Thousands of years of herbs

T

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.

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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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