Herbs have a long history in this country: after the Romans conquered Britain in the 1st century AD, they introduced formal, elaborate herb gardens as part of villa complexes. Later, during the medieval period, herbs were grown in church grounds across Britain and used for medicinal, healing purposes. Over time, they developed into a crucial flavourer of food in Britain (they’re celebrated in the traditional ballad Scarborough Fair, “Are you going to Scarborough Fair? Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”), but after artificial flavourings came along in the 20th century, interest waned. Even when I was a kid, we were brought up to cook with dried herbs, other than occasionally finishing a dish with a little fresh curly parsley.
Fortunately, over the past 10 years, there has been a huge surge in love for fresh herbs — I wouldn’t dream of cooking without them. They’re incredibly versatile. You can use them in a bouquet garni when you want to get deep flavour, for example, slow-cooking them in a stew. This tends to be with woody herbs such as rosemary, thyme and bay, which you bundle together with parsley stalks or a trimming of celery.
You can also use herbs to lighten a dish. Some like to use them as a garnish, but I prefer to add soft herbs for the last minute or two of the cooking. I learnt this from Richard Corrigan, who always advised that unless herbs are going to be used in a salad, they need to be cooked out. Our passion is the same with Asian food — you should always stir the coriander and Thai basil in at the end, to infuse their delicate flavour.
Herbs also make a fantastic marinade, which was how the Romans used them (though this was mainly to disguise the taste of rancid meat).
Finally, there are the herbs used in salads, salsas and pesto, which are eaten raw. This, I think, is where they really come into their own.
I’ve given you three of my favourite techniques of how to cook with herbs; hopefully you won’t be reaching for the cupboards for your herbs from now on, having been convinced that fresh is best.
Aubergine salad with herbs
A warm aubergine salad topped with a yoghurty dressing and finished with a fresh mint and parsley salad. The sumac (a tangy, lemony spice) is optional, but widely available in supermarkets.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
3 small aubergines, cut into wedges
100ml olive oil
150g Greek yoghurt
50g tahini paste
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 clove garlic, grated
1-2 tsp sumac (optional)
50g pinenuts, toasted
A small bag of flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked
A small bag of mint, leaves picked
1 tbsp of really good extra-virgin olive oil
1. Season the aubergine with plenty of salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large pan and fry the aubergine wedges over a medium to high heat until charred and their centres softened.
2. Drain on kitchen paper, then transfer to a serving platter.
3. Mix together the yoghurt, tahini, ½ tbsp of the lemon juice, garlic, season with salt and pepper then drizzle over the top of the aubergines while they are still warm. Sprinkle the sumac on top.
4. In a separate bowl, mix together the pine nuts, parsley, mint, olive oil and the other ½ tbsp lemon juice. Place on top of the aubergines and serve immediately.
Herbed lamb leg with tabbouleh
A herby marinade to impart fresh, delicious flavour to a leg of lamb, served with a parsley and mint-filled tabbouleh. This dish really showcases how versatile herbs are.
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Marinating time: overnight
Cooking time: 25 minutes
The main event
1 leg of lamb
For the marinade
5 tbsp olive oil
6 sprigs of rosemary, leaves picked
8 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
A small bunch of mint, leaves picked
A small handful of flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked
A handful of basil, leaves picked
A whole head of garlic, peeled
Zest of 1 lemon
For the tabbouleh
30g bulgur wheat
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
3 tbsp olive oil
A small bag of flat-leaf parsley, leaves picked and finely chopped
A small bag of fresh mint, leaves picked and finely chopped
1 pomegranate, seeds only
1. Blitz the marinade ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Open up the lamb leg and rub the marinade all over; marinate in the fridge overnight.
2. You can barbecue or griddle the lamb. If barbecuing, lay the lamb over the grill and lightly char the outside. Move away from the coals, pop the barbecue lid on and smoke-roast the lamb for 20 minutes, turning halfway through for pink meat. Remove and leave to rest covered with foil for 20 minutes.
3. If cooking indoors, heat a lightly oiled large-ridged grill pan and cook, uncovered, for 12-15 minutes per side.
4. To make the tabbouleh, add the bulgur wheat to a small pan on a high heat and cover with boiling, salted water. Simmer for 10 minutes or until tender. Drain and leave to steam in a pan with the lid on for five minutes. Mix together the lemon juice, pomegranate molasses and oil with seasoning and stir half into the bulgur while still warm. Add the chopped herbs and leave the flavours to homogenise for 10 minutes. Top with the pomegranate seeds.
5. When the lamb is cooked and rested, carve and serve alongside the tabbouleh with all its juices.
Asian salsa with chicken
A brilliant go-to recipe for a quick and healthy salsa that’s easy to make. You can use this as a sauce or marinade.
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Large bunch of coriander
A good handful of fresh mint, leaves picked
2 cloves garlic
2 cm fresh ginger
2 green chillies
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
1½ tbsp Thai fish sauce
1½ tsp palm sugar
50ml vegetable oil
1. Place all the ingredients in a blender and blitz until smooth. Serve alongside chicken, pan-fried salmon or pork chops.