Five Ways with Fresh Herbs
Herbs hold a special magic for me in the kitchen. As a young chef I remember listening to a talk by the amazing Jekka McVicar, the queen of herbs, a guardian of rare herb varieties and an expert on all thing herbal; she talked at length about the healing properties of herbs. She discussed how in days gone by basil would be infused into warm milk and given to infants to calm them before bed. I was totally charmed by this and went on to make a basil pannacotta, which I still make and love serving after a meal. It is soothing and gentle and I am sure I sleep better after eating it too.
I use herbs in almost everything I cook, picking bay and rosemary and lavender from the garden and softer herbs from my window sill.
1. Treat different herbs differently
Though all herbs get their flavours from the essential oils they’re made up of, they all differ from each other in strength and structure. Softer herbs like coriander or basil add more flavour when added at the end of a dish, whereas more traditional British herbs add more when added to soups or stews whilst they’re cooking. I always add thyme to puy lentils for example, and the mixture happily blips away on the hob for half an hour, whereas I’ll add basil to a fresh tomato salad along with a crunch of sea salt just before we eat it.
2. Make your own herbal infusions
The fresh verdant nature of essential oils is amplified when they come into contact with hot water – the oils are released and gently flavour the water.
3. Treat herbs like flowers
Though sometimes I do freeze them to extend their life, or use high quality dried alternatives if I’m in a fix, for me, cooking with fresh heady basil or leafy, woody sage is impossible to beat. I keep my herbs like flowers, in glasses filled with a dash of cold water in the milk-bottle compartment of my fridge. This way they keep for a week or so. Every time I open the fridge I am met with a heady smell and a grassy green wall of herbs, which means they are appreciated and make their way into much more of my cooking
4. Herb oils can lift meals above the ordinary
A quick herb oil can transform a simple bowl of soup, stew, grains, salad or tofu. Blitz a bunch of soft herbs, 1⁄2 a bunch of hardy herbs, 100ml extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and lemon juice to taste. A brilliant way to use up bunches that look a bit sad, too.
5. Use herbs to help you drink more water
I struggle to drink enough water some days but some simple herbs and a bottle in the fridge can make it far more crisp and refreshing.
Images: Ana Cuba