Herbs – cornerstones of cuisine 2013

The weather has remained relentlessly foul for the last 5 days and it has been impossible to get outside to garden, and now I have returned to work.  It doesn’t really matter and I enjoy looking at the sideways squal from my window while I sit at my computer. The first day back always takes some adjustment and I probably bit off more than I could chew.

The Red Queen Again

Following a post-work meeting, I had resolved to kick off my new 10 km running training plan yesterday. As a regular runner, this was not a New Year’s resolution, which I find futile and a bit pointless.  I prefer to run outside but wanted to kick-start my plan with a time trial for 10 km, which meant checking my pace on the treadmill at the gym, and so I was like the Red Queen, quite literally running to stand still.  The shock of an enforced break from running (2 weeks for flu, another for festivities) took its toll on my limbs and although my pace was around what I was aiming for, it was a punishing session…

So many choices, not enough space

The current herb bed with dominating horsradish and a few herbaceous perrenials thrown in.

The current herb bed with dominating horseradish and a few herbaceous perennials and annuals thrown in.

Happily, day two is a rest day from running, and a relief for my quadraceps and this evening was an ideal opportunity to browse seed catalogues and plan what to plant this year. I tend to be systematic and work through groups, e.g. herbs, brassicas, roots, polytunnel crops, herbs and flowers.  I started with herbs and flowers because they cause me less of a quandary.  I don’t grow many flowers at the moment as most of my 3/4 acre plot is mainly unimproved grassland, exposed and browsed by deer.  I concentrate on the smaller areas we have so far brought under cultivation and protection.

I was however somewhat distracted by the arrival of James Wong’s book Homegrown Revolution.  I caught the end of a Radio 4 interview with James back in October, but missed both his name and that of the book and forgot to listen again on iPlayer, so when this book was mentioned on The Garden Deli, I recognised that this was the book referred to in the discussion, so thanks for connecting me with the world of tomatillos and mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum).  The claims that many of these crops can be grown in the UK will be tested to the limit here on North Uist (discussion for a future post?) but worth trying some new exciting veg and fruit to spice up the garden.

I have only one herb bed at the moment, the overspill being housed in pots in the polytunnel, on windowsills and companion planted in the raised beds with other crops. My herb bed is also becoming dominated by horseradish, which will eventually need to be moved although I currently harvest enough to try to keep its vigorous growth in check.

Last year, I grew about 15 different herbs, all but a few for culinary use, and this year there will be a few more additions.  There are some herbs I simply cannot grow enough of, particularly basil, coriander, rosemary and thyme.  I can overwinter both rosemary and thyme in the polytunnel, but it is my excessive pruning that takes the real toll on the plants.  Conversely, Water Mint, Mentha aquatica is established and invasive in the garden and I can never get it under control, let alone use enough of it for cooking.

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

Harvesting seed from dried caraway heads

As ever, it’s good to have a mix of tried and tested and new varieties.  The big successes last year were chervil, a must for fish (I still have some outside now). Last summer was my second caraway harvest.  I leave some of this biennial umbellifer to self seed to ensure a yield each year.  These seeds have a very powerful flavour compared to shop bought seeds and I adore them in bread. Finally, I am slightly smug about my coriander harvest.  I used to buy coriander seeds from catalogues but it bolts very quickly here so repeated successional sowings were expensive.  I decided to try the large bag of seeds I had in the kitchen that I bought for cooking at an Indian supermarket in Glasgow.  Amazingly, germination rate was very high and one packet costing 60p has kept me going all year, so I will stick to the same plan for 2013.

I had one or two new herbs I had not grown before.  Summer savory was a winner and essential in many classic French dishes and bouquet garnis.  I was gifted hyssop by Christine at Croft Garden, a herb aficionado. Although I occasionally used it sparingly in the kitchen for vinaigrettes,salads and boullion, its beautiful blue flowers were a real hit with the bumblebees.

The final shortlist

My final culinary shortlist for growing this year is:

Rosemary, thyme (Summer de Provence and English Winter), sage, chervil, chives, bay, oregano (Greek), basil (Sweet, Red Rubin, Cinnamon, Mrs Burns), fennel, anise, coriander, lavender, French tarragon (plants), marjoram, winter savory, summer savory, caraway, parsley (flat leaf and the hardier curly), dill and rocket.

Nearer 30 than my estimated 15!

I have an additional list grown principally for flowers and hence wildlife:

hyssop, borage, phaecelia

The turf roof of the workshop has been established for a year so I am also planning to sow a ‘bumblebee seed mix’ of native wild flowers to grow on the roof.  The turf and soil were sourced locally from machair grassland and the species compliment is mainly typical of this habitat and includes corn marigold, knapweed, corn poppy, kidney vetch and slender vetch.

North Uist machair turf on the workshop roof awaits bumblebee wildflower seed mix

North Uist machair turf on the workshop roof awaits bumblebee wildflower seed mix

As usual, I will grow copious amounts of nasturtiums for salads, flowers and caper-like berries – also to divert the green-veined white caterpillars away from my brassicas and salads.

Although the garden is decidedly practical at the moment, I hope to design and landscape a courtyard at the front of the house incorporating tiered raised herb beds.  This however, is some way off as this area is likely to be a building site for another year or two.  I can but dream…

Apologies for not including the scientific names, life is too short at the mo and I am focussing on general culinary properties. If there are any startling omissions you think I should try, I would be delighted to have suggestions.  I am sure I could squeeze a few more in!

Intensely Herby recipes

Of course, no post would be complete without sharing a couple of recipes.  Both of these use copious amounts of herbs and are flexible and can be adapted according to what herbs and how much of each you may have or wish to include.

Vegetable boullion

This has become a store cupboard essential for me.  There is nothing wrong with some shop bought powdered boullions, but they do tend to give recipes an underlying generic recognisable flavour. Although I do like to make my own vegetable stocks, I do not always have time or the recipe does not call for stock but a little lift from the addition of a spoonful this boullion. I use it in anything and everything – soups, casseroles, cooking liquid for rice, cous cous, etc.

The boullion stores very well (at least 6 months). There’s a lot of salt in it, acting as a preservative, so I don’t usually season if I add some boullion to a dish. I make a batch in summer and another in winter, by which time the summer batch is finished. I am just coming to the end of my summer batch now. These can vary significantly in character, depending on what veg and herbs are at my disposal at different times of the year, and one has to be careful not to tip the balance too much in favour of particularly strong ingredients – unless that’s what you are aiming for, of course. This is a variation on the recipe in the River Cottage Handbook No 2 Preserves called ‘Souper mix’.

The last jar of my summer boullion

The last jar of my summer boullion

Ingredients – my summer vegetable boullion

250g leek

200g carrot

200g turnip

100g celery

50g sun-dried tomatoes

3 garlic cloves

100g parsley

10g mint

10g rosemary

5g summer savory

5g sage

250g salt

This amount made 3 jars

Method

  • Cram everything into a food processor (there is a large volume of herbs), pulse then blend to form a moist granular paste.
  • Store in sterilised jars and keep in the fridge once open.
Blitzing the herbs and veg for boullion

Blitzing the herbs and veg for boullion

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto

Pesto can be made from a wide range of herbs and leaves and I often ring the changes depending on whatever is the current garden glut.  Nasturtium leaves bring an added bit of zing to this pesto. Proportions of the herbs can be altered to taste, or any one exchanged for parsley. Fresh pesto will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.  It’s so good, it never lasts that long here.

Ingredients

25g nasturtium leaves

25g basil leaves

25g rocket leaves

50g fresh grated parmesan

50g pine nuts

2 cloves garlic, peeled

200 ml good quality extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp salt

a few turns of pepper

Method

  • Put all ingredients in a food processor, pulse then blitz for a minute or so, until smooth.
  • Store in a jar in the fridge.
Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto - green and glorious

Nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto – green and glorious

Now all the planning for herbs is in place, time to move on to veg, but not before we deal with two greylag geese a friend has kindly delivered to us.  I know what we will be doing tomorrow evening….

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13 thoughts on “Herbs – cornerstones of cuisine 2013

  1. Sounds like a good list of herbs for this year. Have you grown garlic chives? They’re not as vigorous as chives, but flower later in the year and are good for late nectar. Both of your herby recipes look really tasty – I’ll definitely be trying the pesto once I’ve got the leaves to make it with. Oh, and thanks for the mention of my blog too!

    • I have, my neighbour gifted me a clump and I think they were smothered out by the chives (at least, I couldn’t find them when I moved my herb bed!). Thanks for the reminder to include these on my seed list for this year – especially for insects. Tracey

  2. We will be working of a (big) pot herb system next year, so we can bring then inside over winter. This year I have managed to keep the basil going on the windowsill and it’s still good for a harvest of about 20 leaves a week; not quite enough for a pesto, but a nice aroma.

  3. This makes me so jealous – the only thing I don’t like about our flat is that we’re on the 5th floor and have no outdoor space for growing! The pesto sounds great with the nasturtium – great idea!

  4. Here’s some thoughts for the bumblebees…echium and comfrey are in the same family as borage. The bumbles love it as can be seen here… http://solarbeez.com/2012/06/27/bumble-bee-heaven/ This year we let the comfrey grow up along side the blueberries. Turns out the comfrey roots bring up moisture and nutrients for the blueberries as well as attacting the bees that pollinate them both, AND they camoflaged the berry bushes from the birds…a real win, win, win. Comfrey also has many medicinal qualities. On the minus side, once you have it, it’s hard to get rid of. We’ve had it for the 40 years we’ve lived here, but we still love all the good qualities of it.
    http://solarbeez.com/2012/07/29/comfrey-camo/
    We love basil but we have trouble growing it in any significant amounts…summers are too cool.

    • Thanks for the tips. I have grown comfrey to use as a liquid fertiliser in the past, but it was rampant. I’ve plenty space for it here, so will include it again, so thanks for the reminder about it, and the companion planting advice. I think you could teach this novice a lot, so I’ll be following you! Thanks, Tracey

  5. I’m jealous of your herbs! I’ve been trying to decide which herbs to grow this summer, so I’ll be referring back here. This summer I discovered some wild garlic growing in my flower beds. Wow, what a different flavor to store-bought. It was very hard to go back once it was all gone. Also love both recipes! Wow, that nasturtium, basil and rocket pesto is such an amazing color!

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