This time of year always puts a spring in my step. The Dorset landscape is beautiful beyond belief, wild flowers abound, and things are looking good in the garden. Mine is currently sprawling with Moroccan mint but there are other treasures that show up every year like long-lost friends. Lovage and sorrel are usually the first.
Lovage starts off as a tiny acid-green clump poking through the detritus of winter, before it rapidly shoots up into a towering shrub. The leaves have a strong curry-like flavour that is delicious in carrot soup or scattered over crushed new potatoes. Sorrel is equally robust. Cooked with butter, a handful
of the lemon-flavoured leaves are a perfect match for oily fish such as
mackerel or salmon. Hyssop and summer savory are also stalwart perennials.
Their intensely aromatic leaves are lovely with pasta, lamb or lightly cooked broad beans.
Many of us are needlessly timid when it comes to herbs. This probably dates from old-style cookbooks that specified minuscule amounts and laid down the law about what went with what. Nothing wrong with that in principal, but cooking has changed. Nowadays it's fine to use herbs with greater abandon, and to experiment with different flavour combinations.
I am a great fan of leafy herbs such as orache (mountain spinach), nasturtiums and purslane, as well as the familiar flat-leaf parsley and basil. Leafy herbs are almost vegetables in their own right, and can be used by the handful rather than the pinch. Orache has striking triangular purple or green leaves and a lemony flavour that really lifts a salad or pasta. Peppery purslane and nasturtium leaves are good in a salad too. In the Middle East, huge quantities of mint and flat-leaf parsley are key ingredients in tabbouleh, rather than bulgur wheat.
Leafy herbs also make potent sauces and dressings. A good handful of basil and some parsley puréed with good olive oil, lemon juice and seasonings is perfect with fish, chicken or warm cannelini beans. The resulting sauce can be kept in the fridge for up to two weeks, ready to use as needed.
When using leafy herbs in cooked dishes, remember that prolonged exposure to heat destroys the flavour, so add them just before serving. Robust herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage can be added at the start.
If you enjoy using herbs but don't have a garden, it's worth buying them in pots to keep on your kitchen window sill. They last much longer than cut herbs, and give you an instant supply ready for snipping when needed.
© Christine McFadden, June 2013