Herbs: Flavours to savour
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Last week, at the Framlingham Country Show, a gentleman reminded me I had promised to write an article about fresh herbs and their uses. So here goes.
Fresh herbs have a delicacy and fragrance you don’t get with the dried variety, which are usually more concentrated and pungent.
There are soft- and hard-leaf herbs. Basil, mint, coriander, parsley – anything with a tender leaf – are soft. Hard-leaf herbs are rosemary, thyme, bay and sage.
Hard-leaf herbs tend to be used either in a bouquet garni, tied in a cloth and immersed in a sauce or stew, or picked from the even tougher stalk, very finely chopped and added to the cooking.
With the soft-leaf herbs you can chop the stalks and add them to your cooking. The leaves are either chopped or torn and added at the last minute, so they don’t lose their colour.
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Add it to tabouli, pair it with Asian herbs such as Thai basil and Vietnamese mint in a zippy Thai salad, or let it give a lift to fruit salads. Also delicious is a tomato sauce for pasta that pairs fresh mint with lemon and loads of feta for a very different impact from the usual Italian flavours.
Continental or flat-leaf parsley is one of my favourite herbs. I use it as much for colour and freshness as flavour to finish servings of everything from soup to casseroles. Gremolata or gremolada is a chopped herb garnish typically made of lemon zest, garlic, and parsley.
I chop it up to stir through mashed potato or mince for hamburgers or meatballs. It can bulk up a pesto and helps basil keep its vibrant green. It has a wonderful friendship with seafood, garlic and lemon zest.
Curly parsley needs to be well chopped – until it is very small and looks quite wet. Once chopped I lift it and place it into a few layers of kitchen paper, gently squeezing until no more water comes out. Unwrap and tip into a small pot, ready to be sprinkled on to my food. Cling-filmed, it will last a few days in the fridge. Continental or flat-leaf parsley can be left in large leaves to add to salads, soups and stews
Basil works well with ripe tomatoes and is at the core (with pine nuts, parmesan and garlic) of pesto. It is also delicious used in Thai curries, with Parma ham and white fish. Try it very finely sliced on strawberries.
Try some with mushrooms on toast or in an omelette. Coriander and chilli pesto is wonderful with noodles or used as a dressing.
Thyme is a varied and beautiful herb that adds a French twist to eggs, potato, chicken, mushroom and anything with leek and onion. Thyme herb oil is wonderful for dipping in bread and for dressings.
This can always be found on my Italian flat bread. For a palate cleanser, you can make a refreshing sorbet infused with the herb. Rosemary-infused oil is wonderful for dressings. Sprinkle the flowers on quinces or apple tart before serving. Rosemary is key to the stuffing of perfect Northern Italian “porchetta”. It’s also good in syrup for candy oranges.
Try it anywhere you might use basil, such as sprinkled on pizza fresh out of the oven or in mince for bolognese, homemade snags or meatballs. “Wild marjoram”, aka oregano, is a softer-tasting version that’s perfect for all these uses, as well as pepping up a Greek salad.
Dill’s pretty, fine fronds go classically with fish, chicken and eggs. Try it in a mayo or vinaigrette-based dressing for seafood, with oranges and in pickles. It’s great in potato salad or with anything that contains cucumber, sour cream or yoghurt. Try it in an omelette with smoked salmon and sour cream.
I use these on skewers woven between hunks of beef for the barbecue, in a bouquet garni to flavour soups, stews and stocks or to scent milk for everything from white sauce to rice pudding. Try a handful thrown into the water next time you cook crabs.
Sage is the traditional herb for pork and also marries well with onion to stuff poultry. Try it to flavour your next porky bolognese or crisp the leaves up in foaming butter and toss through pasta with parmesan and lemon. Fry it this way and then mix through mashed pumpkin – good with pork chops.
Snipped chives can be sprinkled on boiled or baked potatoes, potato salad, omelettes, a melted cheese toasty, or as a soup and casserole garnish. They add a gentle oniony bite to vinaigrettes or can be finely-chopped and mixed with Greek yoghurt and salt to make a salad dressing.