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In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Ophelia, (Hamlet’s main squeeze), offers up rosemary for remembrance. Rosemary was believed to improve memory. Ages ago, mourners would adorn graves with rosemary as a symbol of remembering the deceased. Ophelia winds up drowning under suspicious circumstances, causing the other characters to question whether she took her own life. Perhaps her proffering of rosemary foreshadowed her own untimely demise?
Rosemary, native to the Mediterranean is an evergreen green shrub of the mint family. It is a woody, perennial herb with needle-like leaves. Its name is derived from the Latin word rosmarinus, meaning “dew of the sea,” because it was found growing near the ocean. Rosemary can grow as high as six feet. It sports tiny flowers which can be a myriad of colors such as white, blue, purple or pink. The edible leaves have a bittersweet, lemony and definitely piney flavor.
Rosemary has been utilized by man since at least 500 B.C. for both culinary and medicinal properties. Like most herbs it boasts a portfolio of purported medical applications. It is alleged to ward off strokes, cancer and Alzheimer’s, enhance memory, ease rheumatism, relax muscles, aid digestion, reduce fatigue, treat neuralgia, relieve menstrual cramps, calm nerves, and have antiseptic properties. The validity of these claims is anybody’s guess. Humans will never relinquish their need for miracle cures and beliefs that they can control the uncontrollable. Maybe it will help to know that large quantities of rosemary and particularly rosemary oil can be toxic, induce seizures, and trigger other maladies. Rosemary is also used in cosmetics and believe it or not, in insecticides. Apparently bugs don’t buy all the hoopla about it.
Rosemary was used in the first European alcohol-based perfume, namely Hungary Water. It was made by combining rosemary with spirits and/or wine and other herbs. The exact details have been lost over the ages but somewhere in the 1300’s, by the imprimatur of the Queen of Hungary, Hungary water was created. Like rosemary, Hungary water was also ascribed with a host of panacean attributes. This inevitably explains why it was one of the most popular fragrances and remedies for centuries.
Culinarily is where rosemary indubitably shines. It has a wide variety of uses in both savory and even sweet dishes. It pairs extremely well with chicken, pork and lamb. However it is employed in many other concoctions including soups, stews, stuffings, dressings, eggs, vegetables, (especially potatoes), fish and breads. Where would focaccia bread be without rosemary? Rosemary honey is another classic victual hailing from Narbonne, France.
Rosemary can be used as an herb crust on meats before grilling or roasting. Add it to pan sauces made from the meat’s drippings after deglazing. Or make an herbed butter, either with rosemary alone or in conjunction with other herbs. The herbed butter can be dolloped on your finished dish or incorporated during cooking such as working it under the skin of your chicken before roasting, as in the recipe below.
Rosemary is a hardy and potent herb which has a number of implications. First, although fresh herbs are always preferred, dried rosemary will be more similar to its fresh counterpart than delicate herbs such as basil, cilantro or parsley. Second, again because of its stalwartness, it is an herb that can withstand extended cooking. Fragile herbs are best added to a dish after cooking or moments before it is finished. Rosemary can go either way but definitely can be added at the onset of cooking and allowed to slowly steep into the preparation’s juices. Stews, braises, and soups are ideal forums for allowing rosemary’s essence to slowly and deeply penetrate. Finally, rosemary is fairly strong so a little goes a long way.
Fresh rosemary is available year-round. Despite the fact that it is one of the better dried herbs, I strongly recommend you rely on fresh. Look for specimens with rich green leaves that appear hydrated. Avoid bunches with dried-looking, browning or yellow leaves. Rosemary leaves are very easy to remove. Merely hold the top of the sprig with one hand and pull the leaves toward its bottom with the other. They will strip right off the stem. The chopping is the only laborious part. Store your rosemary in the refrigerator wrapped in damp paper towels in a plastic bag, or better yet, in a container with water like a vase of flowers. The container should be covered and refrigerated.
Rosemary is a good choice for the home gardener. It’s easy to grow and because it’s a perennial will return each year. The best approach however is to grow it in pots which can be brought in during the winter and placed on a sunny window sill. Return them to the outdoors when the worst of the winter is over.
â€¢ 1 4-lb. chicken
â€¢ 4 tablespoons butter, softened
â€¢ 1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary plus 3 extra whole sprigs
â€¢ A squirt of fresh lemon juice
â€¢ 3 slices of lemon
â€¢ Salt and pepper to taste
â€¢ Olive or vegetable oil as needed
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Loosen the skin of the chicken by gently working your fingers between it and the meat over the breast and as much of the legs as you can.
Mash the butter, chopped rosemary, lemon juice, and some salt and pepper.
Work the rosemary-butter under the skin of the chicken, generously covering the breast and to a lesser extent the legs. Salt and pepper the cavity of the chicken. Place the rosemary sprigs and lemon slices in the cavity. Salt and pepper the exterior of the chicken. If not using a rack, lightly oil the bottom of a roasting pan.
Truss the chicken and place in the roasting pan in the oven for an hour and 15 minutes or until the dark meat reaches 170 degrees.
Allow the chicken to rest, covered with foil for 10-15 minutes before carving.
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