Food & Drink: A fistful of unforgettable flavour: Rosemary is the object of our cookery writer's passion, even though the herb can sometimes be hard to handle

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Rosemary is a difficult herb. You cannot just throw it in willy-nilly, a handful here, a handful there, as you can with parsley or chives. It must be used with discretion and restraint. It has such a powerful, resonant presence that it can easily take over and obliterate more reticent flavours. Used well, rosemary is a wonderful, deeply aromatic herb - but use too much and you get a distinct taste of floor-cleaner allied with mould.

This is a taste that I know too well. I love rosemary and use it frequently - there is a huge, vigorous bush of it in my small garden, and it is the one herb I can always lay my hands on, right through the year.

The bush has survived frosts, winds, and even the cutting down of the eucalyptus tree it nestled against for years. I frequently trim it back ferociously and can hardly bear to throw out the trimmings. It is then that I tend to go mad with the rosemary, and nearly always regret it as a waft of camphor drifts up from the pan.

It is a Mediterranean plant, introduced to Britain by the Romans, who must have been delighted to find that this scented reminder of their homeland survived happily here, at least in the South. Perhaps this is where rosemary and memories first became entwined.

'There's rosemary, that's for remembrance' - not only for Ophelia and Shakespeare, but for Sir Thomas More, too: 'As for Rosmarine, I lett it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance and, therefore, to friendship . . .'

Rosemary. A pretty name for a herb with mauve-blue spring flowers that do indeed tempt the bees.

Everyone knows that rosemary goes with lamb. We like it and so do the French and the Italians (who also use it with tender young kid, in much the same fashion). With me, it has become almost automatic to spike a leg of lamb with rosemary leaves and slivers of garlic before it goes into the oven.

Lamb is strong enough to take a relatively liberal dose, but again one should be careful when flavouring the gravy. I was recently served some delicious tender lamb, with what would have been an equally good sauce if only it had not been so heavy on the rosemary.

It is also good with swede (add a sprig when sauteing parboiled swede in butter), and beans of the dried sort (put a sprig in the pot when they are cooking, and remove it when you think it has done its job). Any stew that has had a branch or two of rosemary added (try rosemary with rabbit, another fine, meaty match) will be better for it. Taste as it cooks, and bear in mind that the sauce will reduce with prolonged simmering, concentrating the flavours. Be sure to whip out the rosemary before it betrays too forceful a presence.

Rosemary is tough in the literal sense. Whole leaves are really too chewy for comfort. Long cooking softens them up so it does not matter so much if they all come adrift; but when it comes to quick cooking, try to fish out the sprig and as many stray leaves as you can find.

If a recipe specifies 'chopped' or 'finely chopped' leaves, do not shirk your duty. Go at it wholeheartedly and chop them really fine. The other way to maximise rosemary's effect is to bruise the leaves by hitting them with a meat mallet or the end of a rolling-pin. Do not be too violent about it. You are aiming only to release the volatile oils, not to commit outright murder.

I have long been fond of rosemary with red mullet, and the editor of this section likes it with sardines - he puts a sprig inside each one before grilling them, which strikes me as an excellent idea. Sardines are robust enough to take it, and besides, rosemary suits the barbecue well.

You can obviously add it to marinades for meat that is to be grilled over charcoal, but you might also try scenting the air by throwing a few sprigs directly on to the coals, or use sturdier branches, stripped of leaves, as green skewers for lamb kebabs.

TOMATO, OLIVE AND ROSEMARY SALSA

This is a salsa designed for grilled lamb, though you might also try it with chicken or fish.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 8oz (225g) well-flavoured tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and diced

5 pieces sun-dried tomato, chopped

8 black olives, pitted and roughly chopped

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

generous pinch of sugar

1/2 tbs balsamic or sherry vinegar

3tbs olive oil

salt and pepper

Preparation: Make the salsa at least an hour before eating. Prepare and mix all the ingredients except salt. Cover loosely and leave at room temperature (or in the fridge if it is for more than 4 hours).

Taste and adjust seasoning, adding a little salt if needed. Either serve at room temperature, or warm gently, without boiling, in a small pan.

TRIGLIE ALLA MARCHIGIANA

Teetering near the edge of herbal excess, but not quite overstepping the limit, this recipe for red mullet with prosciutto and rosemary comes from Anna Del Conte's Entertaining all' Italiana (Bantam Press).

Serves 4

Ingredients: 4 red mullet, cleaned

juice of 1 lemon

4tbs olive oil

salt and pepper

1tbs chopped rosemary

1 clove of garlic, chopped

3tbs dried breadcrumbs

4 large slices prosciutto, not too thinly cut

lemon wedges to serve

Preparation: Lay the fish in a shallow dish. Mix the lemon juice with 1tbs of the oil and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle a little into the cavity of each fish, and brush the rest over the outside. Leave to marinate for at least 2 hours. Heat the oven to 190C/ 375F/gas 5. Brush an oven dish with a little of the remaining oil. Mix the rosemary, garlic and breadcrumbs, a little salt and plenty of pepper.

Coat the fish with the mixture, pressing the crumbs into it with your hands. Wrap a slice of prosciutto round each fish and lay in the prepared dish. Dribble the remaining oil over and bake for 15-20 minutes, basting twice during the cooking. Serve from the dish.

Cheese and rosemary shortbreads

Makes about 15 2in (5cm) rounds

Ingredients: 4oz (110g) softened butter

2oz (55g) grated mature cheddar

6oz (170g) plain flour

1oz (30g) ground almonds

1tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black peppercorns, crushed

Preparation: Cream the butter until light and fluffy. Add the cheese and beat for a few seconds to mix. Sift the flour with the salt and stir in the almonds, rosemary and pepper. Gradually work into the butter and cheese to form a dough.

Press into a greased 7in (17.5cm) sandwich tin, or roll out to a thickness of just under 1/2 in (1cm) and stamp out shapes. Bake at 200C/400F/gas 6 for 20-25 minutes until golden. If baked in a tin, score into 8 wedges while hot. Cool in tin or on baking sheet.

PEAT INN CHOCOLATE AND ROSEMARY CREAM

It may sound weird, but this is a combination that sings. It is not the kind of thing that children will appreciate, but any adult who likes dark, plain chocolate should take to it. Rich, rich, rich, velvety and almost unfathomable, this cream was the inspired invention of David Wilson of the Peat Inn, near St Andrews in Fife.

Serves 8

Ingredients: 8oz (225g) granulated sugar

8fl oz (225ml) dry white wine

juice of half a lemon

1 pint (570ml) double cream

1 large sprig rosemary

6oz (170g) plain chocolate, grated or finely chopped

To finish:

6 small sprigs of rosemary

a few toasted flaked almonds (optional)

Preparation: Warm the sugar, white wine and lemon juice in a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved completely.

Stir in the double cream. Cook over a gentle heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens.

Add the rosemary and then the chocolate, stirring until it has completely dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 20 minutes, until the mixture is dark and thick. Draw off the heat, and cool until it is no more than warm, stirring occasionally.

Pour through a sieve into 6 little ramekins. Cover with clingfilm (pulling it taut so that it does not sink on to the surface of the cream) and chill until set.

Just before serving, decorate each ramekin with a small sprig of rosemary, and a few toasted almonds.

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