5 gourmet herbs and how to cook with them
“Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” goes the song and they are the most common herbs for gardeners, too. But for gourmets there are other herbs, just as indispensable and totally delicious, which have the ability to change pedestrian ingredients into magic.
Herbs are the most adaptable of plants. Their strong perfume and flavour have often evolved as a defence against heat, drought, shallow soil or crammed conditions between rocks on a hillside. Their ability to adapt makes them perfect for growing in pots on a sunny patio. The more sun they get, the more fragrant they can be.
A friend used to grow her herbs on her car dashboard. She had to leave her car in a hot carpark all day, so she made the most of it, arranging her herb pots on a towel on the dashboard before she went into the office each day. (The car smelled good, too.)
This is the “secret” in my stuffed tomatoes, lemon chicken, egg salad and stunning little new potatoes. Winter savory has a subtle but pungent aroma that goes gloriously anywhere you might use thyme, either as a replacement or a perfectly matched partner. It looks a little like thyme, too: low-growing and with tiny leaves.
Winter savory is easily smothered by higher-growing herbs or weeds. I keep it in its own shallow pot with plenty of sun and a weekly watering. I grow it on paving, too. Winter savory, like many herbs, becomes more flavourful with heat and sun. The stems are tough, so you’ll need to strip the leaves from the stems before you use them.
When I use winter savory in stews, casseroles or soups (it makes a superb herb stock), I tie a bunch of it together with another stem of savory or a stem of thyme. That way, you can easily haul the whole bunch of herbs out of the liquid without leaving any tough bits. Winter savory was traditionally simmered with dried beans to make them digestible. I don’t know if it does, but they are certainly more delicious.
New potatoes with savory
12 new potatoes
1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp winter savory
Rub potatoes with oil and herbs. Bake on a tray at the highest possible heat your oven can provide for about 30 minutes, till the skin is slightly crisp and herby and the inside tender and sweet.
You need green fingers to grow tarragon, or at least to keep it growing more than a few years. Tarragon dies down in winter, so it’s easy to let weeds invade it. Snails love it and will eat the new spring shoots till the plant dies. It also withers with too much heat and dryness. It’s best grown in a large, high-sided pot — too high for snails to easily climb up. You can even give your tarragon plant its own hanging basket (snails can’t fly).
True French tarragon won’t grow from seed. Divide larger plants in early spring as soon as you see new shoots, or take soft-tip cuttings about as long as your fingertip, also in spring, or take stem cuttings in early summer.
These need care to strike. Place them carefully in moist sand and leave them for two or three months till new growth is established. Transfer them to a pot of soil, then plant them out in the Garden next spring. Tarragon can also be frozen: wash the leaves well so they are damp, then freeze them as fast as possible on trays. They should be hard and coated with ice. Wrap small bundles of leaves in plastic and keep them in the freezer till needed.
Tarragon’s slightly “aniseed but not quite” flavour matches any creamy sauce. Mix it chopped into a creamy cheese such as ricotta or mascarpone and spread this on rice crackers, or add a little to creamy mashed potatoes.
Three-minute cold cucumber soup with tarragon
1 large Lebanese cucumber, washed, both ends removed
3 cups stock or water
1 cup natural yoghurt
2 tbsp tarragon leaves
½ cup ice cubes
1 extra tbsp tarragon
Blend everything except the ice and the extra tarragon. Pour into bowls. Add the ice then scatter on the extra tarragon. Serve at once.
This is another “cook’s secret” herb, this time as an ingredient in tabouli for a special tang, or in a cucumber and yoghurt salad. Egyptian mint has a mild, sweet flavour and if you water it often the leaves will be tender, too.
Unlike most herbs, Egyptian mint will do reasonably well in dappled shade, though it will die in a dry, deeply shaded position. Most mint does best in moist soil; some even grows happily in flowing water or on the edges of ponds. If your Egyptian mint seems to be shrinking instead of happily spreading in a half-metre clump, it needs either more sun or more water, and frequent picking to encourage new, tender growth.
Cucumber & yoghurt salad
1 Lebanese cucumber, sliced
1 cup full-fat natural yogurt
1 red onion, peeled & finely chopped
½ cup Egyptian mint leaves, shredded
Salt the cucumber slices. Leave for an hour then squeeze them firmly to remove all the juice that has “sweated” out. The cucumber will now taste firm and meaty. (Most of the salt will vanish with the juice.)
Mix cucumber, yogurt, onion and mint. Leave for half an hour (or overnight) in a sealed container for the flavours to meld. Eat cold.
Oregano is one of the most variable herbs. I once collected oregano from dozens of different hills in Crete and each one had a different flavour. Always sniff before you buy. Once again, oregano will have a much more delicious aroma if it’s grown in heat and sun. A pot on the patio is perfect.
Potato “not pizza”
6 large potatoes, peeled & thinly sliced
3 tbsp oregano leaves
½ cup mozzarella or bocconcini cheese
Layer the potatoes on a greased baking tray. Scatter over the oregano leaves, then the cheese. Bake on the highest heat your oven will reach for about 30 minutes, till the cheese is bubbling and the potatoes cooked and slightly crisp on the base of the tray. Eat hot.
Orange thyme (Thymus nitidus)
Most thyme sold in nurseries is lush, tender thyme. You can snip or chop it without having to pull the tiny leaves off the stem — extremely useful for busy cooks. But those soft-branched thymes have nowhere near the flavour of orange thyme. Orange thyme has blue-grey leaves and pale pinkish-lavender flowers. It forms gentle mounds rather than a flat mat or woody clumps. Like all thymes, it prefers a slightly limey soil that’s well drained and enjoys good sunlight. Too much feeding produces lots of leaves but they’ll be less fragrant and more prone to disease. Don’t over-water, either; thyme will survive in almost dry soil.
As with all the other herbs in this article, you’ll get much more oomph per leaf if your thyme is in the sunniest, hottest spot you can find. Our barbecue, in the sunniest spot on our paving, became a herb stand a few years ago. Thyme, like oregano, is a “hillside” herb, happiest among hot rocks. In the absence of a Mediterranean hillside, a patch of Aussie concrete or paving does. You don’t need a deep pot; wide and shallow gives the best result, as long as you can water it at least once a week in summer. Thyme is drought-tolerant, but even it can shrivel in the heat of midsummer droughts.
It’s worth pulling your fingers down each stem firmly to strip off the leaves. Your hands will smell delicious and so will your cooking. Scatter it on a leg of lamb, instead of rosemary, or try this delicious recipe.
Thyme & tomatoes
8 ripe red tomatoes, quartered
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp orange thyme leaves
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
Place the tomatoes in an oiled oven dish. Scatter on the thyme. Bake at the highest setting on your oven for about 30 minutes to caramelise the juices. Take out of the oven, drizzle with vinegar. Eat hot, cold or tepid.
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