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Spice Hunting: Hyssop

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

It's a sad confession for this spice hunter, but I don't cook with many herbs. Fresh ones too often go off before I have the chance to use them up, and most dried herbs never satisfy. The ones that do are culinary underdogs of sorts, oft-overlooked champions of the pantry. And few have as much claim to "overlooked" hyssop, one of my favorite dried herbs. You may have heard of its relative, anise hyssop, which tastes like a cross between mint and anise. It's delicious, but let's let plain-Jane hyssop take the spotlight today.

Hyssop leaves and flowers taste a lot like mint, but with more floral character and a pleasant bitterness. Like lavender, hyssop evokes spring meadows and may turn off cooks by its aromatic resemblance to freshly laundered towels. But it's an herb with a lot to offer: a grown-up mint with intense, complex flavor, and it dries excellently.

How to Use Hyssop

Both the flowers and leaves are edible, and if you can score fresh hyssop at a garden or farmers market, you can use them like other fresh delicate herbs in salads, pastas, and summer soups. The flowers can be used for garnishes. But you're more likely to find hyssop in dried form. A few ounces will last for months with no decrease in quality—just store your hyssop in a dark, airtight container.

Dried hyssop has one inconvenience: Its slender leaves, when dried, turn into brittle needles, unpleasant to eat. They do rehydrate, but with the texture of tea leaves. You can grind them in a spice grinder to a powder, but the easiest solution is infusion. A short bath in a tea ball or spice bag and their flavor will leach into whatever you're cooking. The infusion shouldn't be long, lest the herb's bitterness overwhelm its fragrance.

I like using hyssop as a finishing touch for stocks and soups, along with some lemon juice. In robust braises, such as lamb shoulder, you can use it to replace some or all of the mint in a recipe, and with other strong flavors in the pot you won't even have to worry about infusion. There are some more interesting uses as well: It's sometimes combined with fresh cheeses, baked into pita bread, or added to a glaze for vegetables like carrots. It's great as a change-up from sage in your browned butter sauces for gnocchi, or anywhere you'd use sage for that matter. Hyssop is used in some Greek and Israeli cooking, and it also plays well with herbs used there.

Hyssop really shines in sweets. You can infuse it into custards for puddings or ice cream, pulverize it with sugar to make jam or candies, cook it with fruit for syrups or sauces, or as I've done here, take advantage of its delicacy for sponge cakes. When used in small amounts, hyssop is a champion of dried herbs, as versatile as it is unique.

Where to Find Hyssop

Middle Eastern markets are your best bet, though some Mediterranean and even Indian markets may carry it. Failing that, the Great American Spice Company carries it for about $2.50 an ounce. When shopping online, make sure what you're buying is food grade—you don't want to eat potpourri.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries.

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