ArchiveJune 2000

Thousands of years of herbs

Fresh herbs have delighted cooks for not just hundreds, but thousands of years, the Roman cookery book written by Apicius around the late fourth and early fifth centuries contains numerous recipes for dishes flavoured with herbs, but even so I would hazard a guess that never at any period during history has there been such a universal interest in herbs as there is in recent times, both for healing and culinary purposes.

Fresh herbs are just a ‘cinch’ to grow, even if you are convinced that you haven’t green fingers don’t worry, they will actually grow despite you! You could say that I am a teeny bit biased but I reckon that everyone should have a little herb garden, well if not an actual garden, at least a few pots or tubs or even a window box brimming with Parsley, Thyme and Chives. I’ll tell you why, its not just the fact that a little sprinkling of fresh herbs can add magic to your cooking, there’s also the buzz you get when you make a little foray into the garden to pick a few sprigs – Rosemary, Lemon Balm, Sweet Cicely or whatever, you just feel great and somehow sort of virtuous!
A great bonus is that most of the culinary herbs are perennial so once you plant them they will re-emerge every year in early Spring in nice fat clumps ready for picking.
Each of the herbs has several uses, the leaves can of course be chopped and used to flavour a huge variety of dishes in various combinations, but the flowers are also edible, some are inconspicuous and not worth bothering with, but others make glorious garnishes and are quite delicious, particularly if eaten raw in salads, for example Sage and Chives. One can also collect and dry the seeds to use as a spice, Coriander, Fennel and Dill seeds are particularly worthwhile.
The thing that seems to baffle most people when they are starting is how many of each plant will be needed to produce a basic herb garden for an average family whatever that might be! Some herbs for example Fennel grow into a glorious feathery clump about 5 feet high while others like Parsley and Thyme are scarcely 6 inches high. Well, first and foremost I suggest that you buy herb plants rather than seeds, that will give you a head start and will also mean that you don’t have 30 or more of each variety. Most garden centres have a wide variety at present and this is the perfect time of the year to plant herbs. Choose a nice sunny spot so they are ‘kidded’ into imagining that they are in the Mediterranean where many originated.
To start off, one might buy 3 or 4 Parsley plants – 2 curly and 2 flat leaved, 2 Chives would be adequate for most people because they are ‘cut and come again’. You will also need 3 or 4 Thyme plants – say 3 common thyme and 1 lemon thyme, 2 Mint should be enough (there are about a dozen varieties) – Spearmint or Bowles mint are best for general use. Buy 2 French Tarragon also but be careful that you are not fobbed off with Russian Tarragon, this sounds rather racist but the French have, here, as in most things gastronomic the edge as far as flavour is concerned. One Sage – the common green variety, will add a bit of gizz to your stuffings and is divine with pasta. One plant of green Fennel will be plenty and though its not essential I would also have one or two Lemon Balm plants.
These are all perennial but there are a few annuals that are absolutely essential in my kitchen, so add a few of these if space and pocket permit. Don’t be without my absolute favourite which is Marjoram or Oregano, there are several varieties here, but the annual variety is by far the most fragrant. Have about 4 of these if possible and buy 1 Golden Marjoram to include in your green salad. A few Dill and Chervil plants are also a must. Dill is essential for Gravlax and Chervil just goes with everything. 2 or 3 Basil plants will need to be parked on your sunniest south-facing window ledge or better still keep them in the greenhouse if you have one or a sunny porch. Finally we are all hooked on Coriander here, this is very much an acquired taste but quickly becomes quite addictive – plant a few and start to acquire the taste.
There are two other wonderfully robust and gutsy herbs which are hardier than any of those I have mentioned so far, they are Rosemary and Bay, both need space but are tremendously useful herbs. Plant Rosemary for Remembrance and remember that it only flourishes in the house where the woman wears the pants! Bay grows easily but for a real treasure try to persuade or bribe someone to buy you a standard Bay to plant outside your back door in a pot or as the axis of your new herb garden. It will cost more than all the other plants combined but will give you an ‘oops’ in your tummy every time you look at it!
Fresh herb plants are available from most good garden centres, also Eden Plants, Rossinver, Co. Leitrim, 072-54122 have a large selection.

Baked Plaice or Sole with Herb Butter

This is a master recipe which can be used not only for plaice and sole but for all very fresh flat fish, e.g. brill, turbot, dabs, flounder and lemon sole. Depending on the size of the fish, it may be served as a starter or a main course. It may be served not only with Herb Butter but with any other complementary sauce, e.g. Hollandaise, Mousseline, Beurre Blanc, Lobster or Champagne.
Serves 4

4 very fresh plaice or sole on the bone
55-110g (2-4 ozs/4-8 tablesp.) butter
4 teasp. mixed finely-chopped fresh parsley, chives, fennel and thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/regulo 5
Turn the fish on its side and remove the head. Wash the fish and clean the slit very thoroughly. With a sharp knife, cut through the skin right round the fish, just where the ‘fringe’ meets the flesh. Be careful to cut neatly and to cross the side cuts at the tail or it will be difficult to remove the skin later on.
Sprinkle the fish with salt and freshly-ground pepper and lay them in 7mm/3 inch of water in a shallow baking tin. Bake in a moderately hot oven for 20-30 minutes according to the size of the fish. The water should have just evaporated as the fish is cooked. Check to see whether the fish is cooked by lifting the flesh from the bone at the head; it should lift off the bone easily and be quite white with no trace of pink.
Meanwhile, melt the butter and stir in the freshly-chopped herbs. Just before serving catch the skin down near the tail and pull it off gently (the skin will tear badly if not properly cut). Lift the fish onto hot plates and spoon the herb butter over them. Serve immediately.

Antony Worrall Thompson And The Scarecrow Competition

Last week Antony Worrall Thompson was guest chef at the Ballymaloe Cookery School for the fourth time. Antony came with his lovely wife Jay who was one of my students just a few years ago.

The incorrigible star of BBC Food and Drink Programme and irrepressible sparring partner of Brian Turner on Ready Steady Cook charmed the students who had come from both Ireland and the UK to see him cook.
Half way through one day’s cooking he took time off to judge the Darina Allen Scarecrow Competition. Local National Schools in East Cork had submitted incredibly creative entries. The choice of prizewinner was almost unbearable. So Antony, being totally detached and impartial, eventually settled for Millennium Millie made by the 5th & 6th classes from Castlemartyr National School. The traditional Shell and Rag Lady Scarecrow from St. John the Baptist School in Midleton tied for second place, while the beautifully woven willow scarecrow from Cloyne National School came a close third. Ziggy from Lower Aghada was runner up.
The children were all delighted when they came out to collect their prizes, they fed the pigs and chickens and gobbled up Lydia’s pizzas and enjoyed Nessa’s homemade lemonade, Charlotte’s chocolate chip cookies and Marina’s smiles.
Antony Worrall Thompson went back to the kitchen and cooked many delicious dishes, including this gorgeous Ricotta Cake, Reblochon in Puff Pastry and Potato Pakora Salad.





(Serves 8 -12)
250g (8 oz) unsalted butter, softened
250g (8oz) castor sugar
8 eggs, separated
zest of 2 oranges and 3 lemons, finely grated
200g(7 oz) mixed dried fruits (Antony used whole cranberries, whole cherries, whole blueberries and chopped apricots)
125g (4 oz) roasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped
275g (9 oz) ricotta
75g (3 oz) plain flour


1. Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the egg yolks one by one, beating well between each addition.
2. In a separate bowl fold the fruit zests, fruit and nuts into the ricotta. Fold the butter and egg mix into the ricotta and fruit. Sift the flour into this mix and combine.
3. Beat the egg whites to soft peaks. Fold in one large spoon of the egg whites into the ricotta mix, once this is amalgamated fold in the remainder carefully, ensuring that you do not lose too much of the air.
4. Grease a 9″ x 2″ spring form cake tin sparingly with vegetable oil, pour in the mixture and bake in a 180°C oven for about 45 -60 minutes or until the tip of a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.
4. When the cake is cool, spike it all over with a fork and dribble with the rosemary syrup.



125g (4oz) sugar
125g (4oz) water
2 Rosemary sprigs
Add sugar and water to a pan over medium heat and reduce. Add rosemary and infuse.





Serves 4
1 whole Reblochon cheese, ripe and ready to eat
1 packet shop-bought puff pastry
1 egg yolk, mixed with a little water
8 slices garlic
8 mini branches of thyme
ground black pepper
Kirsch (optional)


Remove any plastic outer coating from the cheese. Make small slashes and push into the cheese a slice of garlic and a sprig of thyme into each cut. Sprinkle the cheese with black pepper.
Roll out the puff pastry to be slightly larger than the cheese. Completely wrap the cheese in the pastry, neatly tucking in the sides. Lightly brush with the egg yolk and water mix. Place on a non-stick baking tray and cook in a preheated 190ºC/380ºF/Gas mark 5 oven for 25-35 minutes, (you want the pastry to be golden and crisp).


To serve, cut into 4 wedges and serve immediately with warm crusty bread for an instant cheese fondue.






Serves 4
450g (1lb) potatoes, freshly cooked
85g (3 oz) besan (gram or chickpea flour)
40g (1½ oz) cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2-4 green chillies, seeded and finely chopped
115g (4 oz) green cabbage, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves and stalks
200-240ml (7-8 fl oz) water
sunflower oil for deep-frying
1 avocado, peeled, de-stoned and cut into ½ inch slices
Tamarind relish:
1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate or 2 tablespoons tamarind juice
½-1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon ground roasted cumin
1½-2 tablespoons soft dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
Yogurt relish:
175g (6 oz) Greek-style yogurt
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
1 tablespoons finely shopped fresh coriander leaves
6-8 finely chopped fresh mint leaves


Crush the potatoes lightly with a fork. Some of the potatoes should be mashed, but more should be left in small pieces.
Mix the besan, cornmeal, salt and fennel in a large bowl. Add chillies, cabbage, onion and chopped coriander. Stir in the potatoes and gradually add the water, adding enough to bind the mixture into a thick batter.
Heat the oil for deep-frying to 190°C/375°F/ or until a cube of day old bread browns in 45 seconds. Add dessertspoonfuls of the pakora batter to the hot oil, adding enough to cook a batch of pakoras in a single layer. Fry for about 5 minutes, until well browned. Drain on kitchen paper and continue cooking the remaining mixture in batches.
For the tamarind relish, dissolve the tamarind concentrate in 2 tablespoons hot water. If using tamarind juice, mix with 2 tablespoons cold water. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
For the yogurt relish, beat the yogurt with a fork and thoroughly mix in all the remaining ingredients.
To serve, arrange a portion of pakoras on a plate and top with avocado slices, then dribble over the relishes. Serve.


Antony Worrall Thompson’s latest book The ABC of AWT is published by Headline Book Publishing, 338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH, ISBN No 0 7472 2116 2


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