Prompted by National Herb Week here in Ireland, this week’s column is all about my beloved herbs – not just parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme… I’ll encourage you to be extra adventurous – experiment with less familiar herbs. I’m loving the bright celery flavour of the new season’s lovage that’s popping up in the Ballymaloe Cookery School Herb Garden. It’s a leafy perennial that grows about 5 feet tall and comes back every year. The tender young growth is particularly delicious in salads and in soups but we also enjoy this under-appreciated herb in scrambled eggs, omelettes and potato and tomato salads with lots of slivered spring onions and parsley.
Fresh herbs can literally transform the flavour of dishes and just like spices, herbs have many different flavours depending on how they are used. Whether they are added at the beginning of the cooking process, in the middle, at the end or scattered in sprigs over the final presentation.
Some, like rosemary and thyme oxidise and discolour within minutes of being chopped, sage is similar. You’ll also have noticed that the fresh young growth is milder than the robust flavour of the evergreen perennials so use accordingly.
The blue, nectar rich flowers of rosemary, thyme and sage attract bees in spring and early summer and also provide flowers and leaves for an aromatic posy on your kitchen table. All of these herbs have medicinal as well as culinary uses. Rosemary is a powerful anti-inflammatory, a rich source of antioxidants, boosts the immune system and helps to improve memory.
So how about a simple glass of rosemary tea every day, just pour boiling water over a generous sprig of rosemary, allow it to infuse for 3 or 4 minutes and enjoy.
Sage too has similar properties, the latter is another underused herb but I fry copious quantities of young leaves to scatter over fried eggs, pasta or a risotto. They’re addictive and have you tried the Tuscan snack Salvia Fritti or Sage and Anchovy Fritters. Talk about addictive, there never seems to be enough… the perfect nibble with a glass of crisp dry white Soave or a fino.
As ever I am encouraging you to grow your own herbs, close to your kitchen door so you can pop out on a whim to snip a few leaves (and flowers) to add magic to what might otherwise be a totally mundane dish.
Urbanites can grow lots on a window sill, in large pots or in galvanised buckets.
Check out your local garden centre or seek out passionate small growers at Farmer’s Markets to find unusual varieties of familiar herbs. For example, there are numerous forms of mint - apple mint, strawberry mint, pineapple mint, ginger mint, liquorice mint, chocolate mint, Moroccan mint…but spearmint and peppermint are probably the most useful. Apparently there are over 600 varieties on the planet.
There are also numerous sages, the purple and variegated are also easy to source but at least have common sage. Lemon balm is another perennial ‘must have’ and the variegated version, with its green and cream leaves is also worth looking out for.
But back to Herb Week, now in its 15th year, it was created in 2006 to celebrate the nutritional and medicinal value of herbs. Check out the web for further information.
This year, parsley is the herb of the year – well doesn’t this versatile favourite deserve to be celebrated. I grow both curly and flat parsley and use it in copious quantities. No one should have to buy parsley and one can never have too much. It is a biennial (lasts 2 seasons) and bet you didn’t know that it has more Vitamin C than an orange. Just pick a couple of outside stalks off the plant at a time. Flat parsley seems to be more fashionable now but both are equally delicious. Use all of the stalk too and at the end of the second year harvest the root, you’ll be blown away by the flavour, use in stews, salads, parsley pesto or the stock pot.