Seasonal cooking - ring the changes with unusual herbs

All you want to know about... herbs!  This month our foodie editor Viv discusses growing, cooking and especially eating, some delicious herbs ...

Viv East food  drink editor.jpg - 23.35 KBI’m not an expert in anything but I do have a hearty interest in good food, whether I’m growing it, cooking it or eating it. My idea here is to share with you some of my chunterings each month on something topical or seasonal and relevant in some way – and perhaps informative too.

Ok… so we’re already a quarter into 2014. How did you do with your New Year resolutions? One of mine was to introduce more ‘different’ and ‘seasonal’ foods into my diet – broadly speaking to experiment more. It’s really easy to replenish our food cupboards with the same items every time we shop – with the potential outcome of a boring diet. I’ll let you know next month how I get on.

Now we’re into spring, I’m considering what I’m going to grow this year. I don’t have a large vegetable plot, In fact my garden is rather tricky but I’m determined to grow more herbs that I can snip at and pop into my cooking – I also love adding herb leaves to my salads it really perks them up – and now is the time to decide on which seeds to get to start off on your windowsill (or in your greenhouse) or make a list of those herbs you want to buy already grown from nurseries and garden centres around April and May time.

Some of my favourites are:

Thymus pulegioides – the culinary ‘broadleaved thyme’. There are lots of choice thymes, but I love this one because it’s evergreen (so can be used right through the winter), and it has a bonus of forming a neat mound in the border or herb garden or growing over a wall or rock garden. Leaves are great in salads’, or throw a few little branches into your casseroles or curries – remember to pull them out before dishing up!

Thymus fragrantissimus  – a spicy orange scented thyme, great in meat dishes or to give a hint in puddings. It’s a hardy evergreen perennial.

Parsley – curly or flat leaved. I prefer the French or Italian flat leaved. Both continue to grow through mild winters.

Rosemary – great with roast lamb and often used in eastern European cookery. I like growing two varieties – Rosminarius prostratus – a low level small woody every green great for planting to hang over a wall or in a rock garden. The taller growing Rosminarius officinalis from which I snip lots of little branches for my cooking. Loved by bees.

Sage – Salvia officinalis. Grey leaves – woody sub-shrub; there’s a lovely purple variety too. Everyone should have these two in their gardens, they’re evergreen, great for bees – just make sure you cut them back hard in the winter so you get lots of lovely new growth in the spring. Brush leaves with oil and gently fry, or cook in the oven until crisp – then crumble into butternut risotto or butternut soup, and save a few for decoration. Try Pineapple Sage too.

Chives. (Allium schoenoprasum) Great for salads and as decoration. The flowers are loved by bees.

Garlic Chives. (Allium tuberosum) Sometimes labelled as Chinese Chives – similar to chives but white flowers – use to decorate and in salads – and a gentle hint of garlic. I love it!

Mint – not just for your new potatoes! Mint leaves – just a few chopped up and added to a salad are great. This is another herb used widely in eastern European cookery. Also great in a Mojito!!   There are so many mints (peppermint, spearmint, basil mint, apple mint etc etc)  – but be warned – grow them in a large pot or they’ll take over your garden! Or grow them in a sunken dustbin to restrict the roots. My preferred variety is Mentha spicata probably the most common and easy to find, but do taste a leaf.

Sweet Bay Tree (Laurus nobilis). Bay is a great flavour enhancer to add to anything – just scrunch a leaf or two in your hand to soften it before adding to soups and casseroles etc. Watch out though - this can grow into a huge tree, but lots of people grow one in a pot outside their front door.

Sweet margoram – Origanum marjorana. Used in Mediterranean cooking. Officially half hardy, but mine overwinters no problem in a sheltered well drained sunny spot.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) – think about Italian food and the gorgeous scent of Basil. Make your own pesto, or simply add to salads – and particularly good with tomatoes whether they’re cooked or fresh. The Greek basil has much smaller leaves and a very neat habit – lovely for a pot on the patio table.

wild garlic.jpg - 10.15 KBChilli peppers. They’re not all HOT! Yes, you can get something like the Dorset Naga which would blow most people brains up, but there are lots of varieties ranging in heat levels. I  love the habaneros which have a ‘fruitier’ flavour, and some are just ‘gently warm’ and add another dimension to salads (try Apricot and Bellaforma varieties from Sea Spring Seeds in Dorset) and others get really hot. These are really easy to grow and can be overwintered in a frost free place and if treated like this will last for 4 or 5 years – don’t forget to save seeds so you can grow it again (if you like it!).

Ok, that’s my (current) favourite dozen… and there are loads more….

Don’t foget edible flowers like:  nasturtium (add flowers to salads for a peppery hit); Allium ursinium (wild garlic – use both the oval green leaves and the white flowers – grows in lightly shaded wooded moist places), Allium triquetrum (three cornered leek – often confused with wild garlic this has narrow leaves and a green stripe on the flowers, and is easily distinguished by cutting through the flower stems to show three corners. Grows easily in dry sunny positions).

A really great book to read and refer to is Jekka McVicar’s ‘New Book of Herbs’ – with guidance on the different varieties, ultimate size, growing location, uses and propagation.

3 cornered leek.png - 102.77 KBThat’s it for now – I do hope you’ll look some of these out and try them.

Viv East

April 2014




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