Kitchen herb gardens are reasonably common around the city, but rare is the garden that contains lovage—a robust perennial that looks and tastes like celery. “It has a savory quality and is the kind of herb that gives food a depth of flavor and a deep, herbaceous vegetable note,” says Jerry Traunfeld, chef and owner of Poppy, on the north end of Capitol Hill.
That pop of flavor can be used to perk up vegetable stocks, enliven a bowl of steaming shellfish or fortify salads. Traunfeld often uses lovage as a finishing herb, or chopped fine and added to soups, although he says a little goes a long way. “It’s strong, and you have to use it carefully,” Traunfeld warns. “It’s an herb that can get bitter, especially if you’re using older leaves, when it’s more mature.” Leaves are best when picked young and tender; cutting back the plant regularly through the year helps to encourage new growth.
Pan-fried mussels with lovage aioli; Photo Courtesy of Chustine Minoda
Where he gets lovage: Behind Poppy, Traunfeld and his kitchen team grow several clumps of lovage in raised planters. “I also planted some at my house for emergency backup,” he says.
Where you can find it: “I don’t see lovage at the farmers’ markets very much, so that’s the thing—you kind of have to grow it,” Traunfeld says. Lovage starts can be purchased at Swansons Nursery (Ballard) or the Seattle Tilth Edible Plant Sale (May 2–3 at Meridian Park in Wallingford) and planted in prepared beds or large pots, which will help contain the plant and prevent it from spreading. “Growing lovage yourself is really exciting and so much superior to anything you can buy,” Traunfeld says.
How he uses it: Lovage goes well with shellfish, clams, shrimp and scallops. “We use it in the aioli for mussels,” a popular appetizer made up of lightly fried mussels with a dollop of herbed aioli. “We might put it in a carrot salad, because it works well and it’s very pretty with both the green and the orange—they have an affinity, just like in a mirepoix.” Lovage can be sliced into thin strips and used as a finishing herb on fish (Traunfeld recommends halibut), or the leaves can be added to a simple butter sauce. Behind the bar, Poppy bartenders make simple syrup from lovage by juicing the stems, which makes a verdant syrup for sodas.
How to grow and harvest it: “The cool thing about lovage is it’s the first thing to come up in spring,” Traunfeld says. It’s a hardy perennial, so plant starts in a permanent garden spot and let new growth come on before harvesting. To harvest, clip small, tender leaves at the base of the stems. Use older, woody stems as sipping straws in summer cocktails.
Read on for Jerry Traunfeld's recipe for Pan-Fried Mussels with Lovage Aioli.