Lovage, a leafy green perennial herb related to celery, catches me by surprise every spring. During winter it goes doggo, leaving little clue to its whereabouts. Then, just as the days lengthen and the temperature creeps up, pale green shoots start to poke their noses above the soil, at about the same time asparagus is making its first moves.
In just a month, the plant puts on an impressive spurt of growth, and from these tiny, tentative shoots comes a profusion of feathery, celery-like leaves that stand thigh high. By midsummer, it makes a handsome sight, 3 feet tall and at least as wide.
Lovage has roots as a medicinal herb
Levisticum officinale, to give the plant its botanical name, is quite at home throughout the northern hemisphere. A firm fixture in medieval herb gardens, no part of it went to waste. The leaves were used as a flavoring for soups and broths and even as a love potion — its name, in English as in German (Liebstöckel), hints at its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. The stalks were cooked like celery, and the roots, according to Alan Davidson’s “Oxford Companion to Food,” were put up into a delectable sweetmeat.
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Lovage is coming back into favor, though it’s still not the kind of herb you will stumble across in your neighborhood store or supermarket. A few enlightened farmers markets may hold it; some community-supported agriculture groups slip a handful of sprays into their springtime vegetable boxes. Otherwise the best source is the yard — your own or a neighbor’s. It is child’s play to grow — in fact, once it gets into its stride after its winter slumbers, you will be hard pressed to keep pace with its vigorous growth.
Its warm, pungent, distinctly celery-like flavor lends it to all kinds of uses, from soups to pasta to a particular kind of “pesto” (see recipes). For the Romans, indeed, its name was not Levisticum but Ligusticum, on the basis that it flourished on the Ligurian coast, home of the famous — for some, the only — pesto, based on the small-leaved Ligurian basil.
I’ve taken the liberty — risking the wrath of Italian purists — of making lovage into a pesto, adding a little cream cheese to tame the herb’s admittedly feisty flavor. Stir it into a dish of pasta or risotto, or serve it with chicken or duck breasts. And because lovage comes to life when fresh asparagus and new potatoes are reappearing in the markets, I’ve combined it with these two in a fragrant soup.
Makes about 1 cup
1 ounce (about 30 leaves) of lovage
2 ounces (50 grams) pine nuts or blanched peeled almonds
1 teaspoon green peppercorns in brine, drained and rinsed, or half a teaspoon coarsely ground freeze-dried green peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
3 ounces (75 grams) cream cheese
A splash of lemon juice
6 tablespoons (100 milliliters) olive oil
1. Wash lovage leaves and spin dry in a salad spinner.
2. Put the leaves in a food processor with pine nuts or almonds, green peppercorns and salt and process till very finely chopped. Stop the motor and scrape down the sides if necessary.
3. Add cream cheese and lemon juice and process again to a smooth paste.
4. With the motor still running, pour the olive oil through the hole in the funnel till the “pesto” is emulsified to a brilliant green paste.
5. Scrape the pesto into a bowl for immediate consumption. Or, for a longer wait, pack the pesto into an airtight jar or container, cover with a film of olive oil to exclude the air and keep in the fridge for up to two weeks.
Lovage, Asparagus and New Potato Soup
Serves 4 to 6
1 ounce (25 grams) butter
8 ounces (250 grams) green asparagus, trimmed and cut in short lengths
2 to 3 scallions, sliced, including some of the green tops
6 cups (1.5 liters) chicken or vegetable broth
3 or 4 new potatoes, diced small
1 ounce (about 30 leaves) lovage
Salt and pepper to taste
Crème fraîche or sour cream to serve
1. Melt the butter in a large pan and stew the diced asparagus and sliced scallions gently till just tender without allowing them to take color — about 10 minutes. (If you want to garnish the soup with some asparagus tips, fish these out and reserve.)
2. Pour on the broth and bring to a boil.
3. Add the diced new potatoes and lovage leaves, season with salt and pepper to taste and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender — fish one out to taste it and give the soup a little longer if necessary.
4. Blend the soup till smooth (an immersion blender works well), check the seasoning and adjust if necessary.
5. Float a blob of crème fraîche or soured cream on top to serve and garnish with a lovage leaf and reserved asparagus tips.
Main photo: Lovage Pesto. Credit: Sue Style