This time of year always puts a spring in my step despite last month’s unseasonably arctic weather. The Dorset landscape is still beautiful beyond belief and things are looking good in the garden. Mine is currently sprawling with Moroccan mint, and there are other treasures that show up year after year like long-lost friends. Lovage and buckler-leaved sorrel are usually the first, followed by angelica, with its charming Latin name Angelica archangelica.
Lovage starts off as an acid-green clump, poking through the detritus of winter, before it rapidly shoots up to a magnificent towering shrub. The leaves have a punchy flavour, faintly redolent of celery and stock cubes. It’s delicious in carrot soup or scattered over buttery cauliflower florets, as in my recipe for Pan-Fried Cauliflower with Lovage and Lemon. Buckler-leaved sorrel is milder than regular sorrel but the flavour is still refreshingly lemony. A handful of the shield-shaped leaves, gently softened in butter, are a perfect match for oily fish such as mackerel or salmon. Angelica, with its crisp hollow stems and huge umbrella-like flower heads, is conveniently in season the same time a
rhubarb. Together they make a stunningly beautiful pink-tinged Rhubarb and Angelica Sorbet.
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, May 2021