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CASA’s Maria Broadbent takes a look at herbs, which have been a quintessential part of cooking since time began



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Herbs are the friend of the physician and the pride of cooks - Charlemagne, Medieval Emperor of Western Europe

Herbs and spices have been around for as long as cooking has. Herbs have not only a long held hallowed place in the kitchen, but also in the garden and the medicine cabinet. Their uses are many and varied and evocative of occasions or places. Who can smell cinnamon without thinking of Christmas? Or catch the aroma of frying garlic without being transported to the Mediterranean?

My focus for the cookery demonstration at this year’s Bury St Edmunds Food & Drink Festival, at 2pm on Monday, will be on fresh herbs. I will therefore focus on herbs in this article – next month we will go on a trip on the old spice routes and find out how to maximise the flavour of these once highly-prized commodities. Often in cheffy questions we are asked, “Which herb could you not live without?”. I would find this impossible to answer, so I will give my personal favourites and the ones I consider indispensable.

Herbs (50588661)
Herbs (50588661)

Parsley: Never dried, and flatleaf for me every time over curly as I believe it has a better flavour. . . but never chop too finely. Add chopped parsley to white sauce, omelettes, butter, potato salad (along with chives) or to add a flourish to the end of dishes such as garlic king prawns.

Dill: Fresh wherever possible, but good quality dried if added to the liquid the day before will develop. I love it with smoked salmon either in the curing process, such as gravadlax, or in a crème fraiche sauce. It is, in fact, perfect with salmon or fish of any kind and a nice addition to Greek feta and spinach dishes.

Mint: Fresh mint, of which there are over 7,000 varieties, is an easy to grow and versatile herb. It is found in recipes all around the world, in cocktails, tea, plus both meat and vegetarian recipes. Roast lamb, taboulleh, mojitos and Moroccan mint teas to name but a few.

Oregano: Essential in Greek salad, delicious in potatoes with lemon, it is also often found as part of a marinade – for example,we use it to make lamb kleftiko and in our Brazilian chicken marinade. This is one of a small number of herbs where dried is a good alternative to fresh. However, for our Sicilian salsa verde we serve with swordfish, fresh is essential!

Basil: Fragrant and aromatic, this much more delicate herb is only good fresh. Tear rather than cut the leaves, as cutting bruises them. Basil is found in pesto, insalata Caprese (tomato, mozzarella & basil salad) and many tomato sauces for pasta and pizza.

Tarragon: This herb has a unique flavour, which is very delicate with a hint of aniseed. It is a great bed fellow for both fish and chicken dishes and is a key ingredient in classic bearnaise sauce.

Sage: Available to pick all year round, this herb is synonymous with pork. Traditional British sage and onion stuffing or Italian saltimbocca (pork with sage and Parma ham, served with a Marsala sauce).

Rosemary: In my top five, rosemary is one of the herbs in Herbes de Provence, it is essential with lamb, added to salt elevates the humble chip and for me, no barbecue is complete without rosemary and garlic potatoes!

Thyme: Warning! Dried thyme is so much more potent than fresh, therefore it easily overwhelms a dish if you substitute like for like. Personally, I much prefer fresh thyme and its uses include stuffing, on roasted goat’s cheese with honey and in many French-style chicken dishes.

Coriander: Scientific fact – there is a gene that makes coriander taste like soap! I am so glad I don’t have this, but my daughter and partner do. So what tastes delicious to me and other coriander consumers is repulsive to them. My advice would be before liberally adding to dishes, you run a controlled experiment on your audience. If you get the green light then you can add away happily. It is found in guacamole, curries, chilli con carne, Mexican salsas and as a salad leaf.

Bay: This is a tree and can be a stylish standard (looks like a lollipop) tree, as well as a bush or a full blown tree. Cut branches to hang up and dry or simply pull off fresh leaves as required. It is a great addition to slow-cooked dishes as it releases a rounded aromatic flavour into the dish but the leaves are easy to hook out. We use them in our chorizo in red wine and it certainly makes a difference to the taste of the finished dish.

Chives: This distinctive bright green grass-like herb has a mild onion flavour. It is wonderful chopped into butter to spread on cheese scones, in cream cheese on a sandwich, part of a dip or sprinkled on salads or cooked dishes. I find it loses its subtlety if cooked and you may as well use other members of the allium family in cooking, such as onions, garlic, shallots and leeks.

Garlic: Yes, it is classed as a herb, but really it deserves a whole article to itself. So briefly, cut it, crush it, slice it, use it as a whole clove or bung the whole bulb in to the oven. . . each treatment creates a different variation in the flavour. Obvious recipes are dauphinoise potatoes, garlic bread, Italian tomato sauces, to rub onto bruschetta. . . the list goes on. I would never use garlic paste, pre-peeled pasteurized garlic or garlic purée as these all have a distinctive after taste and are what make your mouth ‘taste’ unpleasant later. Garlic powder in a marinade is, however, acceptable as it won’t burn.

Lavender: Not used quite so much in food recipes, although it is essential for Herbes de Provence which is my go-to mix with the salt and pepper next to my hob. Lavender is also found in baking, especially with cakes with a Mediterranean influence. Renowned for its calming and medicinal properties, it is found as an essential oil used to treat mild headaches. Dried lavender can be sewn into muslin and added to wheatie bags to heat in the microwave or encased in pretty fabric to make drawers smell nice. Candles, air fresheners and bathroom products are rife with lavender aromas, too.

GROWING HERBS

Supermarkets sell herb plants but for outside planting these are rarely robust enough. Supermarket basil will often happily transplant to a bigger pot and live on a windowsill. Be careful in winter as they don’t like to get cold and never get water on their leaves. Garden centres sell a variety of herbs and there are herb specialists where you can track down larger plants, a wider selection of mint and the more unusual herbs. Bear in mind I have only covered 14 and there are lots more – chervil, fennel, borage, sorrel, bergamot, verbena, caraway, feverfew. . .

Herbs can be grown in amongst your flowerbeds, in pots or in a designated herb garden. My advice would be to keep them planted as close to the kitchen as possible. Some will need watering more than others, different drainage and amounts of sunshine may be required. When planning, remember some are year-round performers, such as rosemary, whilst others if in the garden will die back in the autumn, for example mint. Parsley on the other hand fully dies but will almost always have self set. However, my gardening expert (my Mother) says play safe and re-sow parsley in the springtime.

Like most creative tasks there is an element of trial and error with growing herbs but it is not difficult I promise. A couple of pitfalls to watch out for are the aggressive nature of mint. It is not going to attack you with an axe, however it will spread to every part of your garden if not planted in a container. Coriander will self-set, so harvest the seeds for your kitchen and keep a few to plant where YOU want them. Oh, and don’t forget quite a few flowers are edible and make pretty additions to both your garden and salads. These edible flowers include nasturtiums, violas and dianthus (pinks).

TABOULLEH

Ingredients:

50g bulgur wheat

50g flat leaf parsley

50g fresh mint

200g of ripe tomatoes

3 spring onions

1 lemon

3 tablespoons of olive oil

Pinch of salt

Method:

Rinse the bulgur wheat in running water using a sieve until the water runs clear. Put the rinsed wheat into a bowl and pour over 200ml of boiling water, cover and leave to soak for 30 minutes.

Whilst the wheat soaks, chop the parsley coarsely, it is easier to do this if you leave it in the bunch and work on the leaves down. The inclusion of the occasional stalk won’t hurt because you’re mixing it with the wheat.

Now chop the mint, deseed and chop the tomatoes and cut the spring onions. Some recipes also include cucumber, if using cucumber deseed it and finally chop it, you can of course also add coriander but see my notes about those who think it tastes like soap!

Thoroughly drain the bulgur wheat, add the herb mix, along with the lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Stir to combine, check seasoning and serve at room temperature.

HERB CRUSTED SALMON

Ingredients:

2 slices of any leftover bread, crumbed

8 tablespoons of any combination of chopped fresh parsley, fresh dill, fresh thyme, fresh tarragon, fresh chives and/or fresh basil

4 x 200g salmon fillets, preferably skin on

1 tablespoon vegetable oil (not olive)

1 lemon – juice and zest

Pinch salt

Method:

Heat the oven to 180°C. Mix the chopped herbs with the lemon zest, salt, breadcrumbs and the vegetable oil. Rinse the salmon fillets and place skin side down in a baking tray which you have lined with baking parchment. Evenly spread the bread crumb/herb mixture over the salmon fillets. Squeeze the lemon juice all over and place the tray in the oven for 12 to 15 minutes depending on the size of the salmon fillets.

FRESH HERB DIP

Ingredients:

1 garlic clove (optional)

30g fresh parsley, leaves only

15g fresh mixed herbs

150g cream cheese, room temperature, in pieces

75g crème fraiche

Season with salt and a generous grind of black pepper

Method:

I chop all the herbs finely, use a sharp knife to do this so you don’t overly bruise them. Then mix everything thoroughly together and season to taste.

At this weekend’s Food & Drink Festival (August 29-30) Maria will be on the cookery stage to show us:

* How to save and preserve herbs, including infused oils, freezing and drying

* Uses for leftover herbs

* Making marinades

* Herb butters

Maria Broadbent is owner of Mediterranean restaurant CASA in Risbygate Street, Bury St Edmunds

Call 01284 701313

See casabse.co.uk