Borage is an innocuous looking herb. The ungainly plant has fuzzy leaves and star-shaped blue flowers that give it the common name starflower. Not only is borage edible, though, the herb is also an important ally for tomato plants.
When planted alongside tomatoes, borage confuses the sphinx or hawk moth, which is the pest that spawns the hideous hornworms that are the bane of any avid tomato gardener.
In addition to being a useful protector of tomoato plants, chef Evan Hanczor of the restaurant Parish Hall in Williamsburg says borage is also an underappreciated boon in the kitchen.. “A lot of people don’t really know about it,” he said.
Since borage tastes like cucumber, Hanczor likes to pair the herb with things like shellfish and often uses it as a garnish with scallops. “Even within the plant, the leaves and flowers have distinct tastes and textures,” he said. “I think most people prefer the flowers because it’s generally used as a garnish, and that’s the prettiest part of the plant.”
Not only are the flowers pretty, they also have the distinction of being one of the only naturally blue edible plants.
Hanczor, who was formerly the chef at Egg, says he prefers the leaves but cautions that they might not be appealing to everyone. “They have this fuzzy sort of texture to them, which can become a little abrasive as the plant gets older, but when it’s young it adds a really nice texture as long as it’s not the only thing you’re eating,” he explained. That means right now is a good time to sample the plant before the leaves mature and become tough.
The fuzziness of the leaves also diminishes once heat is applied. “In a number of countries or cultures, [the leaves are] used as a cooked green, as, like, a filling for ravioli,” he said.
(Photo: Borage growing at Old Field Farm, a neighboring farm to Goatfell./Photo by George Weld)
Hanczor first came to be familiar with borage through Parish Hall’s partnership with Goatfell Farm, which was started by George Weld, who also happens to be the owner of both Parish Hall and Egg. Goatfell’s farmer originally planted borage as a hedge plant, but Hanczor realized it could also be delicious when paired with things like bread and tomatoes.
“Our approach [at the farm] was, basically, let’s throw a lot of things into the ground and see what we really like and see what grows,” he said. “And through that, we learned that we’ll never, ever grow cabbage again, but we also discovered that borage is a pretty amazing thing.”
In fact, borage has a long history in the popular British cocktail, Pimm’s Cup. While many may not realize it these days, the drink was originally garnished with the herb — not a cucumber, which is what’s most commonly used now.
“It’s also a botanical that might be used in making something like gin, which often has a cucumber flavor,” Hanczor added.
For those who are interested in doing more with borage than dropping it in a glass with some gin and ice cubes, try Hanczor’s recipe for Tomato, Cucumber, and Borage Bread Salad.
Tomato, Cucumber, and Borage Bread Salad
by Evan Hanczor
serves 4 as a side
- 2-3 heirloom tomatoes
- 1 pint sungold or cherry tomatoes, cut in half
- 2 small kirby cucumbers, sliced thinly
- 1/2 loaf of day-old good bread (batard or country white work well)
- 1 bunch of borage - buds, ﬂowers and small leaves picked from the stems
- 1 head of onion or chive blossoms, or 1 small shallot (sliced thinly)
- 3 tablespoons apricot or raspberry vinegar
- 3 tablespoons plus 3 tablespoons olive oil
- A small bunch of bush basil or regular basil
- A sprig of thyme
- Sea salt and coarsely-ground black pepper
Cut or tear the bread into 3/4” cube pieces (roughly). In a large pan over medium heat, heat the olive oil until shimmering, then add the bread and toss to coat with the oil. Toast in the pan for a few minutes until the bread has absorbed the oil (add a bit more if needed — this will contribute the richness to the salad), is crisp on the outside and retains a soft and chewy interior. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside on a paper towel to cool.
Cut the heirloom tomato in a mix of shapes - a couple thick slices, some wedges. Place those pieces and their juices with the sungold halves in a large bowl. Add the apricot vinegar and olive oil as well as the onion blossoms or shallot. Pick some of the bush basil and all the thyme and toss them in the bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add the sliced cucumbers, borage leaves, and toasted bread, and toss gently to combine. Adjust the seasoning and the acidity to your liking (adding more olive oil or vinegar). Serve garnished with the borage buds and ﬂowers.