In Praise of Rosemary

Thursday, January 1, 2009

One of the absolute worst things that can happen to you during the process of cooking that "special" meal is to reach into the spice rack and suddenly discover that you're out of that crucial ingredient that will transform your truly special dish to extraordinary from just plain ordinary.

What to do? I can remember many times where I've set the burners on low and rushed out to the nearest Safeway, Raley's or Bel-Air to get that crucial spice replacement. The wife and I always keep a good supply of spices on hand, and even some backups of spices that are heavily used. But, every once in a great while, BINGO, we run out of something that we really need.

One heavily used spice in the Bird household is Rosemary. We love it. We lather it on nearly every chicken dish served in the house. Some meat dishes, like the one you see in this photo, are also stuffed with Rosemary. That delectable piece of ribeye roast served as our Christmas dinner this year. It fed 15 people. And yes, if you're wondering, those are fresh pieces of Rosemary stuck into the top of that roast. It sort of looks like, well, a set of tiny Christmas trees doesn't it?

I write this post because it took me a few years, and a few lost dollars I might add, to discover that Rosemary is quite common in the Sacramento area. More than common actually. IT GROWS LIKE A WEED. I discovered this very important point by checking out new housing developments in the North Natomas area -- the fastest growing area of Sacramento.

As you know, most new housing comes complete with a fully landscaped backyard. This means you get a bit of grass, one tree, a few bushes, a scattering of bark, and the builder calls this $10,000 OF FREE LANDSCAPING!!! Yeah, right. More like $100 worth. What landscapers do is look for the cheapest available option when it comes to landscaping, especially in the cookie cutter subdivisions like I call home.

Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. One of the cheapest things to plant in Sacramento is ROSEMARY. What's that? You mean that stuff I have in the spice rack is growing right outside in my front yard? Chances are, that answer is yes. Rosemary absolutely THRIVES in the Sacramento area. A small bush will turn into a monster in less than a year. And yes, it's the same stuff that you're paying cash money for at your nearby grocery store. Actually, to be brutally honest, what is growing out front is probably a lot better. But that's just my opinion.

Once you know what you're looking for, Rosemary is easy to spot. It is an herb in the mint family. It is a small evergreen shrub, Rosmarinus officinalis, whose 1inch leaves resemble curved pine needles.

Rosemary's name is rooted in legend. The story goes that during her flight from Egypt, the Virgin Mary draped her blue cloak on a Rosemary bush. She then laid a white flower on top of the cloak. That night, the flower turned blue and the bush was thereafter known as the "rose of Mary." Greeks, who wove Rosemary wreaths into their hair, believed Rosemary strengthened the brain and enhanced memory. It was also known as a symbol of fidelity. In the Middle Ages, Rosemary was used medicinally and as a condiment for salted meats. In Europe, wedding parties burned Rosemary as incense. Judges burned it to protect against illness brought in by prisoners.

Today, Rosemary is used for landscaping homes and businesses by the thousands. You can find fields of it, for example, in front of the California Farm Bureau Federation building in the Natomas area. And, if you spot a bush sporting lots of pretty blue or purple flowers during the spring, chances are, you've stumbled upon a Rosemary bush.

Rosemary can be used both fresh, and dried. Drying is a simple process. Just hang a bun or two in your garage for about a month, strip the bark of needles and process for a few minutes in a food processor. You'll have a enough dried Rosemary to last a season or more.

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