti-depressant; the famous herbalist Nicholas Culpeper confirms that it was valuable to expel pensiveness and melancholy, while the Welsh call it the "herb of gladness." So maybe those soldiers were onto something, and Borage Brew is the thing to take just before the job interview, the blind date or slaying your own daily dragons!

Borage is considered one of the four "cordial flowers" for cheering the heart. Though not currently in vogue, in the past, borage flowers were often stitched in ladies' fine embroidery work. In the language of herbs, it's associated with bluntness; it's thought that borage, when combined with mugwort and parsley, increases clairvoyance.

Besides relieving depression, early herbalists used it to ease fevers, bronchitis and diarrhea. One source cited borage as useful in cleansing toxins resulting from bites or stings of snakes and poisonous insects from the blood. An infusion is useful as an eyewash or for use as a compress to relieve headaches. Poultices made from the leaves help reduce swelling and inflammation.

With its wonderful crisp, cucumber flavor, borage is a wonderful addition to salads and dressings, blending well with dill, mint and garlic. Eaten like spinach, leaves can be steamed or sautéed, or the stems can be eaten raw, peeled and chopped, like celery. The leaves and stems enhance fish and poultry recipes, can be a tasty ingredient in chilled vegetable soups, or can add a little something extra to chicken or fish stock. Harvest leaves as the plant begins to flower for best results, as the older leaves and stems become tough. Those who object to eating the fuzzy leaves may include them in their recipes for flavor, but remove before eating, like bay. Besides these culinary uses, borage is probably most often associated with adding a "cool" taste to beverages.

The bright blue, star-shaped flowers are a unique embellishment to salads, candied as desserts or used as floating focal points in the punch bowl. For a special effect, freeze one borage flower in each ice cube. One note for anyone rushing to include borage in his or her culinary efforts: it does not dry or freeze well, and the only way to store its unique flavor long term is to infuse it in vinegar.

Growing Borage
Borage is easily grown. Officially an annual, it re-seeds itself so thoroughly that it will come back year after year. It likes a sunny location, and although it does well in just about any soil, it thrives in loose, moist soil that is well mulched, reaching a height of 2 to 3 feet. Like its close relative, comfrey, it has a tendency to fall over and can be a bit straggly, so it is best planted amidst other herbs. A valuable companion plant, borage is said to strengthen resistance to insects and diseases of any neighboring plants, but is especially friendly to strawberries. Bees are particularly fond of borage, which makes it essential for the garden, but that merit aside, it's really a delightful garden inhabitant, giving much value for little effort, certainly beautiful and most importantly, useful.

Bella Borago Summer Soup

This is a wonderful and delicately flavored summer soup:

2 cucumbers, peeled and chopped
5 scallions, chopped
A large handful of borage leaves
1-1/4 cup chicken stock
1-1/4 cup buttermilk or plain yogurt
2/3 cup heavy cream or sour cream
Salt and pepper, to taste
Borage flowers, to garnish

Puree the cucumbers, scallions and borage leaves. Thin with a small amount of stock. Separately, whisk the remaining stock with yogurt and cream and stir into the puree. Season. Chill. Before serving, shred a few borage leaves and scatter them, along with the flowers, on top.

Cider Cup (makes 3 pints)
1 quart cider
1 lemon
1 pint orange juice
1 handful fresh borage leaves
1/2 cup sherry
1/ 2 cup + 2 tablespoons (of 10 tablespoons) brandy
Sugar to taste
Soda water

Finely peel, then prick the flesh of the lemon and place in the cider. Add the borage, cover and let stand 2 hours. Add the orange juice, sherry, brandy and sugar to taste. Add the soda shortly before serving and serve over shaved ice. Garnish with borage flowers.

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