Summer is the time to experiment with herbs, especially in the garden, says food columnist
I’ve found that many Island cooks, including me, lack experience and confidence in cooking with herbs. A notable exception is the use of dried summer savoury in dressing for roast chicken or turkey, or cilantro in salsa. We may buy a bunch of a particular fresh herb because a recipe calls for a small amount of it, and then leave it to wither in the crisper, not knowing how to use it up.
Summer is the time to experiment with fresh herbs, especially if you have some growing in your garden.
I have one plant each of trailing rosemary, Italian parsley, sage, and spearmint growing in my vegetable garden, as well as a potted Thai basil, several volunteer cilantro plants, a few patches of runaway chives growing on a grassy hillside, and a somewhat out of control bunch of oregano that started as one plant. I’ve also been trying out sprigs of lovage, bought at the Farmers Market.
Lovage is new to me. Seeing the name in print, I expected it to have an exotic French-inspired pronunciation, “low vahj”, and was surprised to learn that it sounds just as it looks: “luvij”.
The flavour of the leaves has been described as a combination of celery and parsley, but I only taste celery. Lovage leaves are used in salads, to flavour broths or rice, and in egg dishes. Ian Hemphill, in “The Spice & Herb Bible, Third Edition” (Robert Rose Inc., Toronto, 2014), describes a simple sandwich that I enjoyed. Blend freshly cut herbs, in this case lovage, with softened cream cheese, spread thickly on slices of whole wheat bread with crusts removed, and cut into triangles. I admit that I didn’t remove the crusts or cut the sandwiches into triangles, but I’m sure they would have looked more elegant if I had. They tasted good even with the crusts in place. This is such an easy way to get accustomed to the flavour of fresh herbs that I intend to try it with the others I have on hand.
How do I use the other herbs from the garden? Well, I could look up recipes for using any of them, but I particularly enjoy finding uses that don’t require a recipe. For example, the mint, parsley, chives and rosemary all work well with new potatoes and butter; they’re all different and all tasty. I just chop the leaves a bit and toss them with the cooked potatoes and melted butter.
Italian parsley, which, by the way, is the flat-leaf type and not the curly one, can be minced to garnish fish, vegetable and egg dishes. I sometimes mince the leaves and add them to scrambled egg mixture before cooking, and other times sprinkle it over cooked fried or scrambled eggs for colour and extra flavour.
A handful of bruised spearmint leaves is all that’s required to transform a jug of ordinary ice water into fancy spa water. For a minty hot drink, Moroccan tea is easy to make, as described by Susan Semenak in “Market Chronicles: Stories and Recipes form Montreal’s Marché Jean Talon” (Cardinal, Montreal, 2011). Brew a 1L pot of green Chinese gunpowder tea, add sugar to taste and a dozen or so fresh mint leaves. Steep another 3-4 minutes, and pour from on high into small glasses.
I also like mint with fresh shell peas, a combination I learned from my mother-in-law many years ago.
My curries are usually improvised, pieces of cooked chicken or lamb in a sauce made with coconut milk and Thai red curry paste. Adding a handful of Thai basil leaves, with its pronounced licorice or anise flavour, just before serving, may make them slightly more authentic.
Cilantro is good in fish tacos, a dish that extends a small piece of fresh fish to make a satisfying meal that supplies something from all four food groups. It’s also nice rolled into Asian-style rice paper wraps.
For salads, herb leaves can be tossed with other leafy greens, sprinkled over tomatoes, or minced and added to a vinaigrette-style dressing or mayonnaise.
We can borrow from other cultures, or invent brand new uses for herbs. Now, while Island-grown herbs are plentiful, is a wonderful time to get acquainted with them, and make everyday meals more flavourful.