Sage was always dried, or part of a packet of Paxo (I love Paxo, don't you?). Chives were a rarity, except, perhaps, those snipped from the garden, and you could only find a fresh bay leaf if you nicked it from someone's tree. Otherwise, like the packet of "rubbed" sage, all herbs for sale were desiccated and powdery. Not so now, of course.
Supermarkets today carry all the herbs you can think of, stuffed inside stiff, plastic packages: tarragon, chervil, basil, chives, mint, oregano, dill. You name it, and it's sure to be there, hanging in rows near the baby veg. And there will be mixed fresh herbs to use with fish: dill, tarragon, chervil, parsley and chives, perhaps. Or a more exotic trio for an "Asian" outing: coriander, mint and a stick of lemongrass. But flat-leaf parsley - stronger and more fragrant than its curly cousin - continues to be sold in small quantities (and at a staggeringly high price) because it is "continental" - in fact, it still carries this description in many current cookery books - while the safe and familiar curly variety is sold in larger Cellophane packets. It's a bit daft, really.
The same applies to rocket. Supermarkets still consider a herb. You get about nine leaves for around 60 and 70 pence (a pretty shade of yellow in my local Tesco recently). Rocket is a salad. Its particular sharpness and bite occurs in the mouth and not in the nose. If a supermarket buyer ever considered buying sorrel (I have yet to see it, but I am sure to be proved wrong), no doubt, it would be in the herb racks, too. Ten leaves for a quid?
Now, being able to buy quantities of fresh herbs is, of course, wonderful, but would it not be better to buy decent bunches of flat parsley, a proper faggot of herbs for a bouquet garni and a sprightly bunch of sage?
The mix of fish herbs sounds spot-on for all dishes piscatorial, but I would not wish to use them all at once. Tarragon is a favourite herb with me, and for three particular reasons: roast chicken, bearnaise sauce, and when incorporated into a sauce of superlative flavour for use with cold or warm lobster. I have given the the recipe for the latter (from Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine under the title Lobster Courchamps) before, but if you would like a copy (the recipe that is, not the book), I will happily send you one if you write to me here.
Another charming sauce is in the one called tarragon cream dressing. This light and delicate lotion is almost a sweet-and-sour sabayon, using eggs, vinegar, a little sugar and cream. The original recipe used pears as the medium, but it is also delicious spooned over cold chicken or salmon. A rather nice English sort of sauce, and all the better for that.
Tarragon cream dressing, makes about 400ml/34 pint
2 large eggs
3 level tbsp caster sugar
5 tbsp good quality tarragon vinegar
pinch of salt
275ml/12 pint double cream
1 tbsp of freshly chopped tarragon
Beat together the eggs, caster sugar and vinegar in the top of a double boiler (or in a stainless steel or china bowl suspended over barely simmering water) until thick and mousse-like, and the whisk leaves thick trails through the mixture (use an electric hand whisk for the speediest results). Remove from the heat and continue beating until lukewarm. Loosely whip the cream, and fold into the sauce, together with the chopped tarragon. Serve cold. Note: the initial base sauce, ie without the cream and tarragon, can be made in advance and stored in the fridge in a sealed container, for a week or two, until needed.
With our current obsession of all things Italian, it is easier to buy pots of fresh basil. Although, naturally, it is almost impossible to find a tasty ripe tomato with which to eat it... but that is another story. There seems little point in furnishing your cuttings with another recipe for pesto, but I wonder whether a nice and gutsy salsa verde might not go amiss. This one has the addition of chopped, hard-boiled eggs and is also less smooth an emulsion than most.
Salsa verde, makes about 275ml/12 pint-400ml/34 pint
1 bunch flat-leafed parsley, leaves only
10 large basil leaves
15 mint leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
6 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 tbsp capers, drained and squeezed of excess vinegar
150ml/14 pint extra virgin olive oil
2 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
little salt and much pepper
Put the herbs, garlic, mustard, anchovies and capers into a food processor with a few tablespoons of the oil. Process for a few seconds, until the solids are only coarsely chopped and tip into a solid bowl. Using a hand whisk, slowly add the rest of the oil in a thin stream until the sauce is thick-ish, very green, but loose of texture and more like a dressing. Stir in the chopped eggs and season. Spoon with generosity over boiled chicken and new potatoes.
One of the simplest risotti is made with herbs. The combination of herbage is important, but is possibly best made with the ones known as fine herbs: tarragon, chives, chervil and parsley. Chervil may be missed out, as it is the mildest of the three, and, as its flavour is mildly aniseed, it will be bullied into submission by the tarragon.
Risotto with herbs, serves 4
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
200g/7oz best arborio rice
900ml/112 pints home-made, lightly flavoured chicken stock, that has been made with a glass or two of white wine as well as water
leaves from 4-5 springs fresh tarragon
1 bunch chives
leaves from a small bunch of flat parsley
salt and pepper
50g/2oz extra butter, softened
Put the stock on to heat up and leave at the merest simmer. Fry the onions in the butter until soft, but not coloured. Add the rice and gently cook with the onions until well coated with the butter, and frothing slightly. Add a ladle - about 3fl oz - of the stock to the rice. Allow to seethe, turn the heat down low and stir gently but purposefully, until the liquid has been absorbed into the rice. Only now add some more stock and repeat the process until the stock is used up. Taste some of the rice from time to time as you go.
When it is nearly ready - still with a little hardness to the centre of the grain - chop the herbs and stir into the risotto to heat through as the rice finishes cooking. Add seasoning, if necessary, and stir in the extra butter. Put a lid on the pot and leave to stand for 5 minutes.
The consistency of a good risotto should be one of lava-like consistency; oozing, and should take a good few seconds before it finally settles on the plate. Traditionally, some Parmesan should also be stirred into an un-fishy risotti just prior to serving, but in this case, I like to serve the cheese separately.
It wouldn't do to leave you without a couple of good recipes using parsley. The first is a very simple and intense parsley sauce, that can be made in an instant. The second is for a fine and delicate soup which - particularly at this time of year - is preferable eaten cold rather than hot.
Parsley sauce, serves 4
1 large bunch flat-leafed parsley, leaves only
175ml whipping cream
salt and pepper
Tip the parsley leaves into a pan of boiling water, cook for 30 seconds, drain in a colander and rinse thoroughly under very cold water. Squeeze dry in a tea-towel. Boil together the butter, cream and seasoning and put into a blender with the parsley. Puree until smooth and bright green. Do not over-blend for fear of splitting the sauce and always make sure the cream and butter are really hot.
2 large leeks, white parts only, sliced
2 generous bunches of flat-leaf parsley, stalks and leaves separated, stalks chopped
1 large potato, peeled and chopped
750ml/114 pints light chicken stock
salt and pepper
150ml/14 pint double cream
Melt the butter in a stainless-steel or enamelled saucepan and sweat the leeks and all the parsley stalks gently, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Add the potato and chicken stock, salt and pepper and simmer for a further 20 minutes. Coarsely chop the leaves of one bunch of parsley and add to the soup. Simmer for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, blanch the leaves of the other bunch of parsley in fiercely boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain and refresh immediately under cold running water, then gently squeeze dry in a tea-towel.
Liquidise the soup with the blanched parsley to make a fine green puree. Pass through a sieve into a large bowl, whisk in the cream and allow to cool. Adjust the seasoning and chill thoroughly in the fridge before serving in chilled soup bowlsReuse content