Prompted by National Herb Week, this week’s column is all about my beloved herbs – not just parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme… I’ll encourage you to be extra adventurous – experiment with less familiar herbs. I’m loving the bright celery flavour of the new season’s lovage that’s popping up in the Ballymaloe Cookery School Herb Garden. It’s a leafy perennial that grows about 5 feet tall and comes back every year. The tender young growth is particularly delicious in salads and in soups but we also enjoy this under-appreciated herb in scrambled eggs, omelettes and potato and tomato salads with lots of slivered spring onions and parsley.
Fresh herbs can literally transform the flavour of dishes and just like spices, herbs have many different flavours depending on how they are used. Whether they are added at the beginning of the cooking process, in the middle, at the end or scattered in sprigs over the final presentation.
Some, like rosemary and thyme oxidise and discolour within minutes of being chopped, sage is similar. You’ll also have noticed that the fresh young growth is milder than the robust flavour of the evergreen perennials so use accordingly.
The blue, nectar rich flowers of rosemary, thyme and sage attract bees in spring and early summer and also provide flowers and leaves for an aromatic posy on your kitchen table. All of these herbs have medicinal as well as culinary uses. Rosemary is a powerful anti-inflammatory, a rich source of antioxidants, boosts the immune system and helps to improve memory.
So how about a simple glass of rosemary tea every day, just pour boiling water over a generous sprig of rosemary, allow it to infuse for 3 or 4 minutes and enjoy.
Sage too has similar properties, the latter is another underused herb but I fry copious quantities of young leaves to scatter over fried eggs, pasta or a risotto. They’re addictive and have you tried the Tuscan snack Salvia Fritti or Sage and Anchovy Fritters. Talk about addictive, there never seems to be enough… the perfect nibble with a glass of crisp dry white Soave or a fino.
As ever I am encouraging you to grow your own herbs, close to your kitchen door so you can pop out on a whim to snip a few leaves (and flowers) to add magic to what might otherwise be a totally mundane dish.
Urbanites can grow lots on a window sill, in large pots or in galvanised buckets.
Check out your local garden centre or seek out passionate small growers at Farmer’s Markets to find unusual varieties of familiar herbs. For example, there are numerous forms of mint – apple mint, strawberry mint, pineapple mint, ginger mint, liquorice mint, chocolate mint, Moroccan mint…but spearmint and peppermint are probably the most useful. Apparently there are over 600 varieties on the planet.
There are also numerous sages, the purple and variegated are also easy to source but at least have common sage. Lemon balm is another perennial ‘must have’ and the variegated version, with its green and cream leaves is also worth looking out for.
But back to Herb Week, now in its 15th year, it was created in 2006 to celebrate the nutritional and medicinal value of herbs. Check out the web for further information.
This year, parsley is the herb of the year – well doesn’t this versatile favourite deserve to be celebrated. I grow both curly and flat parsley and use it in copious quantities. No one should have to buy parsley and one can never have too much. It is a biennial (lasts 2 seasons) and bet you didn’t know that it has more Vitamin C than an orange. Just pick a couple of outside stalks off the plant at a time. Flat parsley seems to be more fashionable now but both are equally delicious. Use all of the stalk too and at the end of the second year harvest the root, you’ll be blown away by the flavour, use in stews, salads, parsley pesto or the stock pot.
I’m not sure where to start with recipes, there are so many
but here are a few of my current favourites – Sage and Anchovy Fritters, Melon
in Lovage Syrup, Syrian Mint Lemonade, Parsley Pesto, Chimichurri, Parsley, Red
Onion, Pomegranate and Sumac Salad.
Melon in Lovage Syrup
A beautiful ripe melon needs little embellishment, but even a mediocre melon is greatly enhanced by the haunting flavour of borage syrup.
1 ripe melon
2 tablespoons shredded mint leaves
Lovage Syrup (see recipe)
Slice or cube the ripe melon. Put into a large bowl. Drizzle with the lovage syrup. Toss gently and leave to marinate in the fridge for an hour or so.
Toss the melon with the shredded mint leaves.
Divide among four chilled plates and serve immediately.
Makes 350ml (12fl oz)
175g (6oz) sugar
225ml (8fl oz) water
25g (1oz) lovage leaves
Put the sugar and water into a saucepan, add the lovage leaves. Bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Allow to infuse for an hour or two. Taste.
Strain the syrup, discard the lovage leaves. Store in a glass bottle in the fridge. It will keep for several months.
Fresh Mint Lemonade
(Syrian Laymoun bi-na na – Fresh Lemon Juice with Mint)
Freshly squeezed juices were widely available, lots of orange and pomegranate of course, but we particularly enjoyed this refreshing lemon and mint drink.
juice of 6 lemons
300ml Stock Syrup (see recipe)
2 fistfuls of fresh mint leaves
300ml (10fl oz) cold water
Squeeze the lemons, pour the juice into a liquidiser. Add the syrup (see below), fresh mint leaves and cold water. Whizz until mint is fine and the drink is frothy. Pour into a tall glass with lots of ice, drink through a straw while still fresh.
Makes 825ml (scant 1 1/2 pints approx.)
350g (12oz) sugar
600ml (1 pint) water
Dissolve the sugar in the water and bring to the boil. Boil for 2 minutes then allow it to
cool. Store in the fridge until needed.
Serve with pasta, over goat cheese or halloumi or drizzle over salads.
Makes 2 x 150ml (7fl oz) jars
50g (2oz) flat parsley leaves (no stalks)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
35g (scant 1 1/2oz) cashew nuts
200ml (7fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
50g (2oz) freshly grated Parmesan
Chop the cashew nuts finely first. Then put all the ingredients except the
Parmesan, oil and salt into the food-processor.
Whizz for a second or two, add the oil gradually. Add the Parmesan, whizz for another couple of
seconds and a little salt. Taste and
Chimichurri sauce is a hot perky sauce from Argentina. Great with a pan-grilled steak, drizzle over a fried egg, vegetable pizza or pasta – have fun!
Makes 225-250ml (8-9fl oz) approx.
50g (2oz) flat parsley leaves
4 large cloves garlic peeled and crushed
2 tablespoons water
100ml (3 1/2fl oz) extra virgin olive oil or sunflower oil
50ml (2floz) red wine vinegar
1 red onion, finely chopped
1/2 chilli seeded and chopped or 1/4 teaspoon chilli flakes
Chop the parsley finely with the garlic and water. (Alternatively, whizz in a food-processor, scraping down the sides of the bowl until well pulsed). Transfer to a bowl. Whisk in the oil and vinegar gradually. Add the red onion, chilli and salt. Taste and add more seasoning if necessary.
Parsley, Red Onion, Pomegranate and Sumac Salad
Keep this gorgeous fresh tasting recipe up your sleeve for when you have a glut of flat parsley.
4 handfuls of flat parsley leaves
175g (6oz) red onion, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons of sugar
a tiny pinch of flaky sea salt
1 tablespoon Forum white or red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Forum white or red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon of sumac
seeds from 1/2 pomegranate
Put the thinly sliced onion rings into a small bowl with the sugar, a tiny pinch of salt and vinegar. Allow to macerate for 30 minutes. Add the extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and pomegranate molasses and toss to mix evenly.
Put the parsley into a serving bowl. Add the pickled onions,
sprinkle with sumac and toss well but gently. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.
Taste and tweak the seasoning if necessary. Serve soon as a starter or with
pan-grilled lamb chops.
Salvia Fritti – Sage and Anchovy Fritters
I always used to associate these delectable fritters with Tuscany where I first tasted them but I’ve also enjoyed them in Sicily.
40 large young sage leaves
20 finest-quality anchovy fillets
200g (7oz) plain white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
150ml (5fl oz) soda water
First, make the batter. Sieve the flour and baking powder into a bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the lightly beaten egg. Gradually whisk in the soda water, working from the centre to the outside of the bowl to make a smooth batter. Cover and allow to rest for an hour.
Heat the oil, preferably pomace olive oil in a deep fryer to 280°C (alternatively, use a frying pan with 6cm-7cm (2 1/2 – 3 inch) of oil).
Meanwhile, dip a sage leaf in the batter and shake off the excess. Lay an anchovy fillet or half if they’re too long, on top and press on another sage leaf to make a little sandwich. Dip the sandwiches, one at a time into the batter, shake off the excess. Cook in batches in the hot oil, turning once or twice – a minute should be sufficient. Drain on kitchen paper and serve immediately with a lemon wedge.