Julia Reed: A Summer Party on a Plate

On Memorial Day weekend, my husband, John, and I planned a much-needed getaway to the Gulf Coast of Florida, which I then managed to delay by more than two hours due to the slightly obsessive notion that if I did not tend to my unruly herb garden right that minute, as opposed to, say, three days later, the whole thing would go immediately to hell. By the time we finally got into the car, we had with us (in addition to Henry the beagle) three enormous garbage bags stuffed with herbs, including three kinds of mint (Kentucky colonel, peppermint and chocolate), two kinds of thyme (English and lemon), marjoram, Greek oregano and long branches of rosemary.

Upon arrival, the obsession continued: instead of curling up with my favorite detective, Spenser, I insisted on using the entire bounty in a marathon of herbal cookery. We breakfasted on omelets enlivened by parsley, tarragon, chervil and chives (known as fines herbes when used in combination), and lunched on tuna carpaccio with mint and chives. We had people over and served them cantaloupe daiquiris with basil and cilantro from my friend Martha Foose's excellent new cookbook "Screen Porches and Sweet Tea." We marinated a butterflied leg of lamb in a little rosemary and garlic, a whole lot of mint and a syrupy dessert wine that produced the excellent char Mario Batali promised it would. For dessert we steeped chocolate mint in custard and made ice cream with chunks of the best chocolate we could find.

My husband was a great sport and willing sous chef throughout, but then he is happy as long as he gets his share of fresh basil. It's an obsession he shares with Elizabeth David, the great English food writer who said in "Italian Food" that "nothing can replace the lovely flavor of this herb." She warns that it must always be torn, as cutting spoils its flavor, though pounding (the proper procedure for making pesto) tends to bring it out. She adds it to tomato salads, of course, and I did, too, but I also put it in an all-herb salad with the leaves of tarragon, chervil, chives and parsley, along with the last of the nasturtium blossoms and quarters of hard-boiled fresh eggs.

I recently asked Suzannne Goin, the talented chef/owner of Lucques in Los Angeles and author of the indispensable "Sunday Suppers at Lucques," which herb she could not live without. "Thyme," she said, without missing a beat. "It is less particular" about its pairings than rosemary and sage, she says, adding that "when it is cooked down with onions and vegetables, or even meat, it gives off a deep, earthy flavor that I love more than any other herb."

Despite her affinity for the more woody Mediterranean herbs, Goin is crazy about the "soft guys" too, she says, in salads like the one I made during my holiday and in salsas over fish. She agrees with John that "summer without basil" would be unimaginable, specifically opal basil. "It's pretty and has a slightly different flavor than regular basil so it's fun to use the two together. It's like a summer party on a plate."

Now that corn is in season, she has been experimenting with almost counterintuitive pairings like sage, most recently in a divine fresh pasta dish with brown butter and crab. But the corn alone with the brown butter and sage would be pretty fabulous, perhaps with a touch of Parmesan shaved on top. I am also crazy about Goin's salsa verde, perfect on grilled or poached fish, grilled skirt steak or even incorporated, as she does, into a summer-squash gratin. Let the party begin.