Join the green party

Good, old-fashioned herbs such as lovage, chervil and wild fennel are making a well-deserved comeback, says Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I'm all for going a bit mad with herbs. But only in a culinary sense. Given the chance I'll grab any pot of unusual or rare herb to add to the already congested herb patch. If you grow your own you can experiment, and weed out the varieties you don't like. In a garden you can plant herbs between flowers and let them do their own thing. Some, like borage, have pretty flowers that traditionally garnish Pimm's, and more unusual ones like savory and tansy, are easier to grow than to find in a shop. When nothing else will do, the odds always seem to be against finding even something as ordinary as coriander in the first supermarket you go to. Better to nip out of the kitchen and pick whatever you need. I like to go further than that. On walks in the woods or on the beach I can't resist gathering wild sea purslane, fennel and wormwood.

I'm all for going a bit mad with herbs. But only in a culinary sense. Given the chance I'll grab any pot of unusual or rare herb to add to the already congested herb patch. If you grow your own you can experiment, and weed out the varieties you don't like. In a garden you can plant herbs between flowers and let them do their own thing. Some, like borage, have pretty flowers that traditionally garnish Pimm's, and more unusual ones like savory and tansy, are easier to grow than to find in a shop. When nothing else will do, the odds always seem to be against finding even something as ordinary as coriander in the first supermarket you go to. Better to nip out of the kitchen and pick whatever you need. I like to go further than that. On walks in the woods or on the beach I can't resist gathering wild sea purslane, fennel and wormwood.

I always bring back a bag of freshly cut mint, (different types) from the herb garden in Stockport to keep me in Moroccan mint tea for a couple weeks before my next visit. We have lovage, too, which can be overpowering, but is great if you add a few shreds to a tomato salad, blend a little into pea soup or use for the famously harmonious lettuce and lovage soup.

Other herbs need to be used with caution, too. If you're too free with the tarragon in a sauce for something like sweetbreads, you'll get overkill. Basil, on the other hand, doesn't need cooking and can be liberally added to salads without any worries.

In many recipes herbs have only a supporting role, other dishes depend on them. Tabbouleh without parsley is unimaginable. In jambon persillé, the earthiness of parsley livens up the ham jelly. Tomato and basil salad, or pasta with sage and butter - the herbs are integral to these dishes. In traditional British cooking herbs can make all the difference. Parsley sauce for cod or ham, and dill sauce for gravadlax will always be in my repertoire.

Borlotti beans with wild fennel

Serves 4 as a starter or a vegetable

For a change from the usual peas and beans, try these beautifully mottled Italian beans. Their pods are red with white streaks, and when you break them open it reveals beans with an almost reverse design - white with red streaks. The problem with borlotti beans, if you can find fresh ones, is that when you cook the damn things - and you can't really eat them raw - they just lose the effect completely and go a sort of muddy colour. Still, the main thing is the taste. You can buy them in tins though they aren't as good. If you can't find borlotti then use broad beans and replace the wild fennel with dill.

1kg borlotti beans
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
2 slices of pancetta or rindless, smoked streaky bacon, finely chopped
100ml olive oil
250ml vegetable or chicken stock
2 plum tomatoes, skinned, seeded and finely chopped
30g wild fennel (or fennel tops) or dill, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pod the beans, then bring a pan of water to the boil and blanch them for 30 seconds, then drain. Gently cook the onion, garlic and pancetta in the olive oil for 2-3 minutes, without colouring, until soft. Add the beans and vegetable stock, season and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the tomato and fennel and continue to simmer for another 10 minutes or until the beans are tender. Re-season if necessary and serve hot or at room temperature.

Dai mint and tomato salad

Serves 4 as an appetiser or use as part of a selection of starters

The Dai people of southern Yunnan, where China borders Laos and Vietnam, prefer their tomatoes on the green side. If the sun doesn't turn your tomatoes red they will be perfect for this recipe. Otherwise specialist greengrocers now sell special green tomatoes from Italy for salads and cooking. I like to use a mixture of green and red tomatoes. The mint leaves, combined with the slightly acidic green tomato cool the hint of chilli down nicely.

1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp sea salt
1 small mild chilli, finely chopped
Half cup of young mint leaves
Half cup of Thai sweet basil leaves
3 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced
5-6 green and red tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 tbsp chilli oil

Put the garlic, salt, chilli, mint, Thai basil and spring onions into a food processor and coarsely blend. Add the tomatoes and chilli oil and blend again until they are finely chopped, like a salsa.

Serve piled up in a salad bowl, and offer this as part of a selection of starters and dips, or with simply grilled fish or meat main courses.

Pork cutlet with salsa verde and fried lovage

Serves 4

Cooking with lovage has its limitations because it can be so overpowering. But when they're deep fried, the leaves lose some of their potency. You can serve these leaves with most grilled meats, but especially with pork and veal.

4 pork chops weighing about 200-250g each
A handful of lovage leaves, stalks removed
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the batter

100ml iced water
30g plain flour
30g potato or corn flour
1tsp baking powder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the salsa verde

15g mint leaves
15g parsley leaves
15g green basil leaves
15g capers, washed
50ml extra virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

First make the salsa verde, blend all the ingredients in a liquidiser or food processor to a coarse purée and season. You may need to add a little more olive oil to bind the herbs, but the salsa shouldn't be too thin.

Pre-heat about 8cm of vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan or electric deep-fat fryer to 160-180ºC.

Meanwhile mix all the ingredients for the batter with a whisk - don't worry if it's a bit lumpy. Dip the lovage leaves in the batter a few at a time and deep fry for about 1-2 minutes until crisp but not coloured too much, moving them around while they are cooking with a slotted spoon. Remove from the fat, drain on kitchen paper and lightly season with salt.

Meanwhile pre-heat a ribbed griddle pan or pre-heat a grill or barbecue. Season the chops and lightly oil. Cook them for about 3-4 minutes on each side; they shouldn't be cooked too much as they will just dry out.

Serve with a spoonful of sauce and the lovage leaves in a pile.

Huss in green sauce

Serves 4

On a visit to the annual seafood exhibition in Brussels I found eels in green sauce on a brasserie menu. Of course, I had to order it and I'm glad I did. It was so delicious, we played around with it and stuck it on the menu at J Sheekey, our West End seafood restaurant. Eels do have a following, but mainly in the East End of London where you still see eel and pie shops and fish stalls selling bowls of jellied eels. You may not be surprised to learn that the eels didn't exactly wriggle off the menu at J Sheekey, so you'll only catch them occasionally as a special. Eels can have a rather earthy flavour depending on where they have been living.

Well, I won't think less of you if you can't bear the thought of eels squriming around in your kitchen sink. Huss, or dog fish as it's known to the local fisherman, makes a perfect substitute and is probably easier to get your hands on than eel anyway.

If you insist on eels, though, medium-to-small ones, up to 1.5 kilos are the perfect size for cooking. Get your fishmonger to kill, skin and chop them for you.

1.5-2 kg huss or eels, skinned, cleaned and heads removed
1 litre fish stock (or made from a good-quality fish stock cube)
4 shallots, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
3 tbsp white wine
3 tbsp vermouth
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
250ml double cream
100g watercress, any thick stalks removed
30g parsley, large stalks removed
15g chervil, large stalks removed
Good knob of butter

Cut the huss (or eels) into 3-4cm pieces and rinse well. Put in a pan with the fish stock, shallots, bay leaf, white wine and vermouth, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and poach for 10-15 minutes. Remove the fish from the cooking liquor with a slotted spoon and set side.

Reduce the cooking liquor down by two-thirds then add the double cream. Bring back to the boil and simmer until it has reduced by two-thirds again.

Add the watercress, parsley and chervil, and simmer for 3 minutes. Blend the sauce in a liquidiser until smooth, then strain through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean pan. The sauce should be a thick coating consistency; if not, simmer it for a few minutes until it thickens.

Adjust the seasoning if necessary, stir in the butter and add the fish. Simmer for 2-3 minutes to reheat and serve with mash or boiled potatoes.

Correction: in last week's recipe for olive oil cake the method should have said whisk the sugar and eggs together. The eggs do not need to be separated. We apologise for this mistake.

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