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Experimenting with herb syrups

Along with ripe fruit and vegetables, this time of year offers an abundance of fresh herbs. We're accustomed to plucking mint to dress up a cocktail or a glass of tea, but all too often we overlook the beverage possibilities offered by other garden herbs.

Inspired by Jo Asher and her lavender farm in White Hall, I recently experimented with a few other fresh herbs that were either growing in the yard or available at a reasonable price at area markets. The results were unusual, and, in some cases, even delightful.

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The secret is simple -- just make sugar syrup by mixing equal parts sugar and water. Add an herb of your choice, then boil the mixture until the sugar is dissolved. Remove the syrup from heat, let it cool, strain it and you have the basic ingredient for an herbal lemonade, an herb-sweetened tea or simply your own homemade "herbade."

I tried four herbs -- rosemary, thyme, basil and mint. Mint, of course, was a no-brainer; mint syrup can improve dozens of drinks, from iced tea to lemonade. This is one concoction worth keeping in your refrigerator well into the fall. Basil, with its earthy flavor perfect for tomatoes and other savory summer dishes, seemed a bit of a risk as a flavor for sugar syrup. But it produced a surprisingly delicate flavor in a family taste test of herbal lemonades -- good enough to appeal to two preteens who pronounced it "interesting" and drank it up.

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Their favorite, however, was equally surprising -- rosemary lemonade, which prompted a clamor for more. Its distinctive flavor was strong enough to stand up to lemon juice, but discreet enough to complement it rather than clash.

My own surprise was the thyme syrup, which I expected to be a delightful addition to lemonade, particularly because Martha Stewart Living had featured a vodka-thyme lemonade earlier this summer. Perhaps the fresh thyme -- store-bought, alas -- was not as fresh as the rosemary, basil and mint, or perhaps I steeped it too long. Although it was drinkable, one serving of this thyme lemonade was plenty.

I found a better use for thyme syrup, adding a tablespoon or so to a glass of chilled white wine. The combination produced a tasty aperitif. After that, it was only a small step to an herbal martini: Just add a splash of syrup to a shot of vodka -- no lemon necessary.

These experiments were limited to fresh herbs easily at hand. But the only real limit should be your own preference and curiosity.

Rosemary Lemonade

Makes 1 serving

1/2 lemon

2 tablespoons rosemary syrup (see note)

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1/2 cup water or club soda, to taste

garnishes: lemon wedge sprig of rosemary (optional)

Squeeze the lemon into a glass. Add the syrup and water and fill the glass with ice. Garnish with a lemon wedge and, if you like, a sprig of rosemary.

Note: To make the syrup, combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water in a pan. Add several large sprigs of fresh rosemary and boil the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let mixture cool. Strain it and refrigerate.


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