The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - THE ISLAND - Mar­garet Prouse

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.

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