Joe Venezia has been growing herbs since he was a boy in Buffalo, N.Y. "We always kept a garden," he says. "It was one of those things everybody did in our Italian neighborhood."
That was why, when Venezia took over as executive chef at the Hotel Bel-Air in 1982 (after three years in Dallas, as sous-chef at the prestigious Mansion and later the Laurent restaurants), he looked at a bit of idle lawn on the hotel grounds and thought, "What a great herb garden this would make."
After a slow start, Venezia has managed to get his half-acre gardening down to a science. French tarragon, sage, Italian parsley, thyme and oregano were first to go in. After a year, he added lemon balm, geranium and wild watercress. Now, there are several varieties of oregano and basil growing there, along with baby lettuce, arugula and radicchio. Venezia has found that herbs do very well in pots. "They don't like being planted too close to other plants," he says. "Start with Italian parsley; it's prolific once it starts and requires no special treatment."
The lobster dish created by Venezia was designed to make utmost use of the variety of herbs from the hotel's garden. The lobster is steamed in white vermouth seasoned with laurel (fresh bay leaf), chervil, sorrel, tarragon, basil, fennel and Italian parsley. Julienne tomatoes and red and yellow bell peppers in an herbed wine vinaigrette decorate and flavor the dish. The cooked lobster rests on a similar grouping of fresh herbs.
Venezia's recipe is on Page 30, and for a look at his garden, please turn the page. JOE VENEZIA'S LOBSTER WITH WILD WATERCRESS VINAIGRETTE 1/2 cup each leaves of fresh laurel, chervil, sorrel, tarragon, basil, fennel and Italian parsley 1 cup white vermouth 1 2- to 3-pound whole lobster, live preferred 1 tomato, cut in julienne strips 1 yellow sweet pepper, cut in julienne strips 1 red sweet pepper, cut in julienne strips Wild Watercress Vinaigrette
Scatter herbs in bottom of large saucepan. Add white vermouth. Top with lobster. Cover and bring to a boil. Steam until lobster is done, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove lobster from pan. Crack shells and claws (if any), discarding shells. Remove herbs from pan. Discard any remaining liquid. Arrange steamed herbs in bottom of a large platter. Arrange lobster tail and claws over cooked herbs. Combine tomato, sweet yellow and red pepper and toss with Wild Watercress Vinaigrette. Spoon around lobster. Makes 2 servings.
Note: You may use any fresh herbs in lieu of cooked herbs for lobster bed. Wild Watercress Vinaigrette 1 sprig chervil 1 bunch wild watercress (Upland watercress) cup chopped Spanish onion 2 ounces Chardonnay vinegar 1 egg yolk 4 ounces olive oil Salt Freshly ground white pepper
Combine chervil, watercress, onion, Chardonnay vinegar, egg yolk, oil, salt and pepper to taste in blender container. Blend until mixture is emulsified; be careful not to blend too much or sauce will separate. Makes about 1/2 cup sauce. PRODUCED BY ROBIN TUCKER