Wild Rosemary

We camped in woods filled with rosemary growing wild. We awoke to the bees rising in a buzz and wondered why we hadn’t had but a single mosquito in our tent during the night. The pups had ticks in their ears (after all, this was early May), but the light astringent fragrance in the air made it clear: If you can, pitch your tent in a clutch of rosemary bushes.

After three years I’m finally accustomed to the fact that in Portugal, you need never buy rosemary (the same goes for lavender, bay leaf, and plantain greens). I see it sold in the market and think “why?” when I can walk along the streets of Cascais (if I care to) and pluck it from the verges, all I need for that night’s dinner and then some. We actually went to the garden center and bought a couple of plants for a euro each just to have them in our backyard without fuss–we’ve tried other methods of transplanting but nothing takes easily to the sand. Now that we have quasi-healthy soil, watch out! Our two sprigs have multiplied and compete with the poejo and sage for space (worthy contenders, those two). It’s a western cowboy town out there, herb-wise: Every plant for itself!

I keep rosemary bits in my purse, in the car, in my toiletry bag–anywhere I need to  freshen things up. I’m sure that if someone nabbed my purse they would be surprised by the twigs and needles that fall out! It does the job better than any fake perfume or godawful air freshener.

I’ve long thrown rosemary into my roasted potatoes, tossed with olive oil, garlic, and sea salt; and I’ve minced it over butternut squash to roast with butter as well. I’ve peeled back the needles (it’s an evergreen, after all, a pine) and used the stronger branches for skewers on the grill. You need only a couple of teaspoons of it minced to make an assertive flavor, so add it bit by bit. And I love making simple syrup infused with rosemary for cocktails, adding sprigs to a gin and tonic as well.

Far and away my favorite treat, though, is to put rosemary into an unexpected place. In this case, I took a lavender shortbread recipe taught to me 15 years ago and replaced the purple flowers with that fragrant pine, minced fine. Such a lovely sweet to enjoy on a late spring afternoon with your tea…standard British if you’re one half of our household; lemongrass or mint tea if you’re the other half.

Rosemary Shortbread

Biscoitos do Alecrim

Yield: About two dozen cookies

1 cup/8 ounces unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened at room temperature

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup powdered or icing sugar

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups  all-purpose (without leavening) flour

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh chopped rosemary

  1. Using a hand mixer or stand mixer, cream butter with both sugars and salt until thoroughly blended (to a frosting-like consistency). In a cold kitchen, this will take longer than if your kitchen is warm.
  2. In a separate bowl, sift the flour with a fork to reduce clumping.
  3. Add the flour into the creamed mixture in 3 portions, scraping the sides of the bowl well between each addition.
  4. Add the rosemary and stir in just to combine it evenly through the dough.
  5. Turn out the dough onto a sheet of plastic or parchment paper and roll the dough into a cylinder about 2 inches in diameter.
  6. Secure the wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, up to overnight.
  7. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. Slice the dough into circles (1/4-inch thick) and place on fresh parchment paper lining a baking sheet.
  8. Bake the cookies until the edges just turn golden, roughly 20 minutes.
  9. Let the cookies cool fully before serving.