A Herb Is For Life, Not Just For Christmas
Monday 12th June 2017
It's that time of year when you walk around the garden centre and see all the inspiration and marketing to draw you into the thought process that you could actually be the next Gardner's World Host. You some how convince yourself that this summer you will not be caught out with the whole excitement of it all; buy pots, soil, plants, tools and even a really funky pair of gardening gloves/knee pad/garden shoes that you don't really need. You promise yourself it will be "different this year". You will be restrained!
Have you seen that the garden centres now have stands of not just "Gardner's World and Small Holdings" publications hanging about, but they also have stands of cooking magazines, strategically placed around herbs and kitchenware. Not only are we envisaging immaculate lawns, an imaginative array of plants (grown from seed of course) and professionally designed gardens; we are also going to be giving Jamie Oliver a run for his money and use every single herb we will be convinced we need to purchase and aim to be the next Master Chef!
I reckon buying herbs is in fact a responsibility. Like getting a new pet, if you like. You can't just be overwhelmed and in awe of the beauty you have purchased, load your car up, unpack, pot up and leave them; you need to nurture, watch, check, feed, water, protect and generally look after herbs! Like you would a new kitten...
I have fallen into that new owner trap a few times and am happy to admit to the credit card melt down at the garden centre tills. This has ultimately been followed by an excited trip home, bursting with ideas for wonderful culinary herb filled creations and feeling totally ravenous by the time I arrived due to the fresh aromas seeping from the heat filled car. It would always start off so well, pots planted, slug war started and a beautiful array of vibrant greens of varying tone and texture parked just outside my kitchen window. But then what? In the past, those beautiful herbs full of hope for my kitchen, have withered, dried up and gone to seed before I have even given one thought to how they would change my cooking in to something fabulous! Can you relate?
Well, you know how life is. For most of us it's busy! Some days we're lucky if we have managed to get the food we've thrown together on a plate; without any extra time required for considering additional flavour combinations such as picking, washing and then chopping herbs. Like me (in the old days), herbs were a bit of a time luxury, rather like a massage: it would be nice and enriching, but not on the list of "must do". If the food wasn't functional, I didn't have time to faff! But I have learnt herbs ARE functional!
I have put together a blog about dried herbs in the past and how fascinated I was to see the kitchens at Leith's School so full of dried and fresh herbs were used constantly. As way of reducing the need for salt and oils, herbs can assist with weight loss and other diets and is very much part of the healthy eating training I received there. Hanging wire baskets over all of the sinks in Leith's kitchens were packed with tightly bound, perfectly formed leaves and stems. These were hung to dry after being purchased fresh from the market and simply washed. Being so close to hand and inviting, it was easy to add them to recipes and immediately add new levels of flavour to any dish.
A change of habit is hard to introduce to a frantic life but sometimes it is worth taking stock of the usual routines. Life can become a little dull if we're just too damned busy to change anything! I came back from chef's training and wondered how I could add these luscious herbs to my cooking at home: My busy home; where the dill and fennel brought each year would become beasts that looked like the thick beanstalks that Jack would climb up, at the end of every summer needed to be managed properly. Other herbs brought in excitement and left to go to seed after a vast succession of quick "dinner and dash" meals would need to be re-visited. Like a lively new puppy, I would learn to love the herbs, use them, train them, support and rear them, as a commitment!
Easy start: As with any new habit. Make small changes and make them achievable. Be encouraged on by your success and sense of achievement and make further new changes; build and grow, learn and love. The momentum will grow as your pride develops.
How To Do Fresh Herbs In A Busy Life
Buy only a few. Choose 3-4 that you genuinely have a draw to. Find the ones that are easy to grow and keep growing throughout the season. Fresh herbs in the supermarkets are expensive, even the potted ones are; so you want to buy once and keep it going. Pop down to your local garden centre on a free, relaxed weekend (you must have ONE of those sometime in the spring months!) and buy the most vivid, thickest, greenest, freshest looking pot of your favourite. Find a pot, a trough or container that looks "pretty". You are much more likely to be drawn to herbs and remember to use them if you can see them, they look inviting and they are close to hand. The romantic idea of having a stunning, well stocked herb garden, reminiscent of a scene from some old Victorian novel of days gone by, is all very well, but I will tell you now, if you are someone who finds it difficult to just find time to water the hanging baskets, weed and mow the lawn, you will find these herbs will end up like that needy new puppy! They will also quite easily go sticky, woody and past their best to produce those juicy, green leaves that you originally purchased them for.
It may be that you have all the time in the world and you love gardening. If so, go for the patch in the garden that you can tend to and be inspired by as you wander around your estate. I hope to be there one day...
Parsley. A great source of Vitamin K; helping with inflammation and a good source of folic acid. The "curley" variety seems to be quite "1970s" but I have to put my hand up to the Parsley Police and say it seems to grow quite well. I love parsley and it seems to be the most flexible. It works so well with many different cuisines, so I have treated myself to a parsley pot of both: The curly variety (hardy and grows so easily) and flat leaf (a little more flimsy but full of flavor). I tend to harvest from whichever looks like it needs a trim and the pot containing both is next to my kitchen window. I see it and it makes me feel hungry just to look at them as I'm boiling the kettle or doing a bit of washing up. I will add parsley as a "lift" to so many dishes.
Chives. A great anti-oxidant and full of Vitamin A. Mild onion flavor at its best. These are great potted with something with a very different texture. I have planted with sage and oregano; the three very different colours and shapes look so wholesome together inspiring flavour thoughts. Take your scissors and snip when you need an onion hit - add to scrambled eggs, omelettes, garlic butter, pizza, pasta, tomato sauce, I could go on...
Mint. Relieves Indigestion and boosts immunity being a source of Vitamin C. One pot and not in the garden bed! It can run wild, like me at a Food Festival! It needs containing and using frequently. I have a lot of fun with mine as there are so many different mint varieties now - pineapple, chocolate, peppermint, apple, lavender. So many possibilities! Teas, salads, dressings, sorbets, cocktails, rice, quinoa and other grain mixes...
Oregano. A source of vitamin E, iron and manganese. Hardy; grows well and it adds so much depth to Mediterranean style dishes. Tomato sauces, roasted vegetables, pizza toppings. I think this one has the aroma of summer as the rain steams off its leaves when the sun comes out. I walk past this one and always stop to have a smell.
Rosemary. Helps with memory, rich in potassium and calcium and a good source of vitamins A, B and C and iron. Plant this one in a pot as it can go a little rampant, like the mint! It is such a heady, strong herb, growing all year round, that can be quite overpowering, but it goes well with many dishes; lamb, of course. How about adding to a tray of small cubed, unpeeled potatoes, olive oil, whole garlic cloves and sea salt and then roast until crisp? I love rosemary with thyme and mushrooms, oven roasted with plum tomatoes and then served on sourdough...a simple supper. Who needs fast food or ready meals when you can make something so tasty, cheap and wholesome so quickly?
So, choose a few herbs and choose a large pot, or a few small ones in individual pots. Plant them out, keep them close and do three things:
1) Water them
2) Protect them
3) Use them
These herbs can really transform some simple ingredients and have a part to play in our health. For the majority of us, we expect to see a protein (meat/bean/nut base), a carbohydrate (potato, rice, pasta, etc.) and vegetable (some sort of green stuff) on our plates so this may take a bit of re-learning. We have all been educated by recipe books, television programs and restaurants that we should view herbs as a "garnish"; something you scrape off the main event and leave on the side of your plate. However, with the new and improved trends, any garnish should be edible and herbs can actually form part of the main event!
Times have changed my friends. Herbs do have a place on our plate as something to celebrate, to devour with intrigue as the flavours burst to life in our mouths. Some vegetables we regularly use can lack a bit of flavour; how many times can you eat broccoli a week without feeling a tad tired with it? Herbs are the new vegetable for me. Once embraced, it becomes a new habit, like reaching for some butter to melt on to toast, the garlic in to bolognaise; you will think of the herbs outside as you steam your new potatoes, make a grain salad, add to egg dishes and butters. It will become a healthy and tasty routine.
So, in conclusion, I do apologise for the length of this blog, it is one I feel quite strongly about. I would love to convince you try at least ONE of the herb recipes appearing on the website over the next weeks. Don't just look to salad, fruits and vegetables as one of your "five a day". Have a go with herbs! They don't require the same high maintenance as growing vegetables but you can still get all the same satisfaction when you sit down to eat your dish, knowing that that you grew a large part of it yourself and created a fresh, nutritious, flavour filled meal. Yum!