Break out the botanicals

Matt O'Leary
May 7, 2009

Fresh herbs are an ideal way to add colour, flavour and texture to your spring and summer dishes: they're inexpensive, and you only need a small amount to add a lot of extra taste to dishes.  And in Tuscany, you're never short of opportunities to buy or produce them yourself, as the warm climate is ideal for abundant growth. While many chefs scorn the little, robust jars of dried and processed herbs that tend to gather dust at the back of our cabinets, there is always room for them in the kitchen. However, using fresh herbs as principal ingredients in lighter summer dishes is a really good way to keep yourself happy and impress any guests.

 

 

Some herbs are very popular in Italy, and these you'll find  almost year-round on the supermarket shelves in one form or another: parsley, basil, sage, rosemary, thyme and mint, to name a few. Oregano is one of the base elements of a lot of Italian dishes, even though we most commonly tend to find and use it dried, and so shouldn't be overlooked. Of course, you will also be able to forage and scour the shops for other old favourites, chives and bay leaves in particular.

 

But what do you actually do with them once you've got them? Obviously, each tastes very different from the other, and although there are only so many ways in which you can prepare strongly flavoured leaves, the corresponding ingredients for each will vary wildly from variety to variety.  Firstly, determine whether the herb is very strongly flavoured or more delicate. Parsley, for example, and sage are robust, whereas coriander and chives, for all of the complexities of their tastes, are very delicate by comparison.  As a rule of thumb, strongly flavoured herbs can withstand harsher cooking, and you can use the stems, tough leaves and offcuts in sauces and stews. Using the stalks of weaker herbs will add unnecessary bits and not a lot of extra flavour. These herbs should be reserved for lighter dishes and are often better left raw.

 

Parsley is my particular favourite herb and will suffice as an ingredient on its own, leading a dish. For example, parsley soup is delicious and beguiling, as well as being easy and cheap (see the recipe on this page). Additionally, parsley sauce, in which a simple white sauce is flavoured with salt, a bunch of the finely chopped herb, and a teaspoon of mustard, is an excellent accompaniment for white fish, cured pork, sturdy beans and green vegetables.

 

It would be presumptuous to try and give advice on how to use basil in an Italian newspaper, as it's used widely, every day, in dishes far better than anything I could ever come up with. Even basil ice cream, viewed elsewhere in the world as the sort of dazzling culinary innovation that could bag the inventor a TV series, is a fairly commonplace sight in Tuscany.  However, you might want to consider making a light zabaione, flavouring it with a little pulped basil and icing sugar or sugar syrup, then using this to accompany fruits blanched in sugar syrup; try pineapple, cherries, figs, fresh strawberries or kiwi.

 

Mint is another herb that goes very well with sweet and savoury dishes: finely chopped and mixed with vinegar, salt and sugar, it makes a great sauce for spring lamb, or even mixed in with lamb burgers or meatballs. If you choose the latter option, add a good pinch of paprika too to avoid minty blandness. A good handful of mint blended with a little sugar and water makes a great dressing for a sweet salad of cubed, fresh pineapple; this dessert combo also makes you feel as if you've just gargled with mouthwash.

 

Sage forms a central part of many Italian dishes, and so going into too much detail about how to use it would be largely redundant here. However, you may want to try filling pastry shells with a nice amount of chopped sage, sausage meat, and finely chopped white onion: these can be baked in the oven until the meat is cooked through and then served hot or cold.  Fry sage leaves in butter to make them crisp, drain them well, salt them, and serve them whole alongside pork or chicken for a really impressive finishing touch to your dish.

 

Chives seem like an interesting addition to any dish until you realise that they are essentially onion-flavoured grass.  Best to leave them uncooked and either make the most of their structural peculiarities as a garnish, or mix with dressings.  Chopped finely, the tiny little rings of chive look unusual and delicate sprinkled over your cooked meat, fish, stews, salads or potatoes.  Mixed in with plain yoghurt, they form the basis of a great dressing for smoked, salted or otherwise preserved fish.

 

Finally, remember that a lot of the stronger herbs stand up to being either dried or frozen, particularly if you're going to be cooking them. Don't be afraid to buy a lot of herbs, but try to avoid finding yourself with a fridge full of rotting foliage one week down the line. Spread them on a tea towel and put them in the window, and you'll be filling your own jars with dried, crushed leaves before too long.

 

RECIPES

Recipe of the fortnight: PARSLEY SOUP

 

You'll need a hand blender.  Feel free to add watercress or rocket to this soup, in small quantities: they both make it taste interesting and look even greener.

 

3 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly

1 large white or yellow onion, peeled and sliced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

2 tbsp olive oil

800ml light chicken stock

A good couple of handfuls of parsley (about 100-120g), cleaned and chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

1 small tub sour cream (panna acida)

 

1   Set aside a couple of teaspoons of the parsley; chop this very finely.

2   Heat the oil in a pan.  Add the garlic, potato, and onion, and coat lightly with the oil. Cook until the onions and potatoes start to brown slightly: this is important as it adds an extra flavour to the dish.

3 
Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer.  Cook for 15-16 minutes, until the potatoes break up when prodded.

4 
Season to taste and stir well. Add the main portion of the parsley and simmer for 3 minutes, to soften the stalks.

5   Remove from the heat and blitz with the blender.

6 
Pour into dishes. It may be quite thick, so if you'd like to thin it a little, add a bit more water and bring back to the simmer before doing so.

7 
Top with sour cream and a sprinkle of the remaining finely chopped parsley. 

 

Ingredient of the fortnight: LEEKS

 

Leek season is drawing to a close, and so we have to wait until the end of the year before we can enjoy the baby version of the vegetable: brightly coloured, tiny things that are cooked after two minutes in a pan and that wilt slightly even if you look at them funny.  In spring, leeks tend to be bigger, a little bit woodier towards the green end, and more difficult to clean and cook: they are still one of the best ingredients around. 

 

If you don't like leeks, you may have been given them after they've been overcooked.  Don't blame the leeks.  They need a couple of minutes in stock, once sliced, and then to be placed in a dish with some butter and seasoning and finished off in the oven.  The white parts of big leaves can be sauteed until soft or fried until crispy and used as a side dish or garnish: the green parts are good for stock.  They can be wrapped in pancetta, covered in cheese sauce and baked until soft. Or simply add the ham and sliced, cooked leek to the cheese sauce and use it to top potato dishes.  And they can, in small doses, be eaten raw, but be careful: they are fairly feisty and might not be ideal for indigestion sufferers. 

 

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