Lovage, by Fiona Morgan.
Recipe below: Smoked Trout Salad with Avocado, Green Olives, and Lovage
I always prided myself on eating and liking any odd or foreign flavor put in front of me, but then I came up against cilantro. That was decades ago, but I still can’t get my taste buds to accept it. I read recently that Julia Child couldn’t stand the taste or smell of cilantro either, so I at least I feel I’m in good company, as a cook. Shiso too I find a huge problem. I’m always picking those pretty leaves out of my sushi rolls and hiding them under my plate. I struggle with these flavors and try to understand my aversion.
Smell and taste evolved to provoke strong responses, partly so we could avoid threats, such as poisons, but also to give pleasure, so we’d eat and stay vigorous. People like me, who never experienced cilantro or shiso at an early age, have no taste memory of it. Because of that I somehow sense my tongue only recognizes a threat, the soapy taste that causes that gag response in so many cilantro haters, and none of the pleasant notes that make it alluring to others. Knowing this, I assumed I could condition my Southern Italian palate over time. After all I grew up in New York eating Mexican, Thai, and Indian food. So far it hasn’t worked. All these years later, ridiculously, I’m still picking little green bits out of my food. I wish I could get over it.
I mention my cilantro issue because I now have a large herb garden, and I’ve been reaching out to plant culinary flavors I’m not completely familiar with. Lovage is one. I had previously brought bunches of it back from the Greenmarket but found its strong celery aroma odd. It had celery attributes, mostly the bitter and flatter ones, but it lacked, to my palate, celery’s fruity high notes. Yet I planted some anyway. It’s grown strong and righteous. Lovage is a beautiful herb, with large, dark green three-pointed leaves and thick stalks. In late spring, when I first put in my seedlings, I’d catch a whiff when I brushed against them. I’d rub the leaves between my fingers, take a sniff, but not be turned on my what I smelled. So I’d pass the lovage by on my way to pick some fennel or Thai basil.
A few weeks ago I finally broke lose and started using a few leaves here and there, in places where I would use celery, such as a sofritto or a salad. At first the taste was a strain on my palate, not as severe as with cilantro, but still. I’d rather it weren’t in my salad or my pasta or my pesto. But then I started noticing lovely undertones to the herb. Something like a gentle Indian curry flavor emerged. I didn’t take long to get to like it, and then, after a few culinary voyages, to really love it. Success. This makes me very happy. Lovage mixed with parsley or basil makes a wonderful pesto that is excellent on grilled fish. And it marries well with smoked fish, cutting through its richness, as I learned when I concocted this smoked trout salad. If you don’t know the herb, check it out. This is its season.
Oh, and I’ve been working on my own smoked trout recipe, which will be up shortly.
1 large head frisée lettuce, torn into small pieces
2 tender, inner celery stalks, thinly sliced, plus their leaves, lightly chopped
2 scallions, cut into thin rounds, using most of the tender green part
2 smoked trout fillets (about ½ pound), skinned and broken into bite-size pieces
A handful of green olives (I used Picholine)
A dozen lovage leaves, lightly chopped
4 large sprigs tarragon, the leaves lightly chopped
1 ripe avocado, sliced
For the dressing:
About 1 teaspoon lemon juice, plus the grated zest from 1 small lemon
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon crème fraîche
Place the frisée in a large, wide salad bowl. Add the celery, scallions, trout, and olives.
Whisk all the ingredients for the dressing together in a small bowl. You’ll probably need about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. I like my dressings low acid; feel free to add more lemon juice if you prefer more pungency.
Add the lovage, tarragon, and celery leaves to the salad. Add the dressing and toss. Place the avocado slices around the edges of the bowl. Serve right away.