In late summer the herb garden at Hancock Shaker Village is a celebration of sight, smell, and taste: nasturtiums, calendulas, and borage flowers delight the eye; basil and lemon verbena offer up their pungent scents; and, as our group of 10 soon learned, everything provides lively, often totally unexpected flavor.
This is where our workshop in herb cooking -- one of several offered by this restored museum village each year -- had its appropriate beginning. As we walked along the neat rows of herb bushes in full bloom, we clipped what we would soon use in preparing a lunch of authentic Shaker recipes.
The Shakers, a religious community that lived at Hancock from 1783 to 1960, were famous for both their fine craftsmanship and flavorful cooking. Much of that flavor began in gardens such as this one where Shaker sisters planted and harvested a huge variety of herbs for liberal inclusion in their wholesome stews , soups, breads, and meat dishes.
Although no Shakers remain at Hancock, museum staff such as herbologist Esther Zuraw who led our cooking workshop carry on their traditions and share them with the interested public. As we followed Esther around the garden, she imparted tips on growing conditions and encouraged tasting at stops along the way.
Surprises were on hand as we discovered that some of the herbs taste exactly like something else -- the tiny yellow flowers of young dill have the flavor of caraway seeds, the small leaves of French tarragon are licoricelike, springs of lovage are like especially strong celery. Lemon verbena, not only smells like its namesake, but can be used to augment lemon-flavored sauces.
To some of us the biggest surprise was that both nasturtium blossoms and their leaves are edible as well as decorative. Several were clipped and placed in the herb basket, now heaped with a dozen varieties, for inclusion in the salad.
We then headed toward a four-story, structured built in 1830 called the Brick Dwelling House where the Hancock Shakers are, slept, and conducted their religious meetings. On the steps leading to the side door was a gallon jar of white distilled vinegar and basil leaves, later to be bottled and sold among the herb vinegars which are a Hancock specialty. The Dwelling has two kitchens -- one with the most advanced of mid-19th century appliances, including a three-level Rumford roaster which was a forerunner of today's convection oven, and another which was added in the early '60s.
Although the earlier kitchen is sometimes used for cooking demonstrations, it was in the more modern one where we began mincing herbs for inclusion in every aspect of our meal, from the herb soup with herb croutons to the peach pudding with lemon sauce made with lemon verbena.
As we chopped eggplant and zucchini for a vegetable casserole seasoned with dill and prepared two heaping bowls of salad brightly garnished with nasturtium flowers, we were refreshed by a tangy iced drink made from hibiscus flowers, wild chamomile, and lemon verbena.
While we waited for the casserole to cook, Esther brought out a bowl of candied mint leaves made by brushing the fresh leaves in beaten egg white, sprinkling them with sugar, and then drying them on wax paper in a slow oven.
When at last everything was done, we carried it all upstairs and to one of the 20-foot long trestle tables in the dining room. Here is where the Hancock Shakers had taken their meals, the men on one side of the room, the women on the other, in total silence -- meals were not a time for chatter. We, of course, violated that rule, exclaiming how good the simple food was and what a difference the addition of the herbs had mad.
The following are the recipes cooked during the workshop. All of the herb measurements given apply to fresh herbs. When those are unavailable, substitute a teaspoon of dried for every tablespoon of fresh herbs called for. Shaker Herb Soup 1 tablespoon butter 2 tablespoon chopped chives 2 tablespoon minced parsley 1 cup finely chopped celery 1 quart chicken broth Pinch of sugar 1/2 teaspoon minced tarragon 2 tablespoons minced sorrel Dash of nutmeg Grated cheddar cheese
Melt butter in saucepan. Add chives, parsley, and celery. Simmer 3 minutes. Add broth and sugar; cook gently 20 minutes. [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] utes before serving add tarragon and sorrel.
Serve very hot, sprinkle with herb croutons, nutmeg, and grated cheese if desired. Herb Croutons Butter slices of bread, dice. Brown on cookie sheet at 350 degrees F. While still hot drop into paper bag containing salt, paprika, grated cheese, and finely minced fresh herbs. Shake until evenly coated. Tossed Salad with Basil Dressing 5 cups torn lettuce 1 tomato 1 cucumber 1/3 cup chopped nasturtium leaves Dressing 1/4 cup lemon juice 1/4 cup vinegar 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1 teaspoon dry mustard 1/4 cup minced chives 1/4 cup minced basil 3/4 cup salad oil
Combine dressing ingredients in a jar; shake to blend; chill. Combine salad ingredients in a bowl. Just before serving, toss salad with dressing and garnish with parsley and nasturtium flowers as desired. Dilly Eggplant Casserole 2 large ripe eggplants, cut in 1-inch cubes 6 medium zucchini, cut in 1/4-inch slices 6 medium onions, sliced 6 green peppers, cut in 1-inch pieces 2 cloves garlic, minced 3 sprigs of fresh dill 6 sprigs of fresh parsley 1 tablespoon oregano 1 large can peeled Italian-style tomatoes 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 1/4 cup salad oil
Combine all of the above in a large pot. Cook on top of stove on medium heat, covered, for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Serve hot or cold. A good dish to freeze and reheat. Mary Whitcher's Blackberry Pudding 1/2 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon baking soda 2 eggs, beaten 2 cups rich milk 2 cups blackberries (or blueberries,[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] ries, peaches) Flour to dredge berries
Sift dry ingredients together, add eggs and mix in milk. Beat well and fold in berries. Bake at 350 degrees F. in greased pan or pudding dish for 1 1/2 hours. Serve with Shirley lemon sauce. Shirley Lemon Sauce 3/4 cup sugar 1/4 cup water 1 tablespoon lemon balm or lemon verbena 2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon lemon juice
Make a syrup by boiling sugar and water for 5 minutes. Add lemon balm or verbena and steep 5 minutes more. Remove from stove and discard the herb. Add butter andd lemon juice. Cook until thickened. Makes about 1 cup.