Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…..It’s so good to have something to distract us from the Covid 19 Pandemic, so this week prompted by National Herb Week now in its 6th year, which celebrates herbs and herbal medicine I’m going to focus on the culinary attributes of fresh herbs.
Fresh herbs add magic to our dishes and have always been a big part of my cooking. Each and every one has a unique aroma and have been part of the flavor of our food for as long as I can remember. But it wasn’t until I came to Ballymaloe in 1968 that I really discovered the enormous variety of fresh herbs.
At home in Cullohill, we always had lots of curly parsley in the garden for the Parsley sauce we loved, I seem to remember chives as well and some thyme. In Cathal Brugha Street hotel school in Dublin, I discovered sage and bay. Sage went into a traditional sage and onion stuffing for duck or goose and I seem to remember that bay leaves went into beef stock and could be dried…
However, it wasn’t until I came to Ballymaloe House in 1988 that I really discovered the magic of herbs. Inside the walled garden and in the greenhouse row after row of fresh herbs. At first, I couldn’t even identify many of them but soon I learned not only what they were but how to pick them at peak of perfection and how the flavor and often the shape changed at different stages and enhanced a dish.
French Tarragon perfumes a classic Béarnaise sauce to serve with a steak or a succulent roast beef. Gutsy rosemary to flavour blackcurrant jam, a slow roast shoulder of lamb or a robust stew. When it flowers in May we love to use the purply / blue blossoms as a garnish. Dill to make a sweet mustard mayo to accompany gravlax or smoked mackerel. The dill flowers provide little bursts of aniseed to fish soup and green salads.
In the early 1980’s, on my first trip to Italy for the first time I discovered basil. I didn’t love it at first but Italians seemed to find it indispensable. Famous Italian chef Marcella Hazan showed me how to make pesto and soon, I too was hooked, I brought home a packet of basil seeds and planted them in the greenhouse. Basil is an annual, native to the Mediterranean, it needs and loves the sun and is a heavy feeder. If you buy a plant, transplant it immediately into a big pot. Keep it in a greenhouse or on your sunniest window sill and pinch off any flowers to encourage more growth. Nowadays, one can get most types of herbs in the supermarket, but they are a poor substitute for a little herb patch close to your kitchen door where you pop out at a moment’s notice and snip a little bunch to add to or scatter over your dishes. If you don’t already have a herb garden, why not start with a few perennials, once planted they will reemerge every year. Some, like sage, rosemary, thyme and bay are hardy and can be used year round. Others like fennel, chives, sweet cicely and lovage die down every winter but pop up again in Spring.
Annual marjoram, possibly my favourite herb of all time is just that, an annual, seeds must be sown every year, dill also plus coriander and chervil. Indispensable parsley will last for two years, it’s what gardeners refer to as a biannual. Each herb has its own medical as well as culinary flavour. Herb flowers too are edible, delicious and look beautiful scattered over salads or as a garnish.
Mint can be a thug, once planted it romps around your gardens but I can never have too much I throw fistfuls of it into all kinds of things, homemade lemonades, fruit salads and apple jelly.
Fresh coriander always provokes a strong reaction, it’s an acquired taste, few people like it initially but then become hooked. It’s an essential flavor in the food of the East, Middle East and South America so if you still feel you dislike it – keep trying otherwise you’ll miss out on all those delicious flavours.
This salad is only worth doing if you have access to gorgeous ripe tomatoes, good buffalo mozzarella, fresh summer basil and super extra virgin olive oil. The first Irish tomatoes are now in season.
4 very ripe beef tomatoes or large tomatoes
fresh basil leaves
freshly ground black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
Slice the buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes into rounds. Arrange in overlapping slices on a white plate. Tuck some basil leaves in between the slices. Drizzle with really good extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with a few flakes of sea salt and freshly ground pepper to season – a simple feast when the ingredients are at the peak of perfection.
Potato, Onion and Lovage Soup
Taken from Irish Traditional Cooking by Darina Allen, published by Kyle Books
Lucy Madden from Hilton Park in Co. Monaghan, one of Ireland’s most charming country house hotels, made this delicious soup for me from the organically grown vegetables in her garden.
10–25g (1/2–1oz) butter
225g (8oz) onions, very thinly sliced
350g (12oz) potatoes, thinly sliced
salt and freshly ground pepper
1.2 litres (2 pints) good homemade chicken or vegetable stock
a large handful of lovage leaves
lovage and parsley
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan on a low heat, add the onions and potatoes, season with salt and freshly ground pepper and sweat until soft but not coloured. Add the stock and boil for 5 minutes. Snip the lovage leaves into thin strips with scissors. Put 3 tablespoons into the soup and cook for a further 10 minutes. Serve with a sprinkling of snipped lovage and a little chopped fresh parsley.
Fresh parsley is an excellent source of vitamin C to boost our immune system. Mint calms the stomach and aids digestion – just what’s needed at present.
This refreshing and highly nutritious Middle Eastern Salad can either be served as a starter or as a main dish. We serve lots of well-seasoned cucumber and tomato dice with the salad. I also love the addition of pomegranate seeds and a touch of chilli. Taste and add a little honey if it needs it.
Serves 6-12 served as a starter or a main course
110g (4oz) bulgar – cracked wheat
25-50g (1-2oz) freshly chopped parsley
25-50g (1-2oz) freshly chopped mint
freshly squeezed juice of 2 lemons or more if you need it
75ml (3fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
110 – 175t (4-6oz) spring onion, green and white parts, chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
6 very ripe firm new seasons Irish tomatoes/ a selection of red and yellow, pear shaped etc., would be great, diced and sprinkled with a little salt, pepper and sugar
1 firm crisp cucumber, cut into 1/4 inch (5mm) dice
small crisp lettuce leaves e.g. cos or iceberg
black olives – optional
Soak the bulgar in cold water for about 30 minutes, drain and squeeze well to remove any excess water liquid. Stir in the olive oil and some of the freshly squeezed lemon juice, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, leave it aside to absorb the dressing while you chop the parsley, mint and spring onions. Just before serving, mix the herbs with the bulgar, taste and add more lemon juice if necessary. It should taste fresh and lively.
Arrange on a serving plate surrounded by rocket
and salad leaves and little mounds of well-seasoned tomato and cucumber dice.
Garnish with sprigs of flat parsley, a few black olives wouldn’t go a miss
either if you enjoy them.
Baked Brill with Herb Butter and New Seasons Zucchini
This is a very simple ‘master recipe’ which can be used for any flat fish plaice, sole, brill, turbot, dabs, flounder and lemon sole or a noble turbot. Depending on the size of the fish, it can a starter or a main course. Because it is cooked with the skin on, it retains maximum flavour. Peel the skin off carefully before serving and anoint the fish with the fresh herb butter – simple but succulent.
1 – 2 Brill
110g (4oz) butter
4 teaspoons mixed finely-chopped fresh parsley, chives, fennel, chervil and thyme leaves
salt and freshly ground pepper
Melted courgettes (see recipe)
Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/Gas Mark 5.
Turn the fish on its side and remove the head. Wash the fish and clean the slit close to the head 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 1cm (1/2 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 with melted courgettes.
1 lb (450g) courgettes, no larger than 5 inches (12.5cm) in length
1 oz (30g) butter
A dash of olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly chopped parsley, basil or marjoram
Top and tail the courgettes and cut them into 3 inch (5mm) slices. Melt the butter and add a dash of oil, toss in the courgettes and coat in the butter and oil. Cook until tender, 4-5 minutes approx. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Turn into a hot serving dish, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately.
Baked Cod, Haddock, Hake or Pollock with Cream and Bay Leaves
This recipe transforms even the dullest white fish into a feast. Be generous with the bay leaves, their perfume should distinctly permeate the sauce. Pollock is a good alternative fish. The fishing community need our support – make sure you are buying fresh Irish fish.
Serves 4–6 as a starter or main course
25g (1oz) butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
6 thick pieces of fresh round fish (allow approx. 110–175g (4–6oz) filleted fish per person)
salt and freshly ground pepper
4–5 fresh bay leaves
light cream (enough to cover the fish)
15g (1/2oz) roux approx.
Melt the butter in a sauté pan, just wide enough to take the fish in a single layer. Fry the onion gently for a few minutes until soft but not coloured. Put the fish in the pan and cook on both sides for 1 minute. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add bay leaves. Cover with light cream and simmer with the lid on for 3–5 minutes, until the fish is cooked. Remove the fish to a serving dish. Bring the cooking liquid to the boil and lightly thicken with roux. Taste and correct the seasoning. Coat the fish with sauce and serve immediately. For a whole meal in one dish, pipe a ruff of fluffy mashed potato around the edge.
Note: This dish can be prepared ahead and reheated, and it also freezes well. Reheat in a moderate oven, 180ºC / 350ºF / Gas Mark 4, for anything from 10–30 minutes, depending on the size of the container.
Chocolate and Rosemary Mousse
Taken from Grow, Cook, Nourish by Darina Allen published by Kyle Books
Lovely Jane Grigson, the legendary British country writer, gave me this recipe, and from memory I think she got it from Franco Taruschio at the Walnut Tree restaurant in South Wales. It sounds odd, but it is strangely addictive.
225g (8oz) castor sugar
225ml (8fl oz) dry white wine
freshly squeezed juice of 1/2 lemon
600ml (1 pint) double cream
1 long branch of fresh rosemary, plus extra sprigs, to garnish
175g (6oz) dark chocolate (we use Valrhona or Lindt – 52% cocoa solids is fine), chopped
pouring cream, to serve
Mix the sugar, wine and lemon juice in a stainless steel saucepan and stir over a low heat until the sugar dissolves. Add the cream, bring to the boil – the mixture will thicken somewhat. Add the rosemary and chocolate. Stir, return to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer very gently for 20 minutes. It should be the consistency of thick cream. Leave to cool, tasting occasionally to see if the rosemary flavour is intense enough.
Pour through a sieve into eight ramekins or little shot glasses. Cool, cover and chill until needed.
We serve it with Jersey pouring cream and a sprig of flowering rosemary.
WILD FOOD OF THE WEEK
Rose Petals (taken from Grow Cook Nourish p 616)
All roses are edible, but the ones I like to use best are the deliciously perfumed old roses and china roses. As with all edible flowers, avoid blossoms that have been sprayed. The flavour and fragrance depends on the variety, colour and soil conditions. The fragrance seems to be more pronounced in the darker varieties. Pure rosewater is the distilled essence of roses so it is not easy to make at home. Apart from providing aesthetic appeal, rose petals contribute to our overall wellbeing. Rose petals have been used in Chinese medicine since as far back as 3,000 BC. Adding some raw petals to your salad can help fight heart disease and cancer, and boiling them in water makes an effective remedy for sore throats.
Camilla’s Strawberry and Rose Petal Jam
When my friend Camilla Plum comes to stay she wanders through the farm and gardens and greenhouse, picking and collecting fresh ingredients and cooks non-stop. Last summer, she filled her apron with rose petals from the old scented roses – she tossed them into a saucepan with some fresh strawberries and made this exquisite jam. We also made rose petal syrup and crystallised the petals to decorate desserts and cake. Use organic ingredients where possible
Makes 2–3 x 370G jars
450g (1lb) granulated sugar
1kg (2 1/4lb) strawberries
1 litre rose petals
freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
Preheat the oven to 110°C/225°F/Gas Mark 1/4.
Scatter the sugar over a baking tray and warm in the oven.
Put the strawberries in a wide stainless-steel saucepan and cook over a brisk heat
until the juices run and the fruit breaks down. Add the rose petals and hot sugar.
Stir to dissolve the sugar, bring back to the boil and continue to cook for 5–8 minutes until it reaches a set. Test for a set by putting about a teaspoon of jam on a cold plate, leaving it for a few minutes in a cool place. It should wrinkle when pressed with a finger. When at setting point, add the lemon juice and remove from the heat immediately. Pour into sterilised jars and store in a cool place for 3–4 months but enjoy sooner rather than later.