Whether you grow them yourself or buy direct from the market, fresh herbs are the secret to many of the world’s most memorable dishes …
Herbs are flavouring agents used to enhance the taste of our foods. They’ve been a staple of daily life for centuries and are not limited to leaves – the seeds, root, stalk, bud and flowers are also commonly steamed, roasted or pickled. Our uses for herbs haven’t changed much to this day, although trends and fashions come and go, in cooking as in so many other aspects of life.
Recently, there’s been something of a resurgence of interest in fresh herbs from far-flung, exotic regions. There’s now a high awareness of international cuisine and of the herbs required to produce various delightful national dishes. With the speed and extent of international trade these days, the shelves of our specialty shops and supermarkets are frequently stocked with overnight deliveries from Asia and beyond.
Whether you don’t have easy access to such shops or simply because you want to grow your own, producing fragrant, flavoursome herbs at home has never been easier. You can start by planting cuttings in decorative pots, around garden borders or in raised garden beds, while most nurseries features a broad range of varieties. It’s child’s play to grow the French classics at home, like tarragon, thyme and garlic, likewise our Italian favourites of basil, sage and rosemary and the must-have oregano from Greece.
Apart from the mixes of various pestos, salsa verde and the like, herbs should be used to enrich the flavours and fragrance of our foods, rather than dominate them. Seafood dishes seem more suited to the lighter flavours of chervil, dill and parsley, while the slow braising of tougher secondary cuts of meats are more suited to the pungency of rosemary, garlic and thyme.
In most cases, adding herbs early in the cooking process adds flavour, but not so much aroma, while adding the same herb towards the end will really send the olfactory receptors into overdrive. Fresh herbs have a more refined flavour than dried ones, as essential oils and nutrients are lost in the drying process.
Correct herb storage is very important and will reduce unnecessary wastage. Most herbs can be washed, chopped, have water added and be frozen as ice cubes, then bagged up. Wrap chives, dill, mint and sage in a sheet of damp kitchen paper and place into a plastic tub or bag in the refrigerator. Excessive cold and moisture will turn basil leaves black, so store in dry kitchen paper in the fridge.
With all that said, let’s take our tastebuds on a tempting round-the-world journey, with this assortment of superb, herb-infused international dishes …
Grilled salmon with capers, chilli and chives
This is a recipe from a good friend of mine, Gerry Kay who I’ve worked with and known for many years – he does this dish beautifully. He and his wife own Cafelicious, a buzzy cafe in Goolwa, SA, which is well worth a visit!
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Heat a heavy non-stick pan and add the olive oil.
Season the salmon and cook on high until you have a good colour. This should take no more than three minutes. Turn the salmon over and add the sliced chilli, capers and lemon juice to the pan.
Grill for one minute only, then turn off the heat and add in the butter, spooning over the salmon until creamy, before adding in the chopped parsley and chives.
Present on the sliced potatoes and grilled zucchini.
The grilled salmon by itself would be excellent with a young Beaujolais or a fresh, cool-climate unwooded chardonnay. But with the potatoes, you might like to add a touch of oak to the chardonnay and move up in weight from Beaujolais to a mid-level pinot noir from the Mornington Peninsula or Tasmania.
Rosemary lamb and chorizo cutlet
Dried rosemary skewers are available from selected retail stores. Pearl couscous (also known as Israeli couscous) is not the traditional couscous associated with northern African foods – it’s made from baked wheat, not wheat-flour-coated semolina. The Screaming Seeds Smokey Tomatina is available in all states at outlets listed on its website.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Heat a non-stick saucepan, add 30ml of olive oil and cook the garlic for 20 seconds. Add in the diced red onions and Screaming Seeds spice, stirring well, and cook for two minutes.
Add in the pearl couscous, stir and cook for one minute, then add in the boiling stock. Stir, cover and simmer for eight to 10 minutes until cooked and the stock has been absorbed. Remove to a bowl and loosen with a fork, then place onto a tray and chill in the refrigerator.
Combine the lemon juice, remaining olive oil, tomato, apricot, cucumber and herbs. Slice the chorizo to the same thickness as the lamb cutlets and secure to the lamb with the rosemary sprig. Season well and grill with a little olive oil until cooked to your desired rareness.
Present with the pearl couscous and several caperberries.
The flavours here suggest North Africa and Spain. So let’s stick with Spain and our imported wine theme this month and search out a good Spanish tempranillo from Telmo Rodriguez, a fruity garnacha (Grenache) from Alvaro Palacios (www.thespanishacquisition.com) or their Australian equivalents.
Thai-style pandan chicken
This is a very popular dish in Bangkok restaurants, but it’s not often made at home. The pandan leaves give a delicious flavour to the chicken and they help keep in the moisture. The leaves are not eaten – they are there just for their flavour.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Place the peppercorns into a mortar and grind until fine. Add in the garlic, coriander roots, lemon grass and chopped shallots. Pound to a smooth paste then remove to a mixing bowl.
Combine in the diced chicken, fish sauce, palm sugar, turmeric and sesame oil.
Wrap small amounts into the pandan leaves and shallow fry in the hot oil for several minutes until cooked and crisp.
For the chilli-vinegar sauce, dissolve the sugar with the vinegar by stirring well. Thinly slice the chilli and add to the sauce, then serve with the main dish.
With this dish’s bright spicings, do as they do in Bangkok and wash it down with a clean, crisp and refreshing Singha lager, Thailand’s most popular beer, available through selected Australian outlets.
Malaysia prawns with chilli and lime
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Place the wok onto the heat and add the peanut oil. When hot and smoking, add the prawns and toss for two minutes.
Add in the curry sauce and the sambal olek, tossing well, and cook for one minute.
Now add in the soy, sesame oil and the coconut milk. Cook on high heat for two minutes or until the prawns are just cooked.
Turn off the heat, add the coriander, lime zest, lime juice and seasoning. Serve immediately with a little steamed rice.
Subtly oaked sauvignon blancs, like the fume styles from Oakbridge and Domaine A, have the weight, texture and fresh juiciness to complement the spicy creaminess of the prawns. Some of our better pinot gris, such as the cracking Ross Hill 2010 from Orange, would also go well.
Mulled pears with cinnamon, mint and juniper
The pears are fresh, minty and delicious, with a wonderful contrast produced by the crispy filo discs. The caramel sauce is on the edge of bitter-sweet and the whole combination is balanced with the crème fraiche.
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Peel the pears from the stalk down to the base, leaving the stalk on the peeled pear.
In a saucepan combine the red wine, orange juice, brown sugar, cinnamon quill and the crushed juniper berries. Bring to a boil stirring well to dissolve the sugar, then turn down to a simmer and add in the peeled pears and mint.
Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until tender. Turn off the heat and allow to cool in the syrup.
Present the pears on a crispy filo disc and crowned with a crispy filo collar. Serve with the vanilla caramel sauce, a spoon of crème fraiche and some of the poaching liquid.
To make the filo discs
Place a filo sheet onto a cutting board and brush with melted butter. Lightly sprinkle with caster sugar and top with another sheet of filo. Continue until you have made four layers.
Cut into circles using a 50mm diameter pastry cutter and remove the centre of each using a 30mm cutter. Place a sheet of baking paper onto an oven tray and top with the 6 filo discs. Cover with a final sheet of baking paper, weigh it down with an oven proof dish and bake in an oven for 15 minutes, or until crisp and golden.
Place the sugar into a clean saucepan and heat up until the sugar starts to dissolve. Tilt the saucepan around, carefully moving the undissolved sugar around with the melted part until golden and all the sugar has dissolved.
Slowly pour the cream into the hot melted sugar – be careful, as it will spit and splutter. Add in the split vanilla bean half and whisk until smooth. Allow to cool and use as required.
A late-picked, or even a richer botrytised riesling or sauvignon blanc would be insipid with a dessert of such richness and complexity as this. Unless you want to give your credit card a real work out with a top Sauternes like Chateau d’Yquem, settle instead for Australia’s most Sauternes look-alike – De Bortoli’s Noble One.